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From Waste to Revenue: Upcycling in Rwanda

There is gold in your garbage. If you can find it.

Water bottles, tote bags, vegetable bags, packed lunches, eating leftovers, wearing second-hand clothes, handkerchiefs, glass jars, stocking up on bamboo toothbrushes… There is an increasing number of choices we can make to move that little bit closer to a sustainable lifestyle (when do we replace aeroplanes?!). Some of us, too, are fortunate to live in countries with recycling infrastructure and live lifestyles that can support zero/ low-waste supermarkets.

A proliferation of zero-waste online and offline resources (for example, our Crash Course on Zero-Wasting in Berlin on July 23) explains how to buy less, what not to buy, and what we should make instead. Every day, you can make decisions that establish you as part of this waste reduction movement. Drink your coffee from a KeepCup or from a styrofoam cup, mending clothes or getting new ones and in which store, buying canned vegetables from the supermarket or fresh ones at the market… Almost every decision we make on a daily basis has a consequence in terms of waste production.

Whether you decide to unpick the gritty details of the now famous cotton tote vs. plastic bag showdown, there is no doubt that the less-waste movement is growing and necessary to our planet’s survival. But, despite growing awareness of the issues associated with waste management, from plastic to gasses to e-waste, humanity is still producing more and more trash. In 2016, the cities of the world pumped out just over 2 billion tonnes of solid waste. Booming populations and urbanisation mean this is likely to increase by 70% to 3.4 billion tonnes in 2050. Where is the pause button?


The Republic of Rwanda (discover its country climate profile) is one of the places facing this challenge. Rwanda has enjoyed rapid economic development over the last two decades, with GDP growth currently sitting at 7.9%. President Paul Kagame, who took office in 2000, has prioritised national development and is on course to establish Rwanda as a middle-income country by 2020.

There are, of course, symptoms that come with rapid socioeconomic success. The expanding service economy, concentrated in the capital Kigali and other urban centres, now contributes to roughly 50% of the GDP. The East African city is also growing faster than all its regional neighbours.

Kigali la Belle

Kigali “la Belle” (Credit Wikicommon)

However, Kigali is still a city in development. The capital city has only one official waste tip, in Nduba, Gasabo District. The city’s recycling rate hovers somewhere between 2 and 12%, with such a large variation being due to the almost-exclusively informal way to handle collection and recycling.

Every day, approximately 450 tonnes of municipal solid waste (MSW) gets dumped in the Nduba sector – that’s 13,500 tonnes every week, or 162,000 tonnes every year. This dumping site is a stain on a booming capital city with a major development plan of decentralisation for 2040, aiming to establish new businesses, shopping and leisure districts, as well as skyscrapers, green spaces and an adequate public transport system.

On top of not looking nice, municipal solid waste comes along with a host of environmental problems – especially if it ends up in landfills and dumping sites. Plastic, as we all know, can take a thousand years to decompose. This is plenty of time for it to accumulate in waterways, oceans, the stomachs of fish and eventually on our plates. Decomposing waste releases carbon dioxide, methane and nitrous oxide (to name but a few), which all contribute to global warming and air pollution. A huge range of toxic chemicals leaches into the ground soil, harming local flora and fauna as well as humans and easily ending up in nearby water, to then flow on and diffuse in every direction by currents and winds.


With this example, it becomes clear why waste management is one of Plan A’s six climate action themes. If there is a tangible symbol that represents the nefarious human impact on the planet – it’s piles of rotting trash. Every item, whether a plastic bag or a broken TV, has a long story of resource exploitation, production emissions and air miles – only to end up in a dump, sometimes after a lifetime use of less than an hour.

As resources dwindle and our planet warms, it is clear that the waste we produce must, first of all, be reduced dramatically. Second, we need to look at the waste we output as a resource, giving it new life as part of an increasingly circular economy. It is clear that waste is a major and transversal question for the environment. The way we manage it, by reducing the volume, changing the materials, and creating new ways of recuperating precious resources contained in our dump. But there is more to waste than burning, re-extracting and picking apart.


Watoto Vision on Africa (WVA) is an NGO, founded in Kigali by local Rwandans, that is working to provide opportunities for sustainable livelihoods to vulnerable communities. WVA runs a project in the Gasabo District (where the Nduba waste site is found) that aims to alleviate the solid waste management problem.

The mission here is not just to improve the (minimal) collection and disposal system, but to create and build upon the upcycling of solid waste into products that provide an income source for the local people involved. Watoto has established a growing circular and upcycling model driven by women and based on handicrafts produced solely from local solid waste otherwise destined for the overloaded dumping grounds.  

After collecting usable pieces of trash from the tip, the members of Watoto clean, revamp and repurpose waste to sell it. Free and infinite raw material, talented workers and good products that sell on Kigali’s markets make life in Gasabo cleaner and more prosperous. Sustainability win.

Read also: How we Shape the Environment and its Consequences

The solution built by WVA means the alleviation of a local environmental issue, in a way that sustains itself and carries benefits for local people. Plan A supports this project for these reasons, as the sustainable transition benefits greatly from the activation of local communities and interest. You can support them right now by following this link and making your gift.

Teenage mother transforming waste into revenue (Credit: Watoto Vision on Africa)

Upcycling in progress! (Credit: Watoto Vision on Africa)

Handicraft sales in Kigali (Credit: Watoto Vision on Africa)

Cocktails for Kigali

How can you help? There are many ways each of us can help. Learn more about Watoto and their project “From Waste to Revenue in the Gasabo District” and make a donation on the page to support the expansion of this action. Second, we are throwing a party for the planet on June 25th. Cocktails will be served, BRING YOUR OWN CUP so that we can celebrate without adding much trash to the current flow. All benefits derived from the home-made cocktails served at the party will go directly to support Watoto Vision for Africa and the incredible work this organisation achieves with so little.

Providing education, awareness-raising and economic benefits is a winning formula that engages a range of stakeholders. More than just money, it is vital to make projects such as this visible to the world, to demonstrate that us humans – whilst capable of really messing things up – have a great capacity to find innovative approaches to solving problems and create something beautiful out of a mess. And do good with a party.

Find out more about the Watoto’s live project

Find out more about how Waste Management fits into the climate change constellation.

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