Cleaning up Mali's rubbish

By Alex Duval Smith
Bamako, Mali

media captionA start up business in Mali's capital Bamako is serving businesses and Embassies by picking up their rubbish but they have no where to process it, for now.

Hoe in hand, Bafing Traore tends his cucumbers in a field on the outskirts of Mali's capital Bamako.

A big white dustcart emerges from over the horizon. It drives up, stops, sighs, grunts then spews household rubbish all over his plants.

Hoe on shoulder, Bafing, 35, marches up to the truck. ''This is my field. I have been here for three months. Will you please stop dumping here?'' he pleads, showing a bleeding gash on his foot from a piece of glass.

Crew leader Facinet Coulibaly feels for him but says he has no choice.

''This is the site designated for us by the town hall. We have been appalled to discover there is no safety provision. Men, women and children walk through the site. But our company is a going concern. What are we to do with the rubbish?'' asks the 30-year-old general manager of Macrowaste.

Authorities have given start-up company Macrowaste the go-ahead to operate their rubbish collection in Bamako, even though the city does not have a functioning waste disposal plant.

The company is expected to do exactly as the city does with its own dozen dustcarts: fly-tip on spare land.

Beyond donkeys

image captionDonkeys have traditionally been used to move waste in Mali

There is no doubting Bamako's dire need for waste solutions. The city's open sewers are packed with rubbish.

In the central market area you have to step over waves of discarded plastic packaging, bags, old tyres and rotting food remains.

Thousands of small-scale waste entrepreneurs, with donkeys and traps, make a living collecting rubbish.

They charge households 2,000 CFA francs per month ($4; £2.40). Amidst the rubbish they find waste that can be resold, like aluminium cans, electronic circuit boards and thick plastic. Then they tip the remainder wherever they can.

Enter the ex-pats

Macrowaste is the brainchild of two Malians living in the United States - Abdoulaye Tangara, 29, and Lamine Dembele, 35. ''We met on an online forum,'' says Abdoulaye, 29, whose day job is in financial services in Georgia.

''I was doing research into the waste management sector when I met Lamine, who runs a janitorial firm in Philadelphia.

"I obviously took notice when I realised he was Malian. It turned out that we are not only from the same country, our parents come from the same village. Lamine had a longstanding dream to create a waste company in Mali. Soon our conversation grew into how we could do it together.''

They started the firm in 2011 but the March 2012 coup - followed by an Islamist invasion of the north and a national governance crisis - meant business did not get off the ground in earnest until early this year.

Now the company has five dustcarts, imported from France, and nine staff.

Three embassies have signed up for regular rubbish collection, as well as the Fofy foam company, a bank and the office of Prime Minister Moussa Mara. Prices for weekly rubbish collection start at 40,000 CFA francs per month.

'Challenging' environment

General manager Facinet Coulibaly, who has a law degree, handles the day to day running of the company.

image captionFacinet Coulibaly runs the business in Mali; the founders live in the US

''We talk online several times a day, even at night sometimes. Fortunately, the partners are Malian so they understand the complexities of working here, like taxes and fees, problems of water, electricity and internet connectivity.''

Despite reports of widespread corruption in Mali, he denies paying any bribes to start Macrowaste. But he admits it is a ''challenging'' business environment.

''The round of official paperwork can drive you mad. For instance at customs, you go for one signature, only to be told that someone else has to validate it. Only then can you return to the first person for the release of the goods.

''The internet provider offers no after-sales service. If the line goes down, you call once, twice. A day passes and no-one comes. You call again. A second and third day pass. In the end, we have to privately pay the internet provider's technician to do his job,'' he says.

Nearing a solution?

image captionBafing Traore farms the land that Macrowaste also uses to dump rubbish

None of which is a consolation to farmer Bafing Traore. However, he admits that the land on which he is growing cucumbers, groundnuts and okra is not officially his - it is public. ''I would have bought it if I could,'' he says. ''But I can't read and write.''

Bamako councillor Abdoulaye Bassole claims the conflict of use on Macrowaste's dumping site is beyond his control.

''When we designated the site there was no-one farming there. Bamako is growing so fast that new people are settling on the outskirts every day. At the same time a company like Macrowaste is a really positive thing because the city cannot keep up with the waste challenge.''

Facinet Coulibaly says the ''big hope'' for the city is a huge hole currently being dug 45km (28 miles) from the city centre by a Chinese contractor.

Once the waste site is operational, probably later this year, the dustcarts operated by the city authorities and Macrowaste will have a place to dump their loads.

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