The Gambia’s famous food markets attract tourists and local residents alike. From the sprawling Bakau fish market to the fruit and vegetable stalls at Abuko, the markets dotted around the Greater Banjul Area are an essential part of life in the capital region.
The markets are usually laid out with small shops made of wood and sheet metal - known as canteens - at the front, while inside are the stalls selling meat, fish and vegetables. Much of the produce is grown by women in gardens close by the markets.
But the markets also create tonnes of trash - much of it organic waste which, along with plastic, cardboard, and other rubbish, becomes landfill at the city’s infamous Bakoteh dumpsite.
In an effort to tackle the organic waste problem, WasteAid, a UK-based NGO, in partnership with Kanifing Municipal Council (KMC) & Women’s Initiative The Gambia, has been awarded €100,000 by the EU Global Climate Change Alliance (GCCA+) to pilot an innovative approach to divert organic waste into productive materials.
“The Greater Banjul Area is a coastal environment, so you get problems with toxins leaking from the dumpsite into the water table and the sea,” says Ingrid Henrys, WasteAid Project Coordinator in The Gambia. “In the past they also burned trash there and that caused smoke and pollution problems for local people, as well as the flies from organic waste. Now burning has been banned and a fence has been built around the dumpsite to stop rubbish blowing away, but the problem remains of how to reduce the amount of organic waste being dumped there.”
As a first step, the women gardeners who grow fruit and vegetables to sell in the markets are being taught how to turn organic waste into compost.
“It’s very important to get the women involved, because it’s mostly women who do the small-scale fruit and vegetable growing in the city,” explains Ingrid. “We’re starting with 30 women farmers from two gardens, and the women themselves will choose who takes part in the pilot. After they are trained, they will be able to pass their skills and knowledge onto the others.”
Turning organic waste into compost will enable the women gardeners to reduce their reliance on chemical fertilisers. “When we talked to them, we realised they were spending a serious amount of money on chemicals, but their productivity was going down each year,” says Lamin S. Sanyang, Director of Services at KMC. “If they switch to organic compost it will not only save them money, but it will also be better for soil fertility.”
Ingrid points to another benefit. “We also need to protect the women’s health. Often they use these chemical fertilisers without any protective equipment, and they have no control over what it is or how much they use.”
The Gambia’s waste problem goes back decades. “One of the biggest issues was the lack of vehicles to collect waste,” says Lamin. “There was no proper waste collection, so people just used to dump it in the street and in the rivers, which in turn caused disease and pollution. Some communities resorted to burning the rubbish, which also affected their health. During the rainy season there were flash floods because the drains were blocked up with trash. So we decided to take action, and devised the Mbalit Project - Mbalit is the local name for waste.”
The GCCA+ funded WasteAid programme builds on the Mbalit Project by diverting biodegradable waste away from the dumpsite and turning it into both compost and biochar - a form of charcoal made from biomass - which can be sold for cooking fuel.
“It’s not just the women gardeners who benefit, the market vendors are really happy as well,” adds Lamin. “In the past, the rubbish wasn’t always collected on time and was left to rot. If the waste is properly managed, it will reduce the number of flies.”
It’s early days for the pilot project, which was launched at Abuko market in July - but it’s already created a stir.
“The word has spread very quickly, especially after the official launch,” says Ingrid. “It was covered on the local TV and radio and social media - the training hasn’t started yet but already people are interested in it. The Gambia is a very agricultural economy, producing a lot of organic waste, but most of it goes to the dumpsite when it could be used as compost. Many farmers don’t compost because they don’t know about it, or they think it takes too much time and effort. But the way they farm is really degrading the soil.”
Ingrid’s enthusiasm for nature and the climate is already rubbing off on the women gardeners.
“Wow, this is indeed a great achievement. Our production level will increase,” says Fatou Ceesa*. “We have been working this garden for many decades, but our production levels have remained the same. But with this project, our production will increase, and our lives will be improved. We can now get a good price for our vegetables and continue paying our children’s school fees, as well as paying medical bills.”
“I have a passion for environmental and biodiversity protection, and I am always trying new composting techniques at home,” laughs Ingrid. “I also really love to empower women - so this project really brings it all together!”
*Not her real name, for reasons of confidentiality.