Helping companies clean up

The staff of the National Cleaner Production Centre in Pretoria. Hwlani Maanda, NCPC

Switzerland is one of the main supporters of a South African advisory service set up to help companies develop environmentally friendly production methods.

This content was published on September 11, 2006 - 16:01

The state-owned National Cleaner Production Centre (NCPC) shows firms how green policies can save them money and protect the environment.

"Our environmental laws are very up-to-date," says Ndivhuho Raphulu, the NCPC's director.

"Our problem is applying them because when people's main priority is survival, sustainable development doesn't rate very high."

South Africa has its own environmental police that have the power to haul a factory boss in front of a court. But the NCPC can only advise and has no power of sanction.

"Our job is to make entrepreneurs aware of the environment and to show them that cleaner production often means lower costs, by avoiding waste, for example," said the director's assistant, Vedika Singh.

The NCPC programme was launched at the United Nations Earth Summit in Johannesburg in 2002. Today, there are more than 30 of these centres in Latin America, Asia, Africa and eastern Europe. All were created with the backing of the United Nations Industrial Development Organization and, in the case of the NCPC, with Swiss and Austrian support.


The centre is located on the vast campus of the Council for Scientific and Industrial Research in Pretoria. Its offices are close to the laboratories of South Africa's best researchers.

Ten years ago, everybody except the menial staff would have been white. "It's true we've been handed opportunities that our parents never would have had," says Singh, a fourth-generation South African of Indian descent.

The NCPC's role includes informing companies, organising seminars and carrying out case studies for firms. So far, there have over 30 of these studies, including one for United National Breweries.

That group's ten factories were able to cut their water usage by 14 per cent thanks to the study's recommendations. They were also able to minimise spillage caused by the frothing of beer simply by redesigning the nozzles used at filling points.

When the NCPC was launched, case studies were undertaken by university students. The idea was that the students would become more aware of environmental issues during their research. But the NCPC changed tack in 2005.

"It didn't really work," said Thomas Bürki of Basel University, who is a UN consultant at the centre. "The students didn't have the required know-how and what they learnt here was lost when they went to work elsewhere."


Despite being a government agency, the NCPC is not alone in the market. There are more than 30 private consultants dealing with environmental issues and, as the centre does not compete directly with them, it often sends customers their way.

The agency must also get by on a limited budget. With six employees and just SFr500,000 to spend each year – with half going towards salaries – it faces an uphill task.

Singh reckons the government should be doing much more for the environment. "When I see that a federal state like India was able to introduce anti-pollution checks for vehicles, I wonder what we are waiting for here," she told swissinfo.

Her boss is a little less categorical, and says progress will be made one step at a time. Raphulu hopes though that one day "the needs of consumers and the environment can be reconciled".

Thomas Bürki is not so optimistic. "The situation is no different in South Africa to what it is in Switzerland," he said. "Companies are only interested in sustainable development if there's some money to be made from it."

swissinfo, Marc-André Miserez in Pretoria

Key facts

Since the end of apartheid, South Africa's growth has averaged between three and four per cent.
It accounts for a quarter of Africa's GDP.
Average annual income is SFr3,600 per inhabitant.
However, 15% of the population enjoy a western standard of living, while over 50 live below the poverty line.
Official unemployment is 28&, but many NGOs believe it is closer to 40%.

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In brief

Swiss development aid to southern Africa is approximately SFr12 million per year, with three quarters coming from the Swiss Agency for Development and Cooperation and the rest from the State Secretariat for Economic Affairs (Seco).

Seco co-financed the running costs of the NCPC for the first three years, along with Austria and the South African government.

South Africa is Switzerland's main trade partner in Africa. In 2005, exports to South Africa were worth SFr651 million, while imports reached SFr1.08 billion.

Switzerland is the sixth biggest foreign investor in South Africa - some 100 Swiss companies employ 28,000 people in the country.

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