Shiny new garbage trucks hurry along Bamako’s potholed streets collecting waste off the front porches of colonial-style villas before proceeding to dump the waste on fields where farmers grow maize, corn and pumpkin. Downtown, in the main market, street-sweepers arrange torn up paper cartoons, empty tin cans and plastic bags for water in neat piles as rickety taxis and battered minibuses hurry passed.
The garbage trucks belong to Moroccan waste management company the Ozone Group, which last year got the authorities’ go-ahead to start operating a waste disposal service in the city. With a contract worth 72 billion CFA ($123 million) that stretches over eight years, the company will be collecting and disposing of much of the capital’s waste at a new waste disposal plant currently being built by a Chinese contractor 45 kilometres outside of Bamako.
The contract grants the company a monopoly on street cleaning and garbage disposal in all of Bamako’s six communes. It currently employs 1,100 drivers, garbage men and street-sweepers — a number that will grow to up to 1,500 when the service is fully operational. This formalised waste management system spells change in Mali’s capital, a city with a population of between 2 to 3 million people, where small-scale garbage collectors with barrows and donkey carts have been the city’s primary waste collectors.
The urban waste challenge
With congestion, poor infrastructure and a growing population, Bamako faces the same challenges as many other African capitals. Add increased access to consumer goods — in Bamako each household produces about 0,6 kg of waste per person per day , according to Abdoul Karim Macalou, the deputy director for sanitation and pollution control at the Ministry of Sanitation and Sustainable Development — and you begin to understand the size of the mountains of waste piling up around the city.
Recently the mayor’s office closed down several informal waste dumps. At the time, the most famous dump, nicknamed “Kilimanjaro” by locals hinting at its impressive size, located next to the riverbank in a densely populated area was growing by 450 m³ a day, according to Macalou.
“It was becoming a serious threat to people’s health,” he says.
The breeding of mosquitoes and related diseases, emission of methane, and flooding through clogged up sewage systems are a few of the health hazards that come with unsustainable waste management. Already in 2001, a study showed that improvements in waste disposal and waste recycling were urgently needed, according to Macalou. Meanwhile Bamako authorities struggled to find a system that was both affordable and efficient in reducing the city’s waste.
“Mali is a poor country. Waste management was simply not a priority,” says Macalou.
Then came the 2012 rebellion and overthrow of former president Amadou Toumani Touré’s government and Mali was worse off than ever before.
“Even now, three years later, the country lacks the means to invest in a new waste plant, which is why the government agreed to give the contract to a Chinese company that [will] not only build the plant but also pays for part of the construction,” says Macalou.
While authorities say the new waste plant is ready to begin working, Ozone says some final adjustments are needed before operations at the facility can start.
“The final stretch of the road leading up to the depot needs to be reinforced to allow for trucks of up 30 and 40 tonnes to drop their waste. Then there are also some technical issues,” says Daouda Sogoba, deputy director of Ozone.
It is Sogoba who convinced the authorities to sign a contract with Ozone. “In 2014 I travelled to Fes, a city about the same size as Bamako, in northern Morocco. When I saw the clean streets and neatly organized waste disposal I wanted the same system for Bamako,” he says.
When fully operational the new plant will include a facility for refuse sorting. It will also have the technology to transform waste into energy, a costly process that requires a lot of waste and a fleet of trucks to transport it. To build such a facility Mali depends heavily on foreign investors.
Besides the city’s poor infrastructure, a feeble sewage system and erratic electricity, one of the main challenges is to make people understand why proper waste management is so important, says Facinet Coulibaly, the manager of Macrowaste, a waste management start-up run by two Malians – Abdoulaye Tangara and Lamine Dambele. Among Macrowaste’s clients are hotels, embassies and companies, like mattress manufacturer Fofy.
“Everyone wants clean streets and fresh air,” says Coulibaly. ”What people need to understand though are the health benefits of proper waste disposal and that they actually can make money out of their garbage.”
But change is slow and the challenges are not only connected to actual management. Despite Macrowaste’s commitment to sustainable waste handling, they too dump their garbage on wasteland close to where people live because there is not yet a functioning waste disposal plant.
As Coulibaly gives me a tour of the company’s office in Bamako’s industrial area the power cuts. Just to have a document signed or get an authorisation can take weeks or even months. When the phone line cuts, Coulibaly has to wait for the technician for days.
“In Mali everything from paperwork to logistics takes twice as long,” says Coulibaly. “Then there’s also corruption.”
An outsourced solution
In Transparency International’s corruption index Mali ranks 115 out of 175 countries. Many Malians have lost faith in their leaders and what they perceive as a crooked system. There’s a widespread notion that the government is trying to improve its reputation by leasing out the country’s waste problem.
Ozone’s operational manager Daouda Sogoba is not shy to admit that hopes to improve relations with Morocco played a part.
“It does help that the two countries, Mali and Morocco, have close political connections. It also helped that Ozone was willing to take some of the start-up costs,” he says.
The government, however, has to reimburse Ozone for some of those start-up costs, according to Sogoba, although government disputes this. According to Sogoba it’s between 20–25 billion CFA ($30 million to $43 million) to be paid over 15 years.
The government can also choose to extend the contract with Ozone, which is already planning to start up in Mali’s most southern region Sikasso. Meanwhile, it’s up to Macalou and his colleagues at the ministry to monitor the company’s work.
Katarina Höije is a Bamako-based freelance journalist. Follow her on twitter: @katarinah
Main image: The months just before the rainy season are the busiest time of the year for Mohamed Keïta. The 30-year old entrepreneur heads a team of workers touring Bamako’s neighbourhoods, digging up trenches to prevent them from flooding when the rain starts. He was initially offered a job with Ozone, but turned it down when he read the conditions. “It was basically the same job I’m doing now but for less money,” he says, standing thigh-deep in a smelly mix of mud and waste. Katarina Höije.Read older posts from this section