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Process raw materials in Africa, urges top environmentalist
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Process raw materials in Africa, urges top environmentalist

Africa must take greater control in the industries it supplies with raw materials to lift its people from poverty and seize its own destiny in a low-carbon world, one of the continent’s leading environmentalists has urged.

Wanjira Mathai, the managing director for Africa and global partnerships at the World Resources Institute thinktank, said much more of what the continent produced must be processed and made use of close to where it is produced, if the world is to shift to a low-carbon footing.

Africa’s vast resources are vital to the global economy, in sectors spanning agriculture, forestry and fisheries to minerals and metals. But most of these are extracted to be processed and turned into finished products elsewhere, sometimes with dire environmental consequences.

Products such as cobalt, copper and gold are used in increasing quantities in renewable energy production and low-carbon technology such as electric vehicles. But if the processing is nearly all done overseas, few of the economic and social benefits will come to Africans themselves, said Mathai.

“How do we activate value chains in food and agriculture that build wealth for small farmers?” she asked. “Not commercial agriculture [that just means getting] bigger, bigger, bigger. But how do we get really good at building these sorts of economies for small farmers that are fairer, more equitable, that are about wellbeing?”

A cocoa pod grows on a farm in Ghana.View image in fullscreen

The answer, she believes, lies in processing more of Africa’s raw materials close to where they are produced. For instance, cocoa beans could be processed into cocoa butter in the African nations where they are grown, instead of being exported in their raw form, even if turning the butter into chocolate still happens elsewhere.

“By moving up the value chain, we will be able to generate much more income,” she said.

This will also make the processes more efficient. “Transporting raw materials across the world is a lot more carbon intensive than transporting a more processed product. And what it does is create an economy that is much greater than depending on the charity of others,” she said.

Economists and government officials are gathering in Washington DC this week for the annual spring meetings of the World Bank and International Monetary Fund, where the future of climate finance and the debt burden of poor countries are likely to be among the hottest topics of debate.

Mathai said rich countries should target the climate finance they have promised to the poorer world on projects that helped African countries make more use of their resources. “There’s a real opportunity in green industrialisation,” she said.

Africa has vast potential for generating renewable energy, from the wind and sun. This should encourage investors to site their industries there, near these abundant low-carbon power sources, she added. This could be used, for instance, to create genuinely green hydrogen, which is likely to be vital for some heavy industries.

“Instead of thinking, export that energy, why not use manufacture in Namibia?” she asked. “I think there’s going to be real opportunities to expand manufacturing. It’s not about charity, it’s about partnership.”

If these investments are not made in clean energy and manufacturing, Africans will turn instead to fossil fuels, where investors are eager to expand, she warned. “We will have ourselves to blame if they go the more traditional route [of fossil fuels], where finance is more available, because we’re seeing fossil fuel proliferation.”

As the climate heats, swathes of Africa are likely to suffer increasingly from drought, heatwaves and floods. However, some of the continent’s croplands are likely to become even more vital.

Helping people prepare for the impacts of the climate crisis will be essential and in Mathai’s view that can best be done by making Africans more prosperous.

“We have to build resilience that is deep, that is anchored in wealth creation,” she said.

She gave the example of Nairobi, in Kenya, where many impoverished people recently experienced flooding. “Entire communities were washed away. That’s because they live on the edge [because of poverty]. If you’re on the edge of the edge, it doesn’t matter how much adaptation you do. We have to build economic muscle.”

Source: theguardian.com