Since 1997, Isatou Ceesay and the Gambia Women’s Initiative has been working with women in four communities across the tiny west African state of The Gambia to address not only the environmental impact of unregulated waste disposal but also to provide income to what now amounts to over 100 women in four separate communities across the country.
I was lucky enough to spend some time with her. We discussed the common threads and challenges between the community recycling sectors in the UK and Gambia that became apparent as we discussed the need for greater exposure for the employment associated benefits of the sector (and governmental indifference to it!).
However, the fundamental urgency of her mission became clear as many of the municipal services taken for granted in the UK (including basic waste disposal) simply do not exist in The Gambia and outside of a few urban and tourist areas, it is entirely down to communities to deal and manage with their own waste. There is a pressing environmental health need for better management of domestic waste, which is either dumped in unregulated landfill of burnt in compounds, including a large proportion of plastic. As Isatou told me, she wanted too stop the burning first and foremost, with a message of waste prevention followed by reuse and recycling.
But what does one do in a country where there is very little waste disposal infrastructure, let alone recycling infrastructure? And how do you fund it, given such government disinterest?
Well in their four communities, NRIGG has devised its own separation system, with organics, paper, plastic, metals and glass and developed, where it can, its own end markets. Composting training is given, answering a demand for cheap, high quality organic fertilizer. Plastics are separated and stored to be up-cycled into everything from bags, mats, purses. Even old cassette and video tapes are woven into purses. Rubber is turned into necklaces. There are some existing end markets metals and these are separated and sold to traders.
These materials are sold on, providing an income for women, who also act as recycling champions within their communities. Self-funding community recycling. Simple, yet highly effective.
Problem waste streams do remain though. Somewhat surprisingly to me, glass remains a problem, with no economic, local end markets. If anyone has information about small scale recycling technologies that could provide a solution, do let us know!
It seems that the aid community is finally beginning to cotton-on to the pressing need for better waste management, as urban populations grow, incomes increase and waste arisings grow and change. Furthermore, the opportunities for the sector to support a range of livelihoods is being recognised.
However, these are still extremely early days. as Isatou told me, many people,including her mother, thinks she is crazy to be worried about something that for most people is out of sight, out of mind. Although it’s not – rubbish is everywhere, contaminating water sources, blocking drains, breeding disease and spoiling an otherwise beautiful landscape.
What is exciting about Isatou’s approach is her social enterprise approach, providing jobs and income whilst also raising funds to allow broader behaviour change and education training. She has received global recognition, from the International Alliance for Women when she received a prestigious World of Difference Award.
So, how can you help? Isatou needs help marketing her up-cycled products, but she also wants to learn more about other projects around the world and link in with other like-minded projects. She also needs help to upscale. She is currently working in four villages. She wants to work in hundreds – vehicles, equipment, premises, all required to help her grow. If you, or your company, would like to help out an extremely worthwhile cause working with an organisation with a proven track record, let me know.
So there you have it – this is what the beginning of a paradigm shift around better resource management looks like. One individual waking up one morning with an idea, looking out of the window disgusted by unnecessary waste and filth on her doorstep, and deciding to do something about it. Small scale, working on a shoestring, ignored by the mainstream. But it’s worth remembering, this is how it all started in Britain, too.