Waste under African skies

Earlier this year, a group of UK professionals journeyed to Sierra Leone on a mission to improve waste management practices. Phil Hurst spoke to his Cylch colleague Ruth Llewellyn about the trip

Waste under African skies - Image 1Sierra Leone is one of the poorest and least developed countries in the world. Its capital, Freetown, saw an estimated one million people migrate into the conurbation in just eight years while a viscous civil war unfolded across this small West African state. The evidence of an underdeveloped waste and sewage system virtually collapsing under the strain of overpopulation is all too obvious, even to the casual visitor (and there’s not many of them despite some glorious tropical beaches).

But this spring, Freetown welcomed a set of visitors that was anything but casual: A group of waste managers from the UK answered a call for help from local charity Klin Salon.

Klin Salon, a Freetown-based social enterprise offering small-scale waste management services, had been in contact with Richard Littlehales, who runs a company that organises volunteer projects in developing countries, and Stuart Henshaw, a waste management professional who works for Integrated Skills and got involved when his daughter visited Sierra Leone with Littlehales’ organisation. Littlehales and Henshaw gathered 12 waste management professionals from across the UK to donate their collective experience and visit Freetown to experience the situation on the ground before developing a longer-term relationship with the city.

The British Council got involved and as part of the deal asked that the group provide educational sessions for some local schools. “The youth of Freetown were perhaps the most astute and rewarding audience we had to face in our entire visit,” says Ruth Llewellyn, a specialist in events recycling with Cylch, the Wales Community Recycling Network.

Waste under African skies - Image 2She continues: “Our first visit, however, was to the city dumps – hardly a tourist destination, but at the same time a hive of social entrepreneurship.”

The two city dumps are the final destination for most of the city’s waste. “One was across the bay from our hotel,” says Llewellyn. “There was no fence or demarcation, it was literally a very large pile of mixed waste rolling down to the shore.” The other site is home to several thousand squatter shacks built on the rising waste.

Waste follows a rather tortuous route before these poorest of the poor sift through the pickings on the dumps. Most Freetown residents have no central waste collection services, but use charged-for door collections run by micro businesses or social projects. Collectors deposit waste at one of 30 waste transit points around the city, and a fleet of ageing RCVs eventually transports it to the dumpsites.

Innovation is found everywhere on these dumps. A micro industry that left an impression with the group was an enterprise in which dump residents collect aluminium cans and aerosols for a mini smelting plant fuelled by burning mixed waste. Homemade moulds quickly produce pots and other containers that are distributed across the city.

Medical waste, in a country with a serious AIDS problem, creates a particular challenge. “While we walked down a hill that was actually a waste dump, numerous small fires burn 24 hours a day,” Llewellyn recalls. “At one point, we saw medical tubes burning while next to them were syringes at the path side. But there’s no point in appointing blame. When basic survival is in question, waste management of any material that has no immediate value or market must seem like a luxury.”

The group also visited hospitals and clinics and saw first hand the problems with sharps and general medical waste disposal. “We are not talking high-tech solutions here,” explains Llewellyn. “Take sharps, for example. The hospitals have cardboard boxes for sharps, but there are not enough of these boxes, so they empty the contents into the skips and reuse the boxes back on the ward. The skips then get taken away and end up on the city dump.”  Alternatively, some sharps are burned in hospital incinerators, basic structures with limited heat capacity. 

The picture painted above may seem bleak, but at the governmental level, advice and expertise is in place, though ground-level implementation is a challenge.

Waste under African skies - Image 3The biggest question for this group is: What next? “The sessions we ran in health and safety, business planning and general waste management went down very well and there is clearly a demand for this,” Llewellyn says. “And it’s perhaps this aspect that we are most likely to follow up in the short term.”

Basic training is critical; it helps convince people to wear gloves, for instance. Initial distribution of gloves failed because recipients were given no training on the importance of gloves to personal health. Gloves were seen as a comfort issue: “Tough guys don’t wear gloves –
so they sold them,” explains Llewellyn. “But provide basic training on the effects of not wearing gloves, and the fact that they are in serious risk of contracting HIV or other diseases, they may hopefully think very hard before selling them on as a last ditch measure.”

Members of the group are planning to get together in London before Christmas to develop their partnership with Freetown.