Spotlight on Africa: the work of the Regional Centre in Pretoria, South Africa

Interview between Charlie Avis, Public Information Officer for the Secretariat of the Basel, Rotterdam, and Stockholm Conventions, and Dr. Taelo Letsela, Director of the Basel and Stockholm Conventions Regional Centre for English-speaking countries in Africa, located in Pretoria, South Africa.

Charlie Avis (CA): Good morning Dr. Letsela and greetings from Geneva. Thank you for answering my questions which aim to shed light on the work you are doing to support the sound management of chemicals and waste across the African continent.

Taelo Letsela (TL): Thank you Charlie, it is a pleasure to share the work that we do in the centre with the rest of the world.

CA: Firstly, and at the risk of generalisation, what are the main constraints or challenges to protecting African people’s health, and the African environment, from the harmful effects of toxic chemicals and waste?

TL: Well there are many challenges but I think at the centre are the mere facts of widespread poverty and underdevelopment. You see there is a cynical relationship between these two and exposure to harmful chemicals and pollution of the environment within which people live. They both limit the options of people to choose; choice about means of livelihood, places to live in, materials to use, access to healthcare services, access to education, access to resources, decent jobs, and many other things. They breed perfect conditions for terrible impact on human health and the environment in most communities where they are most prevalent.

CA: Now, please tell us a little bit about the Regional Centre (RC) itself. Where are you housed, how many staff do you have, and when was the RC established: basically how did the Centre come about?

TL: The regional centre for English speaking African countries commonly known as the Africa Institute, is situated in Pretoria, South Africa, housed by the Department of Environmental Affairs of the Government of South Africa. It is an intergovernmental organization established through a statute that countries in the region have to ratify.

The Institute coordinates the efforts of these countries in the implementation of the chemicals and hazardous waste conventions. These are Basel, Stockholm, Rotterdam and recently Minamata conventions.

CA: Now, please tell us, Africa is a large and diverse continent, made up of many countries which differ from one another in many ways. I understand the centre primarily serves the Anglophone countries. How many Parties do you actually serve?

TL: Africa has 54 countries and the Africa Institute serves 23 of them. This covers a large area from southern Africa, East Africa and West Africa.

CA: It must be very challenging, yet very rewarding. What are the main technical issues or focus areas covered by the centre and what activities does the centre concentrate on in order to have the biggest possible impact?

TL: As you realise the mandate is quite large. Each of these conventions is a big task on its own yet the countries are expected to implement them all at the same time. The Institute, together with the countries narrow down this task to specific project based activities. For example, for Stockholm the focus now is on PCBs. The Institute is currently executing a large project for PCB elimination for 12 SADC countries. It has also submitted a PCBs elimination project for South Africa for GEF consideration. For Minamata, the focus is on assisting countries to understand their Mercury situation so that they may then take a decision to ratify the Minamata convention. For Basel and Rotterdam the focus is on awareness campaigns.

CA: One waste issue which seems constantly linked with Africa is electronic waste or e-waste. What insights would you like to share with our audience concerning e-waste, its impact on health, who is the most impacted, the overall social and economic costs and benefits? What would you say is the general level of awareness amongst policymakers and decision-makers concerning these risks?

TL: For starters I am not so sure that our policy makers on the continent have E waste as a priority waste stream. You see, waste management is a problem generally in almost all African countries. The bulk of waste is very poorly managed if ever. A high tech waste stream such E waste is even less understood. Yet there are some in African countries who have seen that that E waste may present some opportunities for them. Many of these operate in the informal sector, are unregulated and operate without any standards per se. These are the people who are in the forefront of the E waste challenge.

CA: The centre has a long tradition and proud record and has clearly achieved a lot, but is there a single achievement of which you are most proud?

TL: I am most proud of the ability of the centre to serve as a platform for countries on the continent to meet and discuss these common issues that relate to chemicals and hazardous waste management. An example is the meeting that we convened on the on-going challenges of listing chemicals in Annex III of the Rotterdam convention. The purpose of that meeting was for Africans to look at this issue on their own, develop their own positions and recommend options that arise from their own experiences to overcome the problem. The outcome of that dialogue is now being canvassed across the continent and with the rest of the world.

CA: On a somewhat more personal note, Dr Letsela, how did you come to lead this centre, how did your career lead you this in your direction, and what advice would you have for other Africans, male or female, striving for a career in science and international development?

TL: I have always had passion for environment and human health paradoxically. When I was younger I wanted to be a medical doctor which led me to study science, as I grew older, specifically after completing my undergraduate degree I decided to focus on environmental sciences. I think this is a career that can bring a lot of fulfilment to many young people and can bring a good sense of purpose. It may not bring the largest pay check at the end of the month, however its impact on the quality of life is unparalleled.

CA: And lastly, please give us your view on the next Triple COPs, to be held in Geneva in April-May 2017: what are your expectations, what do expect to be achieved, and how useful do you think the Technology Fair is likely to be for the countries in your region?

TL: Well I hope that Parties can bring themselves at the COPs to remember why in the first place they agreed on establishing these conventions. It was primarily to protect human health and the environment. All other benefits are secondary. Yet in recent times there seems to be increasing loss of focus in favour of other considerations. This is sad and the brunt of the failure at the international level will be borne by the poorest of the poor across the world. My expectations are high and I hope this time around most delegates will be powered up to put their people before any other considerations.

With respect to the technology fair, I think it is a welcome addition and hopefully delegates from Africa in particular, shall see some technologies that are affordable that may solve some of the challenges that we have on the continent.

CA: Thank you, for your time and for your answers and for sharing your insights. Good luck with your important work in this important region, and I hope we shall be able to meet in person at the Triple COPs in Geneva very soon?

TL: Thanks Charlie, it was a pleasure. And if your readers need any further information on our centre and its activities, please go to our website