Stephan Senghor speaking about EcoZone with the Extreme E crew

Stephan Senghor – building a new future for Senegal

Senegal is a country brimming with potential, but lacking in the tools it needs to grow its economy in a sustainable way.

The West African country is home to over 16 million people, many of whom speak French, or a variety of other native languages. Having gained its independence in 1960, the country is still findings its feet economically and socially.

The Republic of Senegal had a GDP per capita worth just $1,546 in 2018, significantly lower than that of the UK ($43,324). It could take many more years of economic development in order for the country to enjoy the standard of living many of us take for granted in the UK and other western countries.

Responsibility is what we all need to learn and take back. We can all do a little something, and that little something we have to respect as it brings people together to make the change that we need

But does economic development have to mean becoming a society where consumption is the end of all means, in which the population enjoys prosperity at the expense of the natural environment? Stephan Senghor is a Senegalese entrepreneur with a vision of a country that could strike its own path, but to do so, the country needs the will and the resources to develop itself sustainably.

Taking the bin collection for granted

While we sat in wintry Britain starting our conversation with Stephan, over in Senegal, it was hard not to notice the radically different environment he was immersed in. Even during the early months of the year, owing to its proximity to the equator, Senegal can experience blisteringly hot temperatures, ranging from 40 degrees celsius in the interior to a soothing 28 degrees by the coast.

The country has a unique set of issues, and the climate has shaped the way in which the society has grown. In 2010, Senegal reportedly produced 250,000 tons of mismanaged plastic waste, much of which flowed straight into the ocean. This led Senegal to being christened the 21st greatest ocean polluter in the world.

Stephan was born and raised in Quebec, Canada, studying in Montreal, before making the momentous decision to move to Senegal in 2006. Upon his arrival, he saw a stark difference between the world he had left behind and the one he now found himself in.

“One thing that I have noticed…was that, when it comes to basic social services that are vital for every human being, I saw that this was really neglected”, Stephan claims. A report by the World Bank from 2020 estimated that half of Senegalese people lack access to some form of routine waste collection service.

The average Brit truly takes the weekly bin collection for granted. Imagine living in a country where you continue to have the luxury of, say, being able to get a plastic bottle of fizzy drink or some other consumer product on a regular basis, as we do in the UK, but without being able to dispose of it in an environmentally friendly manner. Plastic feels cheap, easy to acquire, and highly disposable, so it’s easy to see how a problem can develop. Now imagine that bins continue to fill up, but the bin lorries never come.

People like instant solutions, they want everything to be fast and they want a solution to be quick and it’s not possible in this case

The bins continue to fill up, but there’s no exit strategy for the plastic waste you produce.

In Senegal, this is precisely what can happen. Understandably, as living standards rose, the people began to embrace a more Western way of living, continuing to import a large volume of plastic consumer products as the economy grew, despite lacking the infrastructure to handle it. All that plastic has had to go somewhere, and if it couldn’t be disposed of properly, it simply piled up and now we know how damaging it has been to the natural environment.

Stephan could see the urgent need to stem this rising tide of waste, but could see little signs of public discourse moving in a way to resolve the matter.

The building blocks of the future

Having worked in a high-flying banking job in Montreal, Stephan swapped the world of Canadian finance for a totally different pursuit in Senegal. As time wore on, Stephan had made a name for himself as a local entrepreneur, who saw an opportunity to change the situation for the better. “I said, ok, why not try some initiatives? I’ve been doing clean-ups for over 10 years now”, Stephan adds.

The Wall Street Journal reported on a scheme Stephan had conceived, in which plastic waste could be collected and melted down before being reformed into plastic bricks (or EcoBriques) which could be used to line the pavements of Dakar, the capital city of Senegal.

“A few years ago, I had done several attempts to launch a recycling business”, Stephan explains. “It’s a community where fish are scarce…partly because of how we treat the oceans, and also because of the fact that the fish are being taken abroad by larger fishing vessels.”

Local fishermen faced dwindling catches and a shortage of jobs hit local women particularly hard. Stephan proposed hiring these women to help collect plastic bottles and other such forms of waste, but hit a stumbling block. “I was a little bit disappointed first, because the work was not taken seriously. It was waste, so culturally, it was nothing. They really thought I was crazy. Like, what does he do with all these bottles? This guy is completely crazy, but he’s paying a little something, so let’s take advantage. That was the attitude I faced on this side.”

Stephan’s green jobs resulted in his business amassing a stockpile of empty plastic bottles but it was just a question of what to do with them. Things turned on their head, when Stephan got word of a German engineer who had come up with a technique in which they had taken plastic bottles, filled them with sand and transformed them into building materials. After getting in touch with the engineer, Stephan was able to fly him out to Senegal to train his employees to help make something new out of the waste plastic – Stephan’s very own EcoBriques.

EcoZone and Extreme E

Fast-forward a few years, and Extreme E is preparing to open its inaugural racing season. On 29th-30th May 2021, racers will come together for the second leg of the first season, Ocean X Prix, hosted at Lac Rose (‘the Pink Lake’), a mere 30km from Dakar. Lac Rose is famed for its pinkish, salty waters, caused by the presence of a special form of algae which inhabit the lake.

But Extreme E’s interests in Senegal extend far beyond the race at Lac Rose in May. Extreme E has unveiled an ambitious Legacy Programme in the country, with three distinct activities in mind. The first involves an extensive mangrove reforestation project, alongside an educational project among local communities, as well as work to improve social cohesion in the country. Stephan’s activities caught the eye of Extreme E, who got in touch and met with him in Dakar. “They asked me to come up with a project that would be interesting in the area of the lake, and we worked with them, with TO.org and I came up with this programme – it’s called EcoZone.”

The idea behind EcoZone is, in Stephan’s words, “to instigate enough positive interactions within the community, in rapport with the environment – micro-projects like schools are doing, including EcoBriques and tree-planting.”

EcoZone will include its very own EcoBrique challenge, where Dakar-based residents will be encouraged to help turn 40 tons of plastic landfill waste into their very own EcoBriques, by simply taking PET bottles and filling them with dry, non-recyclable waste. The challenge is intended to give communities that much-needed spark to stimulate discourse about overcoming Senegal’s urban waste conundrum, while creating an entirely new eco-construction industry.

Carving out a Senegalese future

As previously mentioned, the UK has the luxury of being a country with the resources and the socio-political willpower to keep on top of its rubbish. The Winter of Discontent is perhaps one of the few examples in recent British history in which a chronic lack of refuse collection became a serious problem, as noted in one high-profile case involving Westminster City Council in early 1979. Even so, the incident lasted barely a month, and was confined to the vicinity of Leicester Square.

Dakar and other urban areas in Senegal have been grappling with a mounting plastic waste problem for many years now, coupled with a growing attitude of individual consumerism – yet another export from outside the country which is having a detrimental impact on the environment.

The change of mind shift is definitely important to be able to make a positive difference

“We have tasted the fact that everybody wants to decide for themselves, and do their own thing”, according to Stephan. “When someone decides to throw something onto the street, it’s a highly political action.”

In order to live a more prosperous yet sustainable life, the people of Senegal are having to figure out how to reconcile their own aspirations for a better life, while also taking responsibility for the impacts of their growing consumer lifestyles. As so many Senegalese people lack access to adequate waste collection services, it falls to ordinary citizens to keep an eye on illegal rubbish dumps, and this is where the latest in AI technology could offer a helping hand.

“You need citizens to be part of the solution in making sure that they can, through citizen science, offer some information of where the service needs to be given. If I am geo-localising a few areas where we have illegal trash, it’s possible for municipalities to use that application and make sure that this is where we have some spots to clean.”

Applications such as TrashOut can be used to alleviate a phenomenon Stephan refers to as “trash blindness” – TrashOut is a free-to-download smartphone app which allows users to take images and tag them to a specific location, before reporting them as illegal dump sites. The app not only lets users notify authorities about these sites, but also suggests local dumps where any waste could be disposed of properly.

Using this kind of data gives Senegalese people their own way of solving the problem of uncontrolled waste disposal. Stephan admits that “The most frequent answer that I hear about is that we do not have enough means…but not all the time. If we really put the focus in engagement to solve something, then the means are here. The uneasy part is, once you touch those questions, you hit different types of interests that aren’t necessarily aligned.”

For many outsiders, Extreme E’s Ocean X Prix will be the first time we get to see the beauty of Senegal’s natural environment, but as with so many things in life, there’s so much more going on under the surface. Senegal is on the cusp of a pivotal moment in its history, and the actions taken individually and collectively will have a profound impact on the country for generations to come.

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