Gambia - recycling for women's wealth and independence

| 13th August 2014
Women at Isatou Ceesay's workshop for upcycled products. Photo: author supplied.

Women at Isatou Ceesay's workshop for upcycled products. Photo: author supplied.

Plastic waste, often burning, is a constant companion in Gambia, a poor country where few enjoy formal rubbish collection, writes Louise Hunt. Now a pioneering project to upcycle waste plastic is beginning to tackle the problem - and in the process enhancing women's social and economic status.
It teaches them how to be independent women. It gives them courage and motivates them. Self-employment can make a really big difference."

In a shady room of a tin roof house five young women are sat on the floor surrounded by rubbish. One of them is precisely cutting a folded plastic bag so that it unravels into a long strip, which she twists and threads through the eye of a crochet hook.

In just a few minutes a delicate, shiny blue chain appears that, in two days, will become a vibrantly striped handbag. Another girl is threading together a bunch of hoops from old bicycle inner tubes to make jewellery.

They are apprentices of a community recycling project that is believed to be the first of its kind to provide an alternative to burning household rubbish in the Gambia.

Outside of the concentrated tourist resorts in the capital Banjul and a few other urban areas, municipal waste collection does not exist in Africa's smallest country.

This is a common story across the developing and emerging world. According to the United Nations Environmental Programme, around 3.5 billion people - or half the world's population - are living without any formal waste management.

Waste plastics - a new problem that's not going away

As GDP has risen in West Africa so has plastics consumption and waste. In the Gambia this is evident in festering roadside ditches and blocked drains and in the acrid, back of the throat taste of burning rubbish.

The environmental health hazards linked to the uncontrolled burning of plastics and the harmful pollutants released are well-evidenced, they include cancer, respiratory illness, and damage to reproductive and mental functions.

One woman's quest to educate people in how to avoid these hazards led to the formation of the Women's Initiative the Gambia (WIG). The project began as a Peace Corp initiative in 1997, and was taken forward by original group member Isatou Ceesay, who is now WIG national coordinator.

WIG was registered as a non-profit organisation in 2009 and has become increasingly enterprising over the years with the development of a training programme that aims to equip young women with environmental and income generating skills, as well as working with communities to disseminate the benefits of re-using and recycling waste.

It is currently working with four communities in the Gambia. Each village has representatives trained in advising the rest of the residents in handling their waste.

People think I'm crazy!

"We encourage people to re-use plastics, such as re-filling palm oil bottles, and if they can't be re-used then how to separate rubbish to be recycled or composted. A lot of the groups we work with are gardening and buying expensive fertilisers so we tell them how to make compost fertiliser", says Ceesay.

These are hardly revolutionary ideas in the developed world, but Ceesay says that people still think she is crazy for wanting to deal with other people's rubbish.

Showing off the products in her workshop - durable shopping bags made from up-cycled cement and rice sacks, toy animals stuffed with plastic bags, and glistening purses that on closer inspection are woven from defunct video tape - she hopes to prove there are many practical and creative solutions to what would otherwise have gone up in smoke. "We are trying to sell to the tourist market", she says.

It teaches them how to be independent women. It gives them courage and motivates them. Self-employment can make a really big difference."

Her apprentices are all recent high school graduates with limited employment prospects. And as Mariana, one of Ceesay's pupils observes: "If I wasn't here I would be sitting at home with nothing to do. Here we are learning new skills and teaching other people about the importance of the environment."

Empowering women in a male-dominated society

The idea is to combine environmental education with skills to make marketable products, not only from rubbish, but also traditional crafts such as tie dye, bead-making and food preservation, that she hopes will enable them to generate sustainable livelihoods.

Her apprentices then pass on these skills, along with their recycling knowledge, to their communities.

"People really change in terms of understanding the environment and their responsibilities and who they are and the skills they have to be an independent person. They understand that they can stand on their own feet and build their own life", says Mariana.

In a male dominated, predominantly Muslim society, empowering women to generate their own incomes is no small feat. Ceesay is a well regarded women's rights activist and her outspoken views against female genital mutilation court plenty of controversy.

Asked if her work has been met with resistance from men, Ceesay laughs wryly. "Yes, there were a lot of challenges from men when we started. They thought we were empowering women to not respect them, but now I think most realise what we are doing is a good thing. I always try to communicate my message to both men and women."

The money is real - and badly needed

What probably helps to galvanise support is the much needed extra income that WIG participants are able to generate from their products, on average between 6,000 to 10,000 Delasi a year (about £100-£150) - not an insignificant sum when the average annual income is £200. "They are able to send their kids to school, that little amount is really sustaining them", Ceesay says.

Ceesay, who in 2012 collected an award for her work with WIG from the International Alliance for Women in Washington DC, puts great emphasis on developing business and financial acumen among her pupils.

As they are unlikely to have commercial bank accounts, she operates her own savings box system into which each apprentice invests an agreed amount of their profits. To access their money they must have a business plan for reinvesting profits, although they can use it for emergencies.

The idea is to ensure they are prepared for the rainy season, explains Ceesay. "In August, September and October it is very difficult to get money from farming, so they have their savings and the skills to make other income to survive the rainy season.

"It teaches them how to be independent women. It gives them courage and motivates them. Self-employment can make a really big difference."

Building markets is key to expansion

Ceesay recognises the market for up-cycled rubbish in the Gambia is not yet big enough to really make a dent on the waste mountain. "There are lots of people benefiting from this project, but product movement is slow. People don't recognise the value of our products, to grow capacity we need start-up money to invest in more people and we need to talk to local authorities about collecting rubbish and work with other businesses."

WIG is now receiving support from the in-country programme of UK-based livelihood charity Concern Universal, as part of a European Union funded project to build the organisational management capability of women's groups.

Projects such as WIG are part of a global so-called waste-to-wealth movement that is seeing the emergence of small enterprises generating income from recycling waste in slum areas.

UK-based The Living Earth Foundation, for example, is supporting several such schemes in sub-Saharan Africa. A new international organisation WasteAid is in the embryonic stages of gathering waste resource management best practice to share with developing countries, and also aims to generate funding to support waste to wealth projects as it grows.

A sustainable livelihood for millions

Its chair of trustees, Mike Webster, comments: "There are over three billion people with no access to basic waste management services leading to an unprecedented global public health and environmental crisis.

"Badly managed waste leads to disease, allows vermin to breed, pollutes water courses and burning waste plastic hugely reduces air quality.

"But we are also missing out on a massive economic opportunity, already a $500 billion global industry, resource recovery could provide a sustainable livelihood for millions and lift some of the most deprived communities across the world out of poverty."



Louise Hunt is a freelance journalist writing on social affairs, sustainability and international development.  

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