Circular Economy: Opportunities for South Africa

Interview to CSIR

Interview partner:  CSIR (Council for Scientific and Industrial Research)

  • 1. DR LINDA GODFREY, CSIR principal researcher. Expertise: Integrated waste management

  • 2. ARADHNA PANDARUM, CSIR Acting research group leader

Chance to foster Africa’s circular economy and innovation to overcome linear models

1. Could you please share what CSIR is doing at the moment on the topic of the Circular Economy and what is its aim?

The circular economy, as a concept, has gained a lot of traction in the last few years. However, there is very little evidence on what the circular economy means for developing countries, and in particular, for South Africa. CSIR, a world-class African research and development organisation, initiated a project to understand what the drivers are for South Africa to transition to a more circular economy and where the specific sector opportunities lie. Globally, we’ve seen four main drivers emerge in support of the circular economy – to address resource scarcity; climate mitigation; a green economic recovery, and socio-economic development. The CSIR’s circular economy study, which was initiated in 2021, focused on seven resource-intensive sectors of the South African economy – mining, agriculture, manufacturing, human settlements, mobility, energy and water. The study produced eight short briefing notes, as well as three deep-dive studies for the mining, agriculture and manufacturing sectors. These reports are all publicly available at  In addition, the CSIR produced a short public-access book on the circular economy as development opportunity, given the considerable socio-economic challenges facing the country.

The CSIR has adopted a broad definition of the circular economy - it is not seen to be about waste, or worse, a synonym for recycling but rather about sustainable resource management and national resource security in support of South Africa’s future socio-economic development.

As follow-up, the CSIR is currently busy with three additional deep-dive studies – to understand the climate mitigation potential of a circular economy transition, and to understand the circular economy opportunities in the South African energy and water sectors – two sectors facing considerable resource constraints and resultant impacts on the South African economy. The CSIR Energy Centre is responsible for the energy sector report, and to date has performed desktop research to identify possible circular economy interventions that are being, and can be, adopted in the energy sector. It’s important for these studies to include the perspectives of the broader sector, and for this reason, the CSIR has begun the engagement process with industry and sector experts. The final energy report is expected in April 2023.

2. According to your experience, what are the most prominent sectors for the application of circular economy principles in Africa?

Given the CSIR’s approach to the circular economy of sustainable resource management, our focus has been on resource intensive sectors of the economy. We believe that there are significant opportunities for circular interventions across the sectors mentioned in the previous section, not only for South Africa, but for most African countries. There is further work to be done to understand the specific opportunities within the various sub-sectors. For example, manufacturing is a very diverse sector, with many circular economy interventions being common across sub-sectors, but with some sub-sectors having unique opportunities, for example the automotive sub-sector.

According to the research conducted, the South African energy sector is a key sector with various sectorial linkages to mining, manufacturing, water and agriculture. The major potential for impact is thus linked to activities related to energy use in these various sectors.

3. Circular economy is going to be a fundamental piece of the puzzle to decouple the use of resources and growth: what are the most interesting possibilities for the manufacturing sector to revolutionise the sector?

The CSIR’s manufacturing study, showed that there is already a level of implementation of certain circular economy interventions in South Africa, in particular resource efficiency and cleaner production; material looping; and renewable energy technologies. However, not yet at a scale to achieve meaningful impact. In addition, a number of interventions were shown to be relatively new to the South African manufacturing sector, with a low level of implementation and readiness to implement, for example, green steel manufacturing; circular product design; circular business models; and biobased fuels/materials. There certainly are opportunities for the local manufacturing sector to rethink their use of resources – scaling from basic improved resource efficiency during production, all the way up to greater system disruption through, for example, product as service.

4. Globally, more and more relevance is given to the water-energy-food nexus and the synergies that exist among these three sectors. How do you think the circularity principles could support the advancement of the WEF – Nexus, especially with regard to Southern Africa?

Recent research published by the CSIR estimates food losses and waste at 10.3 million tonnes per annum (Oelofse et al., 2021). This equates to 34.3% of local production, but 45% of the available food supply (production plus imports less exports) in the country. The majority of these losses and waste (49%) occur in the early processing and packaging stage of the value chain. Furthermore, South Africa is a water-scarce country, one of the thirty driest countries in the world, expected to face considerable future water constraints. The circular economy principles of designing out waste and pollution; keeping products and materials in use; and regenerating natural systems have a big role to play in reducing the current resource intensity of this WEF nexus, as well as reducing the current losses and waste incurred by these three sectors. The obvious place to start is in urgently reducing food losses and waste, to not only mitigate energy and water losses, but to address local food security, including hunger and malnutrition. However, there are also new opportunities for innovation, ranging from regenerative agriculture and zero till, to renewable energy technologies and the sharing economy. The social and economic benefits of such further justify the implementation of such principles as well.

5. The CSIR is working relentlessly on the circular economy topic, what do you have in the pipeline for future developments?

Our main focus at the moment, is really to evidence this circular economy discussion for South Africa. To make sure that as a country, we understand the opportunities and constraints that a circular economy transition can provide. To ensure that the concept is customised for us, as a developing country; that we adopt circular interventions that are appropriate for our context. Current work will look at the energy and water sectors, and the climate mitigation potential. After which, we plan to focus on the two remaining sectors, and perhaps the sectors with the biggest opportunities for resource-decoupling – human settlements and our resource intensive cities and towns, and mobility.  We are excited to see how we can support public and private sector stakeholders in unlocking these circular economy opportunities through science, technology and innovation.

In terms of the CSIR’s energy work, we hope to support SMMEs or start-ups that want to be active in the circular economy of the energy sector, and identify key “circular” business opportunities from our current survey, in order to support further development and possibly identify technology development opportunities for the CSIR.

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