Sustainable packaging initiatives transforming African market

By Kirsty Bisset, HYH Durban MD. The African consumer goods industry is embracing sustainable packaging initiatives to address environmental concerns – but beware the challenges.

By Kirsty Bisset, HYH Durban MD. In today’s world, where environmental concerns are at the forefront, sustainability has become a key driver of change across industries. In the African consumer goods sector, a significant shift towards sustainable packaging initiatives is underway.

As the global population continues to grow, so does the consumption of consumer goods, resulting in an increase in packaging waste. This waste poses a significant threat to the environment, especially in regions with limited recycling infrastructure, like many parts of Africa.

The African consumer goods industry is embracing sustainable packaging initiatives to address these environmental concerns. Sustainability in packaging involves designing, sourcing, and producing packaging materials and products in ways that minimise their environmental impact while maximising their social and economic benefits.

Kirsty Bisset

While the shift towards sustainable packaging is commendable, African consumer goods companies face unique challenges:

  • Limited infrastructure – inadequate waste management and recycling infrastructure make it challenging to effectively collect and recycle packaging materials.
  • Cost considerations – sustainable packaging materials and practices can initially be more expensive than conventional options. This cost differential can deter companies, particularly small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs), from adopting sustainable packaging.
  • Consumer education – many consumers in Africa may not be fully aware of the environmental impact of packaging waste. Consumer education and awareness campaigns are crucial to driving demand for sustainable packaging.
  • Sourcing sustainable materials – sourcing sustainable packaging materials can be challenging in Africa due to limited availability and supply chain complexities.

In response to the growing demand for sustainable packaging, several innovative solutions have emerged in the African consumer goods industry:

  • Recyclable materials: Companies are increasingly using recyclable materials, such as paper, cardboard, and glass, for packaging. These materials can be collected and processed more easily in regions with limited recycling infrastructure.
  • Eco-friendly alternatives: Biodegradable and compostable materials, like bioplastics and plant-based packaging, are gaining popularity. These materials break down naturally, reducing the environmental impact of packaging waste.
  • Minimalist design: Simplifying packaging design to reduce material usage is a growing trend. Minimalist packaging not only reduces waste but also lowers transportation costs and carbon emissions.
  • Circular economy initiatives: Some companies are adopting circular economy models, which prioritise the recycling and reuse of materials. They design products and packaging with the end of life in mind, aiming to create a closed-loop system.
  • Eco-labeling: Many consumer goods companies are using eco-labels and certifications to indicate the sustainability of their packaging. These labels help consumers make informed choices and reward companies that prioritise sustainability.
Case Studies: African brands leading the way

Several African consumer goods companies are at the forefront of sustainable packaging initiatives:

1. Pick n Pay (South Africa): This South African supermarket chain has launched initiatives to reduce plastic packaging, such as introducing reusable shopping bags, promoting bulk purchases, and exploring alternative packaging materials.

2. Twiga Foods (Kenya): Twiga Foods, a Kenyan agricultural supply chain company, is using banana leaves to package produce. This innovative, biodegradable solution reduces plastic waste and benefits local banana farmers.

3. Sokowatch (African continent): Sokowatch, a tech-based supply chain company operating in several African countries, is working with manufacturers to reduce packaging waste. They offer reusable crates for product deliveries, reducing the need for single-use packaging.

4. Nampak (African continent): Nampak, a South African packaging manufacturer, is pioneering the use of recycled PET (rPET) in beverage bottles. This reduces the carbon footprint and promotes a circular economy.

Retailers must, however, be cautious when deciding what changes to adopt to make their packaging more sustainable. What works in Europe and North America may not be suitable for Africa.

Experts warn that Africa’s recycling ecosystems, in general, are not set up to handle the packaging alternatives currently making waves overseas. Further, recycling or processing biodegradable and compostable plastics, and cardboard or paper bottles and cartons, would require considerable investment in new equipment and infrastructure.

If this investment is not made and these alternatives are used, they will simply go to landfill. Why waste packaging material to degrade into microplastics and generate carbon dioxide – the very things we are trying to avoid in the first place? In addition, recycling glass for food and beverage packaging is not as green as it is made out to be given the amount of water it uses, and further do and it does not comply with South Africa’s food and beverage legislation. While tins do conform to food and beverage legislation and are recyclable, the energy required to make them and recycle them is exorbitant.

Business Case: ESG imperatives

Beyond environmental benefits, sustainable packaging also offers compelling business advantages:

  • Brand reputation: Companies that adopt sustainable packaging initiatives often enjoy an improved brand reputation and increased consumer trust. Sustainability resonates with modern consumers, and they are more likely to support environmentally responsible brands.
  • Cost savings: While the initial investment in sustainable packaging may be higher, companies can realise long-term cost savings through reduced material usage and transportation costs.
  • Regulatory compliance: As governments in Africa and around the world enact stricter regulations on packaging waste and environmental impact, adopting sustainable packaging can help companies stay compliant with evolving laws.
  • Market expansion: Sustainable packaging can open doors to new markets and partnerships. Companies that prioritise sustainability may find it easier to enter markets with stringent environmental requirements.

While challenges exist, including limited infrastructure and cost considerations, companies are making significant strides in adopting eco-friendly materials, innovative designs, and circular economy models. As sustainability becomes a central focus for consumers and regulators alike, the African consumer goods industry’s commitment to sustainable packaging is not only commendable but essential for a more environmentally responsible and economically prosperous future.

By addressing the unique challenges and seizing the opportunities presented by sustainable packaging, African consumer goods companies are playing a pivotal role in driving positive change on the continent.


Receive the Retailing Africa newsletter weekly • Subscribe here.