15 Jun 2017 Story Ecosystems and Biodiversity

From eco-shoes to waste entrepreneurs: Switching to green business in Africa

On the factory floor of Champion Shoes in Thika, northeast of the Kenyan capital Nairobi, company owner James Mwaura is pointing to a pile of irregularly shaped offcuts from the process of making men’s and school shoes.

“This is the most important part of the business. This is money for us. Before, we used to throw it away,” Mwaura says.

‘Before’ was almost two years ago, when his business began benefitting from a European Union-funded project that is accelerating Africa’s transition to a green economy.

Through grants to organizations and businesses in Kenya, Burkina Faso, Ghana, Mauritius, South Africa and Uganda, the SWITCH-Africa Green project supports sustainable consumption and production across the continent.

It has turned women and youth into waste entrepreneurs, shown firms how to improve products from egg cartons to footwear, and helped farmers get better grazing for their cattle and prices for their beef.

Implemented by UN Environment, the project encourages green business development and job creation in agriculture, manufacturing, tourism and integrated waste management. The focus is on energy and water efficiency, labelling and standards, eco-innovation and sustainable trade.

Since 2015, the project has disbursed about $11.5 million to 34 grantees, who have reached out to more than 6,000 micro, small and medium enterprises to help them improve their business skills, processes and models.

After working with SWITCH-Africa Green, Champion Shoes reported a surge in profits, product quality and the sustainability of its business – socially, economically and environmentally.

The turnaround began when the Kenya Leather Development Council, one of the project partners, carried out an assessment of the shoemaker’s products and processes. Based on the results, it taught the firm’s staff how to upgrade their designs, choose better materials and use them more efficiently. They now use the offcuts to make sandals and key holders, topping up profits as well as reducing waste.

The training also covered marketing the firm’s improved products and most accurate costing and accounting – a step that could help it access green finance at a later date.

The company partners with other local shoe factories to boost their bargaining power with local tanneries in order to get the best prices for quality leather. The improved quality has increased sales and helped the company get its products into supermarket chains that span Kenya, Tanzania and Uganda.

“We used to make bad quality shoes because we had the wrong leather, but now we produce eco-friendly shoes with sustainable and high-quality leather,” Mwaura says.

Most of the 25-strong workforce of Champion Shoes are young women, reflecting how some 80 per cent of those across Africa who are gaining knowledge and skills on green business development through SWITCH-Africa Green are women and youth.

Other objectives - beyond creating jobs, supporting local and national economies and reducing environmental impacts - include improving health and livelihoods through better production processes and working practices.

For example, in Burkina Faso, a SWITCH-Africa Green partner has provided training to the Bénéwindé Women Group, who collect refuse from hundreds of households in the town of Koudougou for a fee. The 52-member group sorts plastic from the refuse and passes it to recycling companies.

After learning how to manage and market their business more effectively, the group carried out a clean-up and an information campaign on the benefits of good waste management in six districts of Koudougou. The drive has convinced more residents to pay for the service, resulting in a cleaner and healthier city and a 400 per cent jump in revenues.


Benewinde Women Group have seen a 400 per cent increase in revenue thanks to better waste management 


In South Africa, SWITCH-Africa Green partners have helped a community besieged by drought and cattle disease to upgrade their livelihoods. Herders in Utah Village, close to the Kruger National Park, have formed a cooperative to graze their cattle and trade their meat. The community is now served by a mobile abattoir, allowing them to slaughter locally and sell the meat more widely, overcoming a 15-year quarantine order because of foot-and-mouth disease that prevents them from selling live animals.

Rotational grazing is restoring the rangelands, improving the health of their animals and the market price for their meat, and making the community and the environment more resilient in case drought returns. 



Subsistence cattle ranching is a way of life for communities in South Africa who depend directly on natural resources, grazing and fresh water, each day


As well as supporting businesses directly, SWITCH-Africa Green is helping entrepreneurs and organizations share knowledge and experience across the region. It is also helping governments introduce policies to scale up sustainable production and consumption. Policy action roadmaps for the six countries will be implemented when the second phase of the project begins in January 2018.

Ministers from the participating countries will join senior UN Environment officials in a roundtable discussion of the project on 15 June in Libreville, Gabon, during the 16th African Ministerial Conference on Environment.