Historically, consumption in Africa has been overlooked. African societies are seen as providers of globally circulated primary raw materials, but often the agency of consumers in these societies has been neglected. Africa has now arrived at the point of realisation that a sustainable balance must be reached between production and consumption. This new focus is called “prosumerism”. Most consumers in Africa inhabit this dual role,  producing while also playing a significant role in consumption, and can be described as “prosumers”.

Prosumerism and climate change are two major pressures now impacting the African continent. Policy changes will need to consider both these issues in order to maintain a sustainable future, ensuring that resources are produced, delivered, and utilized to benefit populations and the local ecosystems.

The big question though, is whether there is adequate institutional agency in Africa to promote the prosumer role. In this regard, the Africa Sustainability Hub, Africa Centre for Technology Studies and The Africa Research and Impact Network in collaboration with The Rapid Transition Alliance co-hosted a webinar on ‘Prosumer agency in Africa’ on 3rd August 2021 to explore the different forms of prosumer agency in Africa, the drivers for sustainable prosumerism, and the potential outcomes of the drivers. 

In recent times, the world has been experiencing strange and unusual weather conditions which tend to trigger extreme and sometimes irreversible environmental damage to the earth. The Africa sustainability hub recently joined the Rapid Transition Alliance to collectively engage in campaigning, practice and research to try and overcome problems caused by climate change. The alliance does this by gathering what is termed as ‘evidence-based hope’. This means looking for examples from history and today’s events from all around the world that demonstrate the ability to achieve change at a rapid speed and scale. These stories are not just about fossil fuels and greener technologies but also about the fact that the ecological and climate crisis is being driven globally by overconsumption. 

Overconsumption can be traced using ecological footprint accounting, which shows that the world is already consuming more and producing more waste than the biosphere can absorb and regenerate. This means we’re stressing our life supporting ecosystems. 

This is not being done equally across the world; the richest 1% hold 43% of the world’s wealth and are often called “super consumers”. If this group alone were to reduce their consumption and emissions to the world average, then it would be possible to cut global emissions by 30% by the year 2030. It’s all about the choices we make. We could change the way we live. We could decide to do more with less. We could tackle the issue of overconsumption. This would also create opportunities for dealing with the global crisis of poverty and inequality. 

‘Good lives don’t have to cause the earth. And if those with luxury levels of overconsumption did cut back, not only would it make it easier to meet other people’s needs, it would set them as role models that people look up to and inspire others to pursue ways of living a genuinely improved quality of life and help bring rapid transition to prevent climate disaster within reach. 

– Andrew Simms

Africa has been and still is a source of raw materials for much of the world. The consumption and production patterns have been quite disappointing in their failure to provide what Africans need. Exports are frequently primary commodities with little added value, and are sometimes imported back as refined products that are too expensive for African consumers. Ghana, for example, is known to be the largest producer of cocoa, yet many ordinary people cannot afford the chocolate sourced from their own country. However, in the past few years, production and consumption patterns have been changing. Statistics show that Africa’s population will be increasing to 1.3 billion by 2030 and 2.5 billion by 2050 with almost 60% of people living in cities, which will mean a growing demand for products and produce. The Africa Continental Free trade Area (ACFTA) agreement might also make Africa the single largest global marketplace. 

This necessitates the need for sustainable consumption and production patterns. And that is why the prosumer agency conversation is inevitable.

– Ronald Diang’a

Ronald Diang’a talking about the prosumer agency in Africa

Who is a prosumer?

A prosumer is an individual who both consumes and produces value, either for self-consumption or consumption by others, and can receive implicit or explicit incentives from organizations involved in the exchange.

Credit: As provided by the African Centre for Technology Studies (ACTS)

At a wider level, prosumerism comes into play when expertise effort is introduced. This might mean regulating the value, priority and balance of commodities, in order to balance production and consumption patterns. This enables the generation of prosumer agency.  Effective prosumer agency will incorporate sustainability, the capacity to act in economic decision-making and political processes, and the biophysical environment.

Credit: As provided by the African Centre for Technology Studies (ACTS)

Prosumerism is one of the main ways in which we can address climate change, by re-examining consumption patterns and taking action to reduce levels. However, in Africa, most people feel they do not have enough agency to take action towards prosumerism because it looks complex and most of the time they prefer to blame others rather than looking for solutions at home. Therefore, it is important to examine both aspects of prosumer agency: individualistic and systemic. 

Dr. Agnes Lutomiah talking about embracing prosumerism in Africa

Drivers towards prosumerism

Climate change is one of the key drivers towards the need for prosumerism. Climate change is already a huge influence, multiplying existing risks and bringing new ones. It is already affecting the earth’s resources with the increasing occurrence of flooding, droughts, pandemics and wildfires, which in turn affect existing production and consumption patterns.

The role of businesses in driving prosumerism is also very important. Most of the time, businesses are viewed as the ‘Big Bad Wolf’. But there are places where businesses could be at the vanguard of driving agency towards sustainable prosumerism, because they have access to fast decision-making processes and to finance in a way that policymakers may lack. The responsibility of business is important and growing around the world. However, it is sometimes hard to distinguish between genuine sustainable business and “greenwashing”.

Consumer proactiveness and co-creation is also important in informing production patterns. In order to mitigate and build resilience – making room for a conducive environment for sustainable prosumerism – consumers must play an active role in supporting and trying to add value to this process. 

Consumer awareness is a vital part of sustainable prosumerism. Both the producer and consumer must be empowered with knowledge. This means that information has to be available to both producers and consumers. Currently, adequate understanding about prosumerism is still lacking across the African continent. This in turn raises concerns about whether there is adequate research being done on the subject.

Technology is also a key driver towards sustainable prosumerism. Technologies like mobile money from Africa, are good examples of how people can leap a technology in the direction of a more sustainable future. The role of science, technology and innovation is important, but for technologies and innovations to flourish, we need investment in research and development. The level of investment in Africa in research and development is far too low today.  

Ali Adan talking the need for technological innovation in order to enable sustainable prosumerism

The youth also plays a great role in reacting and responding to sustainable prosumerism and taking agency into their own hands. Almost 60% of Africa’s population is aged between 18 and 34 years, making Africa the world’s youngest continent. On the positive side, the population provides an opportunity for the continent to address Africa’s sustainable development challenges. Even though they sometimes don’t even have the space to have their voices heard, the passion, creativity and innovation of young people could play a key role in the continent’s production and consumption transformation.

Let’s unlock and support the millennial economy. What we are saying is that do not make resolutions for us without us. We also want to put our voices into the process of prosumerism so that at the end of the day, we can also take responsibility and be able to support the future of prosumer agency.

Ronald Diang’a

Urbanization and transport is also a major driver of prosumption, in terms of how the African population lives day-to-day, and how they access their goods and services. Urbanization in Africa is happening at such a fast rate that, if we don’t harness the sustainable potential of prosumer agency now, we will be looking at a problem of overconsumption in the future. By 2050, Africa’s population will have grown to 2.5 billion. These people are not only going to have economic power, but will also have increased purchasing power, because most of them will be located in cities. 

Credit: “nairobi_wsf07 – 343” by Carlos Fernandez (CC BY-NC 2.0)

Effectiveness and efficiency – the need to cut costs of production and consumption processes – is also a driver of prosumer agency. Businesses, systems and institutions tend to avoid capital-intensive techniques associated with the production of goods and services. More often than not, they invest in research and development to promote innovation and technology to reduce their cost of production, hence increasing their profit margins. The focus for technology choice on efficient supply chains has been largely responsible for Africa’s failure to grow its own domestic production capacity.

Potential outcomes of prosumerism in Africa

The critical question to ask is how can we promote sustainable prosumer trends? As Africa shifts from just being producers and exporters of primary commodities to both producers of value-added products and consumers, Africa could avoid a lot of mistakes that have been made elsewhere in the world.

This huge continent with an enormous variety and unique social, cultural and political environment, will benefit from its diverse nature only when positive, innovative “made in Africa” policies are put into place. As the continent most adversely affected by climate change, Africa has a much better and closer knowledge and understanding of what living with the practical realities of climate change and prosumption is like. Promoting local context, making sure that prosumer trends are working right from the most small scale local setting is key. Therefore, there is a need to try and develop local ecosystems for prosumerism.

The roles finance systems and institutions play are also critical when looking at future prosumer trends. Knowing how much both local and global finance bodies have influenced Africa in the past, it is vital to establish sustainable guidelines and partnerships that ensure that the interests of Africa are served.

For the prosumer agency drivers to work to the benefit of African people, the continent will need an enabling environment. This means not just suitable financial systems, but also effective market systems for encouraging low carbon-intensive products. Africa will need efficient and effective market designs and regulations that incentivise the uptake of new technologies that promote responsible, sustainable prosumerism. Prosumerism will have little sustainable impact if it’s not anchored in policy to keep actions in check and provide reliable accountability.

Today’s business environment is driving change at an unprecedented level. It is therefore necessary to have new business models that allow financial investments to encourage technological innovation in the field of sustainable prosumerism. It will also be important to incorporate and integrate prosumerism into the concept of circularity to address the emerging issue of waste and sustainable use of resources.

Contributors

Salome Okoth

Salome is a Research Assistant at the African Centre of Technology Studies (ACTs).

Dr. Joel Onyango

Dr. Joel Onyango is a Post Doc Researcher at the African Centre for Technology Studies. He represents ACTS in the Kenya “Water Dialogue” forum, the National Biodiversity Strategy and Action Plan (NBSAP), among other collaborative initiatives. He is part of the secretariat for The African Network for the Economics of Learning, Innovation, and Competence Building Systems (AfricaLics).