Fashioning with Waste- A Climate Action Enterprise Youth Opportunity in Africa

Human capital, embodied in the skills, talents, energy, aptitudes, creativity of the human race, is the most significant component of wealth globally, constituting 62% of the wealth. It is the basis of knowledge economies that have propelled the global north to the pinnacle of global competitiveness. Studies show that a skilled person capable of turning challenges into enterprise opportunities is four times the value of produced or manufactured capital and 15 times that of natural capital. Africa is the youngest continent – with 60% or up to a 720million of its people being young, has a significant comparative advantage in harnessing this sovereign capital. This is a critical consideration for a continent that needs to create no less than a 13million jobs each year for the youth joining the labour market each year. One of the areas where these jobs can come from is the fashion industry.  

Social Media Effects

With the advent of social media and the convenience of e-commerce, the popularity of the fashion industry in Africa is growing significantly. Through social media, young people with hundreds and thousands of followers instantly communicate the latest fashion trends drawing attention and influencing their peers’ attitudes and decisions towards fashion. With the convenience of e-commerce, spending decisions are made swiftly. The largest segment of Africa’s e-Commerce is fashion, with a projected market volume of $8.345 billion in 2020. The youth are the most significant source of this market. These trends lay bare the interest of Africa’s youth in fashion. Studies show that fashion – specifically textile and clothing, is the second-largest sector after agriculture in developing regions like Africa. This sector is dominated by informal sector actors and is documented as potentially creating jobs for millions of women and youth across the continent. Cumulatively, the market value of fashion in Africa is estimated at $31billion. With interest and a ready and growing market, the fashion industry stands out as significant for creating income, enterprise and job opportunities for the millions of youth joining the labour market each year.

Conventional Fashion Impacts on the Environment and Climate Change

However, as lucrative as it sounds, the impact of conventional fashion on the environment is extreme. For example, to make one pair of jeans takes close to 8,000 litres of water. This amount is equivalent to what a person drinks over seven years. A cotton shirt requires close to 3,000 litres of water. These jeans and shirts are discarded for newer, trendier items within ten uses. They end up contributing to the 21 billion tons of textiles sent to landfills each year. In addition, up to 8,000 different chemicals are used to turn raw materials into clothes. The fashion industry produces 10% of global carbon emissions, contributes 20% of wastewater and consumes more energy than the aviation and shipping industries combined.

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Ripe Time for Sustainable and Climate Resilient Fashion in Africa

With increasing consciousness of these impacts, there is a more significant push for the industry to adopt sustainable practices. A strategic shift towards sustainability is beckoning. Africa is already contributing to this push, but through circumstances rather than design. And this is through the second-hand clothes market. A staggering 80% of people in Africa wear second-hand clothes. While this market is fuelled by unfortunate circumstances, with those looking for low-cost clothing unable to afford any better than second-hand imports, this contribution to sustainability in fashion qualifies as “re-use” in sustainability parlance. But the continent can do much better.

The first is through competitively marketing Africa’s traditional sustainable fashion practices. From bark cloth making in Uganda to woven textiles of Nigeria and Ghana, traditional Berber weaving in North Africa, and beadwork from Maasai and Ndebele artisans in Kenya & Tanzania and Zimbabwe & South Africa, respectively, sustainable fashion has been a part of the continent’s cultural heritage. These practices need to be prioritised in a new push to bring sustainable fashion to the mainstream of fashion on the continent. Yet another opportunity comes from recycling & re-using other inorganic waste generated in the continent. For example, even as the push to ban plastics is looked at from the dimension of reducing waste, another alternative can be in the form of re-using the 180million tonnes of waste plastic bags & bottles to manufacture synthetic apparel, shoes, bags etc.

@Adejoke Lasisi founder of @Planet3R

To get us started in this dimension, prioritisation should be on retooling youth skills who are already engaging on a small scale in turning waste plastic into fashionable, trendy items. Leveraging on the Ecosystem-based Adaptation for Food Security ( #InnovativeVolunteerism tool, youth engaged in this sector will be targeted to refine, retool, and adapt their skills venture into this climate action is driven fashion enterprises. In addition, these already existing and soon to be youth climate action driven fashion enterprises should be targeted from a policy level with several incentives – be it tax breaks to enable expansion of their enterprises, affordable & low-risk financing through incentivising cooperatives, increased awareness-raising on opportunities surrounding sustainable fashion and aggressive enterprise incubation opportunities for youth – who should be structurally guided to launch such innovative climate action enterprises. By this, Africa will leverage the first-mover market advantages into local, sustainable fashion. With minimal to zero raw material costs, fashion items made from recycled plastic waste, e.g. apparel, are likely to be much more affordable to graduate the continent from dependency on second-hand clothing and other apparel.

Fashioning with Waste as a Resource - a Faster Driver of Youth Climate Action

If our youth retool their skills and drive this paradigm shift, the resultant benefits of cleaner air, climate resilience, and a healthier environment are unmissable. By upcycling and recycling plastics for apparel, the need to manufacture new clothing using the heavy energy needs approaches will be reduced, and the attendant emissions will offset. In addition, the recycled and upcycled plastic waste is intercepted from ending up in dumpsites and acrid bonfires where it is disposed of through burning. A process that adds to outdoor air pollution has caused 60% more deaths in Africa in the last two decades.                  

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Key practical steps to drive Innovative Climate Action Enterprise Opportunity for Youth in Africa

Product development is crucial, and this should target the youth / young adult market as the more adventurous segment of the population that will be the lead consumers of the apparel. Hence the products developed should be popular among this niche – be it dresses, handbags, shoes, etc.    Leveraging social media and e-commerce platforms as affordable and ubiquitous in nature capable of reaching the target niche market – the youth is a game-changer. Hence actors need to enhance social media activity. Price is critical, and the clothes and other fashion items should be priced matching the second-hand clothing and apparel market, which currently clothes up to 80% of people on the continent.  Knowledge is power, and for this lesson, sharing becomes crucial. Being a creative area, young Africans venturing should be ready and willing to learn from peers across the continent and globally to improve continuously. The internet is flush with examples. Social media is also a convenient tool to leverage in forging networking opportunities. The talk of no money, no action should be a thing of the past.  Innovative financing is there and what is needed is that financing should be seen through the lens of cooperatives. Leveraging communal cooperatives to raise low risk, affordable capital to invest in the expansion of these ideas should be done by the youth and others. Competition is evident, and the primary competitor should be the online clothing scene and the second-hand clothes market. The market pitch should offer an exotic, locally available and more affordable alternative. This will be timely in tapping the youth who place a premium on exotic fashion. Your biggest asset is what you can offer, and with these youth skills, retooling becomes instrumental. Retooling willing youth skills who are already engaging in small scale fashion actions as early adopters so they can adapt and refine their ongoing work to tap into sustainable fashion – and especially plastic waste recovery to apparel is what should happen. Innovative Volunteerism tool offers this structured guidance for the willing youth. Diversification is the most significant security of a system. With this in mind, fast-mover youth who diversify to this area and establish innovative climate action enterprises should be selfless to train their peers in complementary areas to strengthen the support structure of their sustainable fashion enterprises and value chain. For example, they can train peers in selecting & sorting the waste plastic used as raw material.

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Ms. Adejoke Lasisi is leading by example how waste can be turned into wealth opportunities for youth@AdejokeLasisi graduated with a degree in Economics, but instead of roaming for jobs and complaining and blaming, she studied how to turn #WasteToWealth. This is the hallmark of #InnovativeVolunteerism

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This beautiful laptop bag is made of 50% woven plastic wastes. This is the power of #youth #InnovativeVolunteerism using pure water sachets #waste to transform into eco-friendly items. #ClimateAction solutions are now morphing across #Africa with #Youth inspiration leveraging #InnovativeVolunteerism. This is an example of #ClimatePreneurship turning #WasteToWealth, turning waste into fashionable lines of shoes, cloths. Narrative change.


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The fashion industry, being the second largest sector in Africa after agriculture, offers timely opportunities to diversify innovative climate action enterprises for youth in Africa. The socioeconomic opportunities lens provides the best context setting for climate and sustainability efforts in Africa. Through this sector, willing youth can establish innovative climate action enterprises that will enhance their liquidity and ability to invest in other equally promising climate action enterprise areas like clean energy powered agro-value addition, which remains the most catalytic in the continent. Fashioning with waste as a resource is a sure hidden gold mine that needs to be explored starting now. Innovative volunteerism is the tool to be leveraged to engage willing youth for such wealth-creating space that is underexploited in the continent   



Dr Richard Munang is a Climate Action and Development Policy Expert, Renowned Inspirational Public Speaker, Award-Winning Innovator, Author of #InnovativeVolunteerism

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