Thought Leaders

UNIDO’s South African Initiative - Achieving Transformative Environmental Change

Thought LeadersTebogo MalekaNational Project CoordinatorUnited Nations Industrial Development Organization (UNIDO)

In this interview, AZoCleantech speaks with Tebogo Maleka, National Project Coordinator at the United Nations Industrial Development Organization (UNIDO), about her role within the organization and the initiative that aims to support South Africa's transition from conventional plastics to more environmentally sustainable alternatives.

Please could you introduce yourself and your role within the United Nations Industrial Development Organization (UNIDO)?

I'm Tebogo Maleka, serving as the National Project Coordinator at the United Nations Industrial Development Organization (UNIDO). Currently, I am working on a project financed by the Government of Japan that explores South Africa's transition from traditional single-use plastics to environmentally sustainable alternatives. 

UNIDO’s South African Initiative - Achieving Transformative Environmental Change.

Image Credit: UNIDO

As National Project Coordinator, you are responsible for promoting ecosystem-based approaches for inclusive and sustainable industrial development (ISID). What are some of the past approaches that you have supported, and how have they aided in the fight against climate change?

Circular economy approaches in industries have been supported to create a more sustainable and resilient economy by reducing waste, conserving natural resources, and promoting innovation in the use and reuse of materials. This approach refers to a system of economic and industrial practices which have been specifically designed to promote sustainability by shifting away from the traditional linear model of production, consumption, and disposal to more circular approaches.

Furthermore, the adoption of sustainable production processes in industries involving the use of eco-friendly production methods, such as green chemistry and innovation, to reduce the impact of industrial activities on the environment has been supported. These sustainable production processes have helped to reduce the amount of greenhouse gas emissions produced by industries. 

UNIDO contributes to three main pillars of sustainable development. Please could you outline what these are and how they align with the United Nation’s Sustainable Development Goals?

Economic Growth, Environmental Sustainability, and Social Inclusion are the three main pillars of sustainable development, all of which are supported by UNIDO. UNIDO supports Economic Development in developing countries by fostering industrialization, entrepreneurship, and innovation.

UNIDO helps create jobs, increase productivity, and boost economic growth in developing countries through technical assistance, capacity building, and the promotion of inclusive and sustainable industrial development. This is in line with the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals (SDG) to eradicate poverty (SDG 1), promote sustainable economic growth, and provide decent work for all (SDG 8). 

UNIDO’s South African Initiative - Achieving Transformative Environmental Change.

Image Credit: MintArt/

UNIDO is also focused on promoting environmental sustainability by promoting clean technologies and practices in industry. We do this by providing technical support to the industry, implementing resource-efficient and clean production processes, and promoting sustainable consumption and production. UNIDO’s work aligns with the United Nations SDGs to protect and restore the environment (SDG 15), mitigate climate change  (SDG 13), and ensure the sustainable use of natural resources (SDG 12.2). 

Lastly, UNIDO promotes social inclusion by supporting women and youth entrepreneurship, promoting gender equality, and addressing the needs of marginalized communities. By ensuring that all individuals have the opportunity to participate in economic activities, UNIDO contributes to poverty eradication and economic development (SDG 1). This is in line with the SDGs on promoting gender equality (SDG 5), reducing inequality (SDG 10), and ensuring no one is left behind. 

Our world is facing unprecedented challenges associated with climate change, food and water shortages, and the ever-increasing demand for energy and resources. Why is it important to find novel solutions to these issues?

Novel solutions are necessary to address these challenges because traditional approaches have proven to be insufficient. For example, relying solely on fossil fuels for energy production has increased greenhouse gas emissions and contributed significantly to climate change.

Finding novel solutions such as renewable energy sources (wind, solar, and geothermal) can help reduce carbon emissions and mitigate the impacts of climate change. Innovative solutions can also help address food and water shortages. The use of precision agriculture and climate-smart agriculture can improve crop yields and increase food production while conserving water resources. Technologies such as desalination and water harvesting can help address water scarcity in regions with limited freshwater resources. 

Finding novel solutions to these challenges is essential for a sustainable future. By embracing innovation and leveraging technology, we can mitigate the negative impacts of climate change, reduce resource consumption, and ensure access to food, water, and energy.

In collaboration with the Council for Scientific and Industrial Research and the University of Witwatersrand, UNIDO has implemented a project to support South Africa in its transition from harsh plastics to more environmentally sustainable alternatives. Can you provide an overview of the program’s mission and the role that it is playing in climate action?

The increase in plastic waste pollution, particularly plastic leaking into the marine environment, is an escalating worldwide issue. In South Africa, the increased production and consumption of single-use plastics, inadequate waste management practices, and poor recycling efforts have highlighted the need for sustainable solutions.

With Funding from the Government of Japan, UNIDO has implemented a three-year project titled “Support for transitioning from conventional plastics to more environmentally sustainable alternatives” in partnership with the Council for Scientific and Industrial Research (CSIR) in South Africa.

UNIDO’s South African Initiative - Achieving Transformative Environmental Change

Image Credit: UNIDO

The project aims to support South Africa’s transition to more environmentally sustainable alternatives from conventional single-use plastics with the ultimate goal of reducing the amount of plastic leaking into the environment (including the marine environment). This will be achieved through the development of an Action Plan to strengthen the local sustainable (and biodegradable) alternative material industry while also strengthening capacities for plastics recycling in South Africa.

Within the framework of the project, UNIDO has procured biodegradation assessment laboratory equipment to the Council for Scientific and Industrial Research (CSIR) in Pretoria, making the CSIR South Africa’s first ISO- accredited biodegradation testing facility.

Through the CSIR biodegradation testing facility, South Africa will be able to verify biodegradability claims on imported and locally produced materials that are promoted as "biodegradable" in various markets and establish the conditions and timeframes of the biodegradation of materials by carrying out lifecycle sustainability assessments which will evaluate the environmental impact of using different materials.

The goal is to eliminate waste and to create a regenerative economy in terms of environmental impact.

This project contributes to the realization of the Osaka Blue Ocean Vision and contributes to South Africa’s key government priorities related to job creation as well as to the promotion of inclusive and sustainable developmental growth.

By supporting and empowering waste reclaimers, UNIDO is helping divert significant amounts of plastics that would otherwise end up in landfills. Could you please outline how this project will assist in substantially reducing the volume of plastics seeping into the environment?

Informal waste reclaimers contribute to 90% of South Africa’s recycling output by diverting substantial volumes of recyclable material from overflowing landfill sites; however, their valuable contribution towards sustainability is not recognized. This UNIDO project supports policies and frameworks such as the National Guideline for Waste Picker Integration, which emphasizes the importance of incorporating informal waste collectors into the formal economy through circular economy approaches while contributing towards achieving gender equality in the sector.

UNIDO’s South African Initiative - Achieving Transformative Environmental Change.

Image Credit: D-Krab/

This project aims to enhance recycling value chains by supporting the informal waste sector by implementing waste-picker registration processes, capacity-building, and training initiatives that promote employment and economic empowerment (particularly in small, medium, and micro enterprises).

As well as helping to combat South Africa’s plastic waste challenge, what other objectives form part of this initiative?

Inclusion and gender equality are critically important objectives of this project. The implementation of circular economy practices at firm levels is expected to generate new jobs. Through capacity-building initiatives, this project also supports vulnerable and marginalized communities in increasing their capacities for plastics recycling which in turn increases their daily earnings.

How will UNIDO’s action aid in strengthening South Africa’s recycling economy?

UNIDO’s actions will assist in creating a more sustainable and thriving recycling economy in South Africa, which can provide economic benefits and contribute to environmental sustainability. This will be achieved by providing technical assistance and expertise to municipal recycling industries to improve their efficiency, productivity, and profitability. This will also involve supporting the development of new technologies for waste management practices and recycling and improving the overall management and operation of recycling facilities.

UNIDO also works closely with the South African government to develop policies and regulatory frameworks that support the growth of the recycling sector. This can include promoting incentives for recycling through EPR schemes, developing regulations to encourage sustainable practices, and improving the overall legal and regulatory environment for the recycling industry.

Every year, the United Nations celebrates International Women’s Day. This year’s theme is DigitALL: Innovation and technology for gender equality. What does this mission mean to you?

This initiative personally excites me as it seeks to promote women’s empowerment through technology by bridging the digital gender divide. It also seeks to provide women with various benefits, including access to digital skills training, digital entrepreneurship opportunities, digital services, and increased participation in decision-making processes related to technology and innovation.

Given the high youth unemployment rate in South Africa, this initiative will not only assist women in starting and scaling digital businesses by providing them with access to funding, mentorship, and networking opportunities but will also enable young women to leverage technology to grow their businesses and create jobs for others. Increasing women’s access to digital services, such as mobile banking, e-commerce, and e-government services, is an area that particularly interests me, as these services will enable women from rural communities to access essential services and information conveniently and securely, regardless of their location or socio-economic status.

Women are disproportionately affected by climate change, particularly in developing economies and emerging markets, and a large part of UNIDO’s mission is a gender-focused approach, ensuring gender mainstreaming in all of its projects. Can you provide an overview of what this gendered approach involves and how it is implemented within the South African initiative?

UNIDO’s gender-focused approach aims to promote gender equality and women’s empowerment in all its projects and initiatives, including climate change and sustainable development. This approach recognizes that climate change disproportionately affects women due to factors such as their roles as primary caregivers and limited access to resources and decision-making processes.

Each project has a gender-focused approach that integrates gender considerations into all aspects of the project outcomes, including policy development, project design, implementation, and monitoring and evaluation. This approach recognizes that gender inequalities and disparities can hinder project development progress and that promoting gender equality and women’s empowerment is critical for achieving sustainable development.

UNIDO’s South African Initiative - Achieving Transformative Environmental Change.

Image Credit: UNIDO

The UNIDO/ Japan project in South Africa implements this gender-focused approach through various strategies. Firstly, UNIDO conducts gender analyses to identify the specific needs, constraints, and opportunities for women waste-pickers in different rural and peri-urban communities across South Africa. This analysis helps to inform project design and implementation, ensuring that interventions address the underlying causes of gender inequality and promote women’s empowerment.

Secondly, The UNIDO/Japan project focused on increasing the participation of women in decision-making processes at all levels, including in project implementation and monitoring, and evaluation. This engagement helped to ensure that women waste-pickers' perspectives were taken into consideration and that interventions were responsive to their needs and priorities. Furthermore, the project provided gender-sensitive training and capacity-building workshops to waste-pickers and stakeholders to increase their understanding of gender issues amongst waste-pickers and their ability to address them effectively.

This support helps women waste-pickers overcome barriers to economic participation and achieve greater economic independence.

By pushing for sustainable low-carbon economies, creating employment opportunities for women, and reducing inequality and poverty, UNIDO has the potential to invoke the significant systemic transformation that is needed to accelerate climate action. What are some of the goals that UNIDO hopes to achieve in the next few years?

UNIDO has set several goals to achieve systemic transformation and accelerate climate change in the coming years. One of these goals is to facilitate the transition to low-carbon and resource-efficient industries by promoting the adoption of sustainable production and consumption practices. This includes promoting renewable energy, energy efficiency, and sustainable materials management. Furthermore, UNIDO emphasizes the need to improve the energy efficiency of industries by contributing to the transformation of markets for energy-efficient products and services. 

UNIDO promotes sustainable energy solutions to increase industrial productivity and climate resilience, which in turn promote green jobs and green growth, including the deployment of industrial energy efficiency standards, renewable energy-based smart grids as well as the promotion of climate-resilient industries. 

In addition, UNIDO will continue to support the formulation and implementation of national climate policies and strategies, including Nationally Determined Contributions (NDCs) under the Paris Agreement.

The UNIDO also seeks to strengthen the institutional capacity and policy frameworks of developing countries to support the adoption of sustainable industrial practices and promote sustainable industrialization. UNIDO will also support the transfer of technology and innovative solutions to developing countries, supporting the transition to low-carbon and resource-efficient industries. 

With sustainable development at the heart of what you do, what would you say the future holds for you and UNIDO as an organization?

The future of UNIDO as an organization is closely tied to the global push toward sustainable development. As the world continues to grapple with the challenges of climate change and poverty, UNIDO’s work in promoting sustainable industrialization will be more critical than ever before. Over the past few years, UNIDO has worked extensively towards achieving the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development, including the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).

UNIDO’s South African Initiative - Achieving Transformative Environmental Change

Image Credit: UNIDO

Moving forward, UNIDO will continue to play a critical role in advancing sustainable development through industrialization. This includes strengthening partnerships with governments, private sector partners, and civil society to promote sustainable and inclusive industrial growth and advocating for policies and programs that support sustainable industrialization.

The development of Green industries will continue to be a priority; the Green Industry vision grasps the potential for industries to decouple economic growth and revenues from excessive and increasing resource use and pollution. It foresees a world where industrial sectors minimize waste in every form, utilize renewable resources as input materials and fuels, and take every possible precaution to avoid harming workers, communities, climate, or the environment. Green industries will be creative and innovative, constantly developing new ways of improving their economic, environmental, and social performance.

About Tebogo Maleka  

Tebogo Maleka is a Ph.D. Candidate at the University of Johannesburg with a research study that focuses on quantifying the removal efficiency of microplastics in South Africa’s wastewater treatment plants (WWTP). Since the pathways by which microplastics enter aquatic environments remain understudied, Tebogo’s research looks at WWTP as a point source of aquatic microplastic pollution.    

An established industry expert in climate resilience and environmental sustainability, Tebogo’s key interest is in primary environmental challenges affecting South Africa’s freshwater ecosystems and building resilience while adapting to the adverse effects of climate change. She is currently employed at the United Nations Industrial Development Organization (UNIDO) as a National Project Coordinator for a project that explores the potential for transitioning from conventional single-use plastics to sustainable alternatives, including opportunities for the local manufacturing of bioplastics and economic development. 

Tebogo plays a key role in facilitating and coordinating programs that conserve South Africa’s freshwater resources by reducing the amount of single-use plastic waste leaking into the aquatic environment and increasing capacities for plastics recycling through the informal sector. In her role as the Technical Focal point for the UN Climate Resilience and Sustainably Managed Natural Resources steering committee, Tebogo coordinates activities that strengthen the understanding of the role of freshwater ecosystems and integrated approaches to waste and water resources management to support South Africa’s multiple development objectives, which include inclusive and sustainable economic growth.

Disclaimer: The views expressed here are those of the interviewee and do not necessarily represent the views of Limited (T/A) AZoNetwork, the owner and operator of this website. This disclaimer forms part of the Terms and Conditions of use of this website.

Bethan Davies

Written by

Bethan Davies

Bethan has just graduated from the University of Liverpool with a First Class Honors in English Literature and Chinese Studies. Throughout her studies, Bethan worked as a Chinese Translator and Proofreader. Having spent five years living in China, Bethan has a profound interest in photography, travel and learning about different cultures. She also enjoys taking her dog on adventures around the Peak District. Bethan aims to travel more of the world, taking her camera with her.


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