Recycling, upcycling and women’s empowerment: how Gambia tackles the waste issue


In Gambia, a group of women have created an initiative to manage waste and turn it into a resource for themselves and local populations. Their latest challenge: how to make it big.


Human life generates tremendous amounts of waste and handling it is a major environmental issue for today and the future. Waste generates greenhouse gases when it is created, collected, destroyed and re-processed. Of all the types of waste mankind creates every day, plastic is perhaps the most common and the most polluting, as it can take centuries to degrade naturally, and is often incinerated, generating toxic gases. To address the issue, the recycling industry is developing fast. For the first time in the history of mankind, a major sector of the economy is dedicated not to production but to handling the by-products of other activities. But the industry is not equally advanced everywhere in the world, and emerging and developing countries often lack the proper infrastructures to deal with waste. And in the absence of public policies and strategies on the matter, populations are often left alone with their waste – and come up with local solutions to handle it.

The Njau Recycling and Income Generation Group in Gambia

In Gambia, for instance, an interesting initiative has developed over the past few years: the Njau Recycling and Income Generation Group (NRIGG), founded by Isatou Ceesay in 1997. It is a revolutionary recycling project, based on the community and on the principles of women’s empowerment. As The Guardian explains in an article about the initiative,

NRIGG is based in four separate communities across the country – the members collect the materials themselves and transport them by hand to their centre, which is often just somebody’s compound.

So far this simple set-up has allowed 100 women to secure a steady income: the NRIGG is not just tackling an environmental problem, it also provides jobs and livelihoods.

There is also an educational element to the story, since Ceesay aims to help people learn more about how to deal with their own waste – by providing training on home composting, for instance. The organisation also circulates information on the environmental and health hazards linked with burning plastic, and promotes reuse, recycling and upcycling. The latter is perhaps the most original part of the project. The NRIGG have come up with their own sorting system (organics, paper, plastic, metals and glass) and developed end markets, when possible, for each material. While there is a natural market for metal, for instance, they have had to devise ways to “turn waste into wealth” and give new life to materials like plastic. “Plastics are separated and stored to be upcycled into everything from robust, long life bags to mats and purses. Rubber is turned into necklaces. Old cassette and video tapes are even woven into purses. This is combined with other non-waste activities, including honey production, production of waxes, creams and batiks,” according to The Guardian’s article.

The next step for the project: make it even bigger, which means getting the people and the authorities on board. Not an easy task, but with such a sustainable model, they should find a way to be heard.

Photo © Shutterstock /Pedro Miguel Sousa

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