Cover Image
close this bookThe Courier N 160 - Nov - Dec 1996 - Dossier Habitat - Country reports: Fiji , Tonga (EC Courier, 1996, 96 p.)
close this folderDossier
close this folderHabitat
View the documentLivable cities and rural rights
View the documentTowards a global concept of urban development - an interview with Daby Diagne
View the documentHabitat II: taking stock
View the document'A house to call my own'
View the documentMegacities
View the documentLagos under stress
View the documentA Eurocrat in Istanbul
View the documentThe exploding city
View the documentAdequate housing in the EU: rights and realities
View the documentCities of the Third World
View the documentWhen conservation is at odds with the local population
View the documentA new 'eco-centre' in West Africa: Two Presidents amid the dust
View the documentThe RDP challenge
View the documentTargeting South Africa's poor
View the document'Guardians of Eden'

A new 'eco-centre' in West Africa: Two Presidents amid the dust

In April, on the eve of the International Conference on Human Settlements, the first West-African eco-centre ('Ecopole´) was opened in Dakar. It was set up by Enda, one of the few international non-governmental organisations of significant size based in a developing country. The 'eco' refers to two things - the economic life of the ordinary people and the ecological aspect of the centre. One of the most memorable images of the opening ceremonies was the sight of two Presidents - Abdou Diouf of Senegal and his Malian counterpart, Alpha Oumar Konare - striding through the dust in a working-class district of the Senegalese capital. For supporters of the 'Ecopole', the event epitomised the fight back of the popular urban economy.

The dust which settled on the Presidents' fine clothes was that of the Rail district, so called on account of the railway which cut through it in former times. Built in an old, disused factory, the airy, clean 'eco-complex' adds a touch of style to this semi-industrial, semi-shanty town district. The old buildings were redeveloped with the help of members of some two hundred cultural and sports associations, working in partnership with the NGO. They used recycling techniques of which they are past masters.

The complex had, in fact, been in operation for some time prior to its formal inauguration, but the ceremony - which attracted the interest of international press agencies - provided an opportunity to publicise the venture. Since its formation in 1972, Enda has been working to give a higher profile to the 'popular' economy (they eschew the term 'informal') in Senegal and elsewhere. The NGO has focused, in particular, on trying to encourage those involved in the popular economy to collaborate more closely and integrate their activities, as well as on boosting awareness of what is happening in similar communities elsewhere. The opening of the 'Ecopole' provided a showcase for the achievements of the popular economy in West Africa, as well as a forum for dialogue. And it now has the seal of approval of two Heads of State, not to mention other VlPs who made supportive statements at the opening.

The popular economy fights back

For the inaugural ceremony, the former sheds - now converted into airy vaults clustered around a central structure - hosted a major presentation of the popular economy in a series of exhibitions. It is a kind of 'eco-museum' with pride of place going to recycling. Exhibits ranged from 'fabrics' made of old plastic bags crocheted together, to toy sports cars fashioned from wire and tin cans. And the reaction to the exhibition went beyond the usual, somewhat condescending appreciation of 'the skill of these people'. There were, of course, some curios of interest to tourists such as the aforementioned children's toys, small metal suitcases and papier-mache boxes. But there were also works of art, masks and sculptures, which captured something of the nature of this 'recycling culture'. Indeed, international art critics at the Biennal Festival of Contemporary African Art, taking place in Dakar, were talking of a new artistic trend, also seen in the work of artists from other regions, based on reclamation. This, of course, begs the question: 'Has art not always been based on reclamation?'

Interesting though the subject may be, the artistic and aesthetic qualities of the fruits of recycling are of only secondary importance when one is dealing with everyday objects. The important thing is for deprived populations to use what means they have to survive and to improve the quality of their lives. Tourists may choose to buy decorative and unusual objects on the reclamation market, but more significantly, families can obtain essential items such as kitchen utensils, ploughing implements, carpentry tools and stoves - all cast from vehicle wheels and bits of scrap metal. They are made using small forges and furnaces the size of a large saucepan, or cut from otherwise unusable pieces of metal sheet. The craftsmen can also supply somewhat more sophisticated equipment: ploughs, brick-moulding machines or soldering irons. One of the exhibitions staged at the 'eco-centre' was a co-production with the Quebec Museum of Civilisation and the Canadian Embassy in Senegal, which had previously toured Canada and four African countries. Entitled 'Africa's ingenuity', it covered a wide variety of styles, ranging from the utilitarian to the artistic. It will, in due course, form the eco-museum's centrepiece. Another temporary exhibition was called 'Antuka: Kinshasa, the art of living in the city', and this paid homage to the Zairean capital - a place which, of necessity, has become one of the 'capitals' of resourcefulness.

Jet engines and donkeys

One hopes that the two Heads of State found time to admire the jet engine constructed by a young Zairean from nothing but reclaimed materials: parts taken from cars, mopeds and unwanted metal sheet. And it works - not on an aircraft, naturally, but on the bench. This engine is now a legend. Its constructor has apparently already been spotted by a European head-hunting company and offered a job in France. This is part of the 'fight-back' referred to by Enda officials, in which some recognition is finally being given to the economies of the world's poorest populations. During his visit, the President of Senegal issued a plea for greater integration of the informal sector into the overall economic fabric. His remarks were revealing: the West-African 'Ecopole', as its name implies, covers an entire region, and assumption of responsibility by the local people for the shanty towns and poorer districts has lifted a significant burden from central government.

Another example of this trend is found in the Malian capital, Bamako, where a hundred or so local community associations have banded together to take over full responsibility for the collection of domestic waste. This organisation, whose initial efforts were ridiculed, is now fully operational. One wonders whether the authorities in other cities have heard about Bamako's scheme. What about Port-au-Prince in Haiti, for example, where they are struggling with mountains of rubbish which they cannot deal with owing to a lack of resources?

Since their inception, economic interest groupings (ElGs) such as the one in Bamako have helped bridge the gap between the 'formal' and 'informal' economies. They rely on collaboration and their enterprise is exemplary. At the outset, the inhabitants of poor districts, acting on the initiative of the ElGs, expressed the desire to improve their neighbourhoods by organising refuse collection. They used whatever means were available - which in most cases meant donkeys and carts. In more central districts, delivery tricycles were employed for collection. Specially constructed, tipper-style carts, each costing CFAF 200 000 (ECU 300) have since been brought into service. The price of a donkey, by contrast, is about CFAF 50 000 (ECU 75). The animals and equipment belong to the ElGs and are looked after and maintained by them, with carters receiving a monthly income and social security benefits. A number of groups were set up eight years ago, promoted by young technicians, academics, architects and economists. Those who benefit are known as 'subscribers', with each family paying a contribution towards the service. Managing equipment and collecting contributions both require a well-structured administrative department, but the administrators are not confined to their offices. As employees of the business, they see nothing wrong in lending a hand and assisting the carters. In short, it is an enterprise based on a whole new approach. The contribution made by families varies according to the EIG and the district in question, but it is generally set at around CFAF 750 (ECU 1.2) per family per month. The price of the service may be up to twice this sum in the so called 'quartier des Blancs' (the 'white' district). In theory, the state ought to be subsidising the ElGs, but in practice, this does not happen. The authorities do not even fulfil the task allocated to them under agreements signed with the ElGs, which is to transport the refuse from temporary dumps to a final site. According to local people, the problem is not that the local authorities do not have the trucks available for the task. The vehicles, they allege, are used instead for the officials' own private purposes. The ElGs are forced to plug the gap as far as possible. At present, they appear to be the only ones taking any interest in waste recycling, aware as they are of the risk to the environment posed by permanent dumping grounds, and of the specific danger that the water table will be polluted.

A modern concept of the 'informal' economy

The 'informal' economy is increasingly becoming the norm. According to an Enda survey, 90% of businesspeople in Senegal started out in the informal sector. The conclusion would seem to be that the necessary training for dealing with current conditions is not to be found in the formal education system. The popular economy is not out of step with the modern economy as some would claim. Indeed, one could argue that it is the modern economy, as adapted to today's conditions. The increasing involvement of ordinary people in the economic circuit, which they enter via parallel routes, should also guarantee the continuation of Africa's experiment with democracy. We have seen attempts by former dictators to backtrack in this respect. They cite as evidence, the failure of technicians trained abroad - the 'darlings' of the West who, they claim, are at the beck and call of international institutions. But a return to the past, as exemplified by the regime of Nicephore Soglo, strikes fear into many people. Their response is to generate productivity, social cohesion and political stability through the popular economy, by way of compensation.

It is suggested that small-scale traders, who distribute hardware from south-east Asia, constitute an obstacle to the development of local production. But there is a confusion here between cause and effect. In fact, the popular economy appears more as a response to the lack of consumer goods. The problem lies with the so-called 'major' local entrepreneurs who favour the import/ export business over production, and with the banks that prefer to focus on larger businesses (influenced by anonymous officials or major economic interests) and have no time for small-scale operators.

The Rail district in Dakar has a long history. It is overpopulated, having been settled by workers and artisans, and their influx made it the most expensive poor district. It is a place where the rents, for even the humblest hut without water or electricity, accounted for most of the inhabitants' meagre income. This situation led to the appearance of squatters who built their own shacks on waste ground. For these people, the threat of eviction loomed constantly like a sword of Damocles. The district is also home to a large number of maids and other household employees. Two thousand of these people (from Rail and other parts of the city) set up their own friendly society to which they pay regular contributions.

It is a world which has always teemed with good ideas: artisans recycling materials, blacksmiths working at the forge and so on. In this sense, nothing much has changed, but the big difference now is that the people have organised themselves. In so doing, they have been able to provide training for adults and children in makeshift schools, and to purchase and renovate old huts - having extracted a guarantee from officials that such moves would not be opposed. Nowadays, those who live in the district no longer pay rent. However, it will only be possible to measure the true success of the Rail district when there is no longer a need for an organisation like Enda to ensure that it operates effectively.

Some years ago, a former sailor, who always dreamed of being a teacher, set up his own school in the main street which runs through the district. He worked on the pavement and in the car park in front of a furniture store, teaching children in the morning before the offices opened and adults in the evening after they had closed. Enda recently offered him a few pieces of furniture, but for many years, he received no help other than a few pieces of chalk, worn-down pencils and the remains of exercise books from his 'colleagues' in regular education. This is a man who has to supply his pupils not just with teaching materials but also sometimes with food. This year, with his voice catching in his throat, he told us that one of his former 'street pupils' is going to college. How can the learned economists calculate the value of this devoted 'academic'?