Senegal: Women escape poverty by recovering and selling waste

| February 5, 2018

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In the middle of the big backyard of a house called “maison de la femme” or “women’s home,” 15 women aged 25 to 65 form a circle. Wearing colourful boubous, the women stuff garbage into bottles. The mood is relaxed and, as the day wears on, more and more women join the circle. Dozens of plastic bottles, ranging in size from a half-litre to five litres, are piled in various places. Some are empty, some are full.

The women are members of a group called Ndimbeul diabot or “solidarity” in Wolof, the most widely spoken language in Senegal. The group has more than 100 members, and is one of the NGOs involved in the “Live with Water” project in the Mbao commune, on the outskirts of Dakar, the capital city. The project was launched in 2016 to manage solid waste in order to prevent floods caused by blocked drainage ditches. The floods are regular in this area during the rainy season, and sometimes deadly.

The garbage-filled bottles will be sold and used to build infrastructure such as public benches, small bridges, walls, and schools in the commune.

But the project also provides disadvantaged women in the area with a chance to earn money to invest in their own projects.

Each woman collects garbage in the neighbourhood and from her own home. But unlike other collectors who are paid cash by the size or weight of their haul, these women are compensated with credit.

Sy Mariem Ly takes pieces of plastic, cloth, and bits of cut-up cardboard and packs them delicately into a bottle, using a metal rod about 40 centimetres long to push the trash to the very bottom. From time to time, she puts the bottle on the ground and steadies it between her feet to better pack the garbage in tightly. When she’s finished, she turns the bottle several times to look at it from every angle before screwing the cap on.

She says: “Our instructor told us the bottles have to be well-packed so they’re hard and solid. Otherwise, they could cause problems when they’re used for building infrastructure.”

bottles and bricks

This morning, a cart arrived with a delivery of empty bottles. Once the delivery fee has been paid, the women jump into action to unload and put away the bottles.

Anta Mbaye is among the last to arrive. She is the entertainer of the group. She gets up and sings a song of praise and encouragement in Wolof that goes, “She has changed her life, and that of her sisters.” Like most women here, she was unemployed before starting this work. She says, “Since I started coming here, I am joyful. I sing all the time while I work. This group has given me credit and I sell soap, which helps me a lot.”

A few dance steps followed by a burst of laughter catch the attention of two women unloading the cart, who come to join the circle.

Alioune Badara Ka is the coordinator of the Mbao project. He explains: “It’s always like that when we work, easygoing and fun. It’s important to share this feeling of warmth, because some of the women who come here are mothers, wives, or even young girls who have been broken by the hardships they face.”

Ndeye Nogaye Ndiaye left university after she married. She doesn’t have a job, and she says filling bottles makes her feel useful.

She says: “Before, I stayed home and did nothing. And then I met a woman from the group who introduced me, and I took a week-long training on recycling waste from an NGO consultant. And now here I am, working like the others. My life is better; I’m earning a little money. It’s not a lot, but the important thing is that I’m helping protect the environment, and that’s important for me because I feel useful.”

The women fill the bottles together at the centre and the money from selling them goes to the group. Each 5-litre bottle sells for 200 CFA francs (US$0.40), each 1-litre bottle sells for 100 francs (US$0.20), and each half-litre bottle sells for 50 francs (US$0.10).

Aminata Dionne is in charge of communications for the project. She explains how the income from selling bottles is managed: “We put the money in the calabash. Each Friday, it is distributed to the women in the form of interest-free loans. With this money, they invest in income-generating activities or small businesses. They reimburse in installments; there’s no pressure.”

Mr. Badara Ka says the project has helped reduce waste in the neighbourhood, although he does not have specific figures. The project has also helped prevent floods and reduce poverty.

The project’s funding expires at the end of March 2018. The 112 women who participate in the group are worried that the work will stop if the funding runs out.