This is the story of Pierre, a bioengineer who worked on household waste recovery and recycling in Enabel’s Sanita Clean Cities Programme in Guinea. He looks back at his experience, which began a few months before the health crisis, his achievements and the mutual learning that came from working on the project with a young Guinean trainee?
A sanitation project on expertise and environmental care
Pierre, a bioengineer by training, went to Conakry to develop urban household waste recovery systems. He contributed to Enabel’s Sanita Clean Cities Programme, an urban development and sanitation programme in Guinea, funded by the European Union, which aims to professionalise the solid waste management sector in the capital Conakry and the town of Kindia. The aim is to improve door-to-door collection, sorting and recycling of waste as well as improving road management and gutter cleaning to better deal with rainwater runoff.
Owing to the Covid-19 pandemic, Pierre was repatriated to Belgium for a few months during his contract term. Although he continued to work from a distance thanks to telework, he was not able to progress as hoped in his work. He therefore wanted to extend his contract by 6 months to achieve the annual objectives that had been assigned to him.
How did the adventure in Guinea start? What were your first impressions upon arrival?
After graduating as a bioengineer at the end of 2018, I flew out to Guinea to join the urban sanitation project as an Environment Junior Expert. It was a great personal and professional challenge. A personal challenge because it was the first time I went abroad alone for such a long period. A professional challenge because it was really my first professional experience in an unknown area of expertise.
That is how I arrived in Conakry for a year, or more eventually, even though that term was interrupted. Leaving a Belgian winter for a Guinean dry season, with emotions divided between the pain of the “goodbyes” and the joy of the many “hellos” to come.
Conakry is a capital where the five senses are constantly stimulated, for better or for worse. It is a city teeming with smells, movement, noise, and waste… Although this pollution does not seem to hinder the good mood and joy of life of the city’s inhabitants, the importance and the stakes of the project I am joining are palpable, the challenge is great!
These first glimpses of the city gave meaning to my initial motivation to contribute to the sanitation of this city. Convinced and motivated, I joined the Enabel team of the Sanita Clean Cities Programme. It is a team of 40 employees with a wide range of skills. This interdisciplinary team is well placed to respond to the range of interventions planned by the project: the construction of sanitation infrastructures, capacity building of stakeholders, development of the waste management system, digitisation, awareness raising, etc.
What does an Environment Junior Expert do in practice within such a project?
In this large team, I am in charge of developing recovery and recycling channels for household waste. I start with a blank page on which I am given all the autonomy and trust necessary to take action.
The first priority for recovery was organic waste, which represents the largest volume of waste. I therefore began by creating a better outlet for this organic matter than the landfill. This is how a pilot composting platform came into being, where we were able to experiment with the transformation of fermentable waste into organic fertiliser for peri-urban market gardening.
This composting pilot also allowed me to go to Kindia, a small secondary town, where this pilot is scheduled for duplication. This was an opportunity for me to meet with farmers’ organisations and discuss the issue of agricultural inputs. These numerous field meetings and workshops set the course for the development of this “compost value chain” with a view to addressing the expectations of local agriculture.
Subsequently, there was talk of creating recovery channels for other categories of waste (plastics, metals, electronic appliances, etc.). But before rushing headlong into actions that are not relevant to the local context, we first investigated the various recovery actors already present in the capital. Indeed, although not very visible and difficult to identify, many are already active in the recycling of these recoverable materials. Whether their activity is industrial or artisanal, it was necessary to understand and analyse the existing situation in order to provide suitable ways of strengthening it.
For these field investigations, I recruited a team of professional investigators. Together, we criss-crossed the streets of the capital in search of recycling actors acting in the shadows. We also met with production (packaging, etc.) and recycling companies to identify the strengths and weaknesses of each sector. These hundreds of surveys highlighted the flows of materials already finding outlets and allowed mapping these recovery circuits and estimating the quantities processed, the qualities of materials sought, the unsatisfied needs…
The conclusion was clear, although activity is intense already, the waste recovery channels for plastics and appliances should be better structured and organised. As for the metal waste value chain, it was clear that it could do without our intervention.
What are you most proud of after a year and a half in the field?
My mission is coming to an end. The first batches of compost are maturing and are ready to be spread in school fields
Synergies with stakeholders active in strengthening entrepreneurship have been established to initiate the development of promising value chains. A new Junior Expert has arrived to take over my current activities.
I am also very happy that the Guinean trainee that I had recruited was hired to join the project team because of his experience and knowledge of the sector acquired during his internship. But also, another staff member has joined the team to ensure a good follow-up of the recovery activities, which keep on increasing.
What have you learned on a personal and professional level through this experience?
On a personal level, this experience gave me the opportunity to discover an unknown country that revealed new facets every day. In Guinea, the tunnel of discovery and surprise is endless. Even if the unwelcoming environment of Conakry could dissuade many travelers, one must see further, higher.
“The hospitality and kindness of its inhabitants alone cleanses the atmosphere of the city!”
Professionally, I was lucky that this first professional experience offered so much autonomy and a high level of responsibility. The trust given by my colleagues in the exercise of my functions was precious to serenely carry out the various actions which awaited me. My personal initiatives were always welcomed.
“Although I am a “Junior” on paper, my colleagues have always considered me “responsible” for my work. By being seen as a leader, I was able to act like one!”
What did you like about your work?
My work has been so varied that I could not settle in a routine. The numerous meetings allowed me to meet people from all walks of life. It was for instance possible in one and the same week to meet a mayor, a blacksmith, a minister, a farmer, a company director, an informal waste collector…
What have you learned from your experience with the Junior Programme?
Through the Junior Programme I explored the world of development cooperation, I was able to review certain preconceived ideas about the sector and I learned about the conditions for a project to be successful, the limits of intervention, etc. My view of cooperation is now more critical and informed.
Although I don’t necessarily want a career in sanitation, this experience has developed my expertise in this field considerably. The strength of SDG 6 “Clean Water and Sanitation” is surely that it involves both improving human health and protecting the environment!
“Seeing that the work in progress is in good hands, I certainly fly away with a heavy heart but a serene mind!”
How do you see the future of the Junior Programme?
I came back to Belgium recently. I looked for a new professional opportunity in the environmental sector, in cooperation or beyond. Pierre found a job as Health-Environment Officer at Inter-Environment Wallonia.
The diversity of the activities carried out and the initiation to project management in a difficult context such as Guinea is an undeniable asset on the job market, both in Belgium and internationally.
I don’t want to go abroad again in the immediate future. The experience I had in Guinea has to be assimilated and a little stability will allow me to have enough distance on “where” I want to go next.
In conclusion, I recommend the Junior Programme to any young person who finds himself or herself in some of the following key words: traveller, curious, hesitant, committed, questioning, lacking experience… In other words, any young person in search of meaning and wishing to get involved in a sustainable transition.
“Together, wherever we live, let’s roll up our sleeves! Even as a junior and without any proven experience, we can add value. “