Africa’s identity crisis amidst global corporate interests


“My people trade European clothing labels in their local markets,” said Africa. “My workers sort through unrecyclable Nestle wrappers, my households are amused by quick Amazon finds and my lands are dug up for oil by foreign hands.”

©Sepp Friedhuber/ iStock/ Ghana

By Merrisa Naidoo, Plastic Campaigner for GAIA & BFFP in Africa

©Vladan Radulovic/ iStock/ South Africa

Consumer capitalism is the manipulation of consumers to make purchases on desire.  Leading idealised lifestyles have come crashing against the shores of the developing world, causing us to question our identity in the face of Western ‘super brands that extract the very resources of the developing world only for it to be sold back to us at higher prices with narratives that imply progress and development.

To protest the practices of these big brands, civil society actors and activists around the globe come together in the month of Plastic Free July, to shed off the branded lifestyles that have been sold by multinational corporations in the name of convenience, hygiene and  progress. This Plastic Free July was no different, in an effort to unpackage and rethink our everyday lifestyles, GAIA (Global Alliance for Incinerator Alternatives) and BFFP (Break Free From Plastic) members from various parts of Africa participated in a month-long campaign. From demonstrating practices of reuse and refill to zero waste culture and age-old systems that worked before the colonial era of plastics and throw-away models. 

For decades, the public has been conditioned to believe that the problem of plastic pollution was caused by their own undisciplined ways of consumption and the failure of governments to institute and implement proper waste management systems. With more people understanding the unjust actions around plastic waste there has been a clear battle line drawn for the plastics industry and Fast Moving Consumer Goods Companies (FMCGs) such as Nestle, Unilever and others  to take accountability for the waste their products create. The global Brand-Audit Initiative by the Break FreefromPlastic Movement has revealed that the irresponsible and predatory practice by corporations of saturating our societies with single-use plastics of all kinds with no consideration of how they can be managed in an environmentally safe and benign manner is part of the root cause of the plastics crisis. To justify our addiction to fossil-fuel based plastics, industry continues to hoodwink the public, dealing us the hand of double standards and false solutions/greenwashing such as introducing non-recyclable products into our markets and overstating their recycling programs and initiatives.

Communities in Africa experience first hand the double standards of corporations like Coca-Cola (the leading polluter in Africa for 5-years in a row), Unilever, Nestle, Danone and Dow Chemicals. These corporations are causing disproportionate harm to vulnerable communities, especially in the Global South, at all stages of the plastic lifecycle. A Bloomberg investigation on a recycling initiative backed by these corporations in Ghana, West Africa, found them to be better at deflecting blame and avoiding regulation than actually taking responsibility. The initiative fell back on empty promises of buy-back centres and diverting its unmanageable waste to local recyclers and waste pickers that are ill-equipped to handle this waste. 

This is only one side of the double sided corporate penny that Africa finds itself spun on. Multi-layer single-serve sachets and flexible packaging have slowly found their way into the African market under the guise of marketing products in small quantities at a low cost to appeal to emerging economies in Africa. Everything from food, hygiene and personal care products are being packaged in minuscule societal menaces called sachets. Drinking water is also more commonly sold in such packaging formats in Africa. Between 2018-2022, Brand-Audits in Africa found 93,262 water sachets in 14 African countries ,with Coca-Cola being the top water sachet polluter from 2020-2022. Companies choosing to sell drinking water in sachets undermine the basic human right to safe and clean drinking water and exploit this need for their own financial gain.

©Nipe Fagio/ Tanzania

In reality, sachets’ true costs are externalised, as communities suffer the consequences from this unrecyclable low-value waste choking waterways, burdening waste management systems and their workers, disrupting coastal communities’ livelihoods, creating health risks, and contaminating food systems.  Privatisation of water sources has also contributed to the plastic pollution crisis from bottled water in Africa. Nestle has been found hoarding water from around the world to bottle and sell for a huge profit – in Pakistan, Africa, even in the United States, with communities that live the closest to their water plants suffering the most. This could all be avoided by making drinking water available through water stations and refill systems, and investing in alternative product delivery systems. What is even worse is that these same companies package products in recyclable materials and pay a levy to support the collection of their generated waste in the Global North, while selling the same products in unrecyclable sachets in the Global South, burdening the local waste management systems without any financial contribution.

©Green Knowledge Foundation/ Niger Delta, Nigeria

Moreover, the sovereignty of Africa and its people also come under threat from waste colonialism, which is the practice of exporting waste, from the higher-income countries in the Global North to lower-income countries in the Global South under the banner of recycling and charity, leaving Africa and its future generations to shoulder the economic, social and environmental costs of this unjust action. The manifestations of waste colonialism in Africa come in all shapes and forms, from electronic waste in Ghana’s most notorious E-waste dump to 282 illegal containers of plastic waste was exported from Italy to Tunisia as mixed municipal waste, to Accra’s markets & Kenya’s rivers flooded with the Europe’s addiction to fast fashion and the US illegally exporting harmful PVC plastic into the Nigerian economy. 

These corporations and their underhanded acts are not alone in the capitalist playing field. The plastic story begins much further upstream with the extraction of its raw materials: fossil fuels. The familiar brand names of Coca-Cola, PepsiCo, Nestlé, Mondelēz, Danone, Unilever, Colgate Palmolive, Procter & Gamble, and Mars are customers of the world’s largest plastic resin producers like ExxonMobil, Shell, Chevron Phillips, Ineos, and Dow – vertically integrated fossil fuel/petrochemical companies that make petrochemicals from their oil and gas operations. 

Africa’s largest oil producing region and  Nigeria’s  once considered breadbasket – the Niger Delta has been ravaged by Shell. In 2004, 17% of all Nigerian oil exports – more than two million tonnes – went to the European Union. Crude oil production in 2004 was 2.5 million barrels per day, of which an average of one million barrels per day were produced by Shell, making Shell by far the biggest oil company in Nigeria. The country has significant oil reserves and even greater gas reserves. However, most Nigerians have not benefited from these resources. Shell has transformed the Niger Delta into a virtual wasteland which is one of the five most severely petroleum-damaged ecosystems in the world, bearing deep scars of human rights violations from gas flaring and oil spills with its population suffering  from multiple health problems. To add harm, Shell continues to indirectly degrade the region through unrecyclable plastic packaging used by Fast Moving Consumer Goods companies mentioned earlier.

The corporate interests of the Global North have time and time again placed the lives, livelihoods and resources of the global South at the forefront of social and environmental injustice. It is time to call it as it is, plastic pollution is a crisis caused by plastic production that starts at the wellhead and ends in the environment, manifesting all kinds of injustices along it’s lifecycle. 

It is imperative that we start:

1) recognising clearly proven solutions that start with plastic production reduction – which can be successfully achieved by an ambitious legally-binding Global Plastics Treaty

2) demand that corporations reveal the extent of their plastic footprint and toxic chemicals in plastics, reinvent/redesign their product delivery systems to shift away from single-use plastic packaging towards refill & reuse and make commitments that translate into concrete actions; and 

3) stop the tactical perusal of ‘false solutions’ to the plastic crisis that are either misguided distractions or dangerously damaging to the environment or human wellbeing. Concepts such as “plastic offsetting”, “plastic neutrality”, landfill mining, plastic roads, waste-to-energy, unproven technologies such as chemical recycling and burning plastic in cement kilns do not reduce the amount of plastic produced and do more harm than good, as many of these have been shown to exacerbate the effects of the plastic crisis on people and the climate.