Across the developing world, enterprising people are sifting through garbage bins to build small businesses through recycling. It is in the informal economy, yet they have developed an economic system. This “waste economy” is providing new opportunities for people like Vusi Memela. He heads out at 2 a.m. seeking a paycheck by beating the formal economy–the garbage trucks–to the Johannesburg streets. South Africa’s largest city offers little in the way of formal recycling, so Vusi fills the gap, turning plastic bottles, electronics, paper and packaging into an income generated from the proceeds of the sale. The waste economy gives him a job and a life and the possibility to dream of a better future.
Vusi and others across the continent are worthy of capital investment, and yet we have not looked closely at what they are adding to society. Most of our time and money is directed toward agriculture, light manufacturing and industrialization. In the meantime, our inability to absorb youth into productive activity puts communities at risk of crime and terrorism. In Africa, where services account for 60% of economic output, we have an opportunity to diversify the economy by investing in these informal workers.