Solving Freetown's waste problem

June 7, 2018

Mariama Conteh, Funkia, Freetown. ©UNDP SierraLeone/LilahGaafar

Bashiru Brima, 21, is not your regular tailor. Living in the slum community of Cockle Bay, in Sierra Leone's capital city, he has been fashioning bags, mats and hats out of plastic refuse, while educating his fellow villagers to reclaim waste rather than let it pile up.

“I learnt a lot. If we continue, the country will be clean. And this could be my own career.”

Plastic waste is a major problem in the slums bordering Freetown, Sierra Leone’s capital city. Water sachets (commonly used as drinking containers in the country), empty bottles and jerry cans litter the streets and clog up drains, causing flooding in disaster-prone areas.

Sierra Leone is among the top most vulnerable countries to climate change, and with an average rainfall of 3,600 litres (the equivalent of about 18 bathtubs) per square metre per year, flooding affects the country on a recurrent basis.

The devastating flash flooding and landslide that killed thousands in Freetown in August 2017 illustrates how the accumulation of plastics in drainage systems, compounded by poor city planning, exacerbates the problem. Last year’s flooding displaced 5,000 slum dwellers in Freetown alone and caused significant financial losses.

Plastic waste also poses public health issues, as blocked drainage causes water to stagnate and mosquitoes to breed in a region where malaria is endemic. In times of floods, water contaminated by mud and waste is washed into open drinking water wells and can lead to disease.

There is no waste transfer center in Freetown, nowhere to sort garbage and separate what can be used for compost or recycling.

It costs 2,000 Leones to dispose of a rice bag of garbage, says UNDP’s Thorsten Kallnischkies, Geologist and Waste Management Expert.

As much as 80 % of Freetown’s waste could be recycled or used as compost.

Kallnischkies, who has worked on almost 200 dumpsites around the world, says recycling and removing garbage from the cities' overflowing drains saves people's money, while also tackling youth unemployment.

With a 400,000 $ budget, UNDP Sierra Leone launched a skills training on waste recycling for 150 youths (120 women and 30 men) in 8 slum communities around Freetown, with the aim to empower them financially and ultimately allow them to afford decent housing out of the slums.

The project works with local women’s organizations, providing funds to mobilize the communities, establishing waste management committees, and equipping participants with cleanup tools and storage for raw materials. With UNDP support, the associations also develop strategies with plastic producing companies for safe disposal.

Around 28 women and youth were trained on how to weave plastic waste to produce bags, purses and other items. Ester Kamara says she is looking forward to launch her own shop soon:

“It’s helped us so much – we had been left out and were not considered, now I have my own resources”

“We are going to continue – non stop. With my own shop, not just for me, for my community.”

Aged 27, Kelfala Sopha from the Oloshoro slum says:

“For [a] youth who had no jobs, now I can be proud of myself.”

“We are solving environmental challenges in our communities, and this helps us get income – I will continue weaving, I want to be an entrepreneur.”

“The project was announced in my community, and I volunteered to be part of it,” says Mariama Conteh, from Funkia. 

“My perception of plastic has changed – it’s not waste anymore, it’s useful. ”

Some 20 other youth were trained on plastic tile production. Around 15kg of plastic refuse, melted and mixed with 100kg of sand, sawdust and groundnut shavings, can produce 20 decorative floor tiles.

Fatu Komora produces bio-charcoal briquettes from organic waste, and chairs the waste management committee in Culvert: 

“I brought this group together, and I don’t want to want my effort to go in vain. I want to see my community clean.”

These innovative practices integrate environment management with livelihoods support and ensure the sustainability of the project. The pilot phase in vulnerable communities of Freetown paves the way for a scale-up throughout the country, and will provide critical lessons on which UNDP can build to accelerate post-Ebola economic recovery, develop resilience and reduce disaster risks.

Full photo essay here.