Extreme E – Taking Senegal into the EcoZone

EcoZone is many things to different people: on one facet, it means the creation of EcoBriques, supporting local farmers, planting trees or something else entirely.

When Extreme E finally came to Senegal for the Ocean X Prix of its inaugural season, we had the opportunity to venture out there to see some of the work being carried out as part of EcoZone for ourselves. Eagle-eyed readers will remember when we spoke to Senegalese entrepreneur Stephan Senghor previously.

Our previous conversation was carried out virtually, but this time, we were able to meet the man himself, and see the impact of EcoZone on local communities, as well as learn about the practicalities behind these projects that EcoZone entails. It all starts with a trip back down memory lane, and back to school…

Back to school

When you do a side-by-side comparison to the UK, Senegal is a much younger country, and this is something that strikes you as soon as you take a glance at the people in the street. Its population is so young, in fact, that 40 per cent of people in Senegal are aged 0-14; just 17 per cent of the UK’s population is in this age bracket.

A younger population means more resources must be devoted to ensure that enough of the younger people are able to progress on into adulthood with a good education, but up until recently, the environment wasn’t a common feature of the curriculum. However, Stephan Senghor has been on a mission to change all of that, and bring the issues of climate change and caring for the environment closer to home.

In the locality of Niaga Ouolof, Senegal, it was late May, with the Ocean X Prix just a few short days away. Extreme E was receiving a warm welcome from the locals, as they conducted a visit of a local school, followed by a fanfare of music and dancing in the sandy yard of a local youth centre, known as “Foyer Des Jeunes et De La Culture” (Youth and Culture Centre). Extreme E racers, as well as Alejandro Agag were in attendance to see for themselves what it meant to see EcoZone in action.

Exams were in progress on the day of the visit to the school, meaning hundreds of the students were unable to join in on the welcoming party. In a nearby patch of soil, there stood a garden, a fenced off assortment of young trees, as well as an orderly stacked pile of what appeared to be plastic bottles densely packed with waste paper and other detritus nearby.

Scientists say plastic can stay in nature for 400 years… so this is why we want to have them for bricks.

To a casual observer, nothing much would seem out of the ordinary, but to those in the know, the trees and the plastic bottles were part of something much bigger: EcoZone. The bottles in question were in fact EcoBriques: discarded plastic bottles which have been collected and densely packed with lighter waste material, for use as makeshift building materials which can be put to further use. Fortunately, Stephan was on-hand to explain precisely how these EcoBriques are created.

“You use a PET bottle, where you capture all the dry non-organic waste that you’re using…wrappers, cardboard, plastic, paper…Here in Senegal, we insist that paper go in, because people are so used to littering that if you start to discriminate between plastic and paper, then you’ll have lots of stuff on the floor.”

The bottles have already been put to use building toilets and public benches, and as Stephan explained, their longevity is assured by the fact that PET plastic is designed to last when the bottles are made in the first place. “Scientists say plastic can stay in nature for 400 years”, he tells us, “so this is why we want to have them for bricks.”

Plastic bottles are a scourge in many countries such as Senegal, as the country is a big importer of plastics from abroad, and bottles are often the best way for people to quench their thirst, as much of the water that flows from taps can be undrinkable. However, bottles are only useful for so long before they are discarded. There is a sense of short-term use without much of a chance to consider the long-term consequences.

Without a solid waste disposal system in place, it’s easy to see how Senegal has had quite a problem on its hands. Imports of fresh plastic items are continuous, but the means with which to dispose of them are less structured, but innovative ideas such as Stephan Senghor’s EcoBriques put these items to good use.

As Stephan told us, “We have started promoting EcoBriques since 2013. My records show me [we have created] over 300,000 EcoBriques in Senegal.”

By that estimate, that’s at least one brick for each person in the country of Iceland. However, Stephan remarked that this figure might be too conservative admittedly, as he doesn’t have complete control over the initiatives which are based on the work EcoZone has already done.

The creation of EcoBriques goes beyond just Senegal: Stephan alluded to how EcoZone has already been inspiring similar work to create these plastic building materials, with added coaching on projects in countries such as Ghana, Uganda and the Democratic Republic of the Congo.

Saplings in the sand

The Extreme E welcome party’s arrival at the Youth and Culture Centre in Niaga was a hive of activity, with racers themselves and anyone on hand being welcomed to participate in a spot of planting trees and painting a wall in a yard down the street. School children were lined up against the wall, allotted a spot of sandy soil in which to plant a sapling. The plants bore a similarity to the young trees in the yard of the school nearby.

Stephan explained the significance of these saplings: “The trees are Filao which is often used to fix the dunes and provide a barrier to the wind by reforesting the coastal areas where only a few species survive the harsh conditions, such as wind and high salinity.”

The Filao tree, scientifically known as Casuarina Equisetifolia or ‘whistling pines’, grow into tall, slim-trunked trees which are especially good at nitrogen fixing, the process of converting atmospheric nitrogen into ammonia and nitrates which help the host plant to grow. Such a process is only made possible because the plants form a close symbiotic relationship with a special form of bacteria in the nodules of their roots.

Not only do Filao trees keep the soil fertile – as mentioned, they help protect the soil from coastal erosion, because their roots run so deep that they can help anchor beach dunes in place and stop them from blowing away like dust on the wind. The children are front and centre of the planting effort for the Filao trees for a very good reason.

“The fact that there is so much attention is an important driver, because we’re giving importance to this…you have to bear in mind that in this society, people take these things as not really important…when you have all this attention, they realise this is something amazing, because we did something amazing.”

Getting children involved in the tree planting as soon as possible helps pass down a positive message of participating into something feel-good and communal. According to Stephan, EcoZone has planted a sizable number of these trees already: “At the school, I know they have planted 500 of them…Here [at the Youth Centre], we have 100…we’re waiting for the rainy season to arrive, to start planting them…so altogether, we’ll have something like 2,500 Filao trees.”

I think that the whole community will embark on changing the face of Lac Rose… This destination needs to reinvent itself…I think that taking the ecological and sustainable path is the only road to go.

Just like the mangroves that Extreme E has helped plant along the Saloum Delta, these Filao saplings are just waiting for the rains to come back over the coming weeks and months. With time, the trees will soon be standing tall, an ever-present reminder of the day that Extreme E came to town. The planting of the Filao trees and the creation of the EcoBriques is encouraged through a points system, and Stephan was able to explain the reasoning behind this.

“The points system is called EcoPoints… the idea was to gratify every green action with some points…it would be a trick to greenifying it…so far, so good. We are still working on people doing it without the points, they have to do it for the good and then once this is instilled, then we add the points system.

“[Participants] know about it: for the EcoBriques, they know that there are points for the EcoBriques, but they still don’t know what the points are going to lead them to, so we’re working on that…it’s super-easy to lose the momentum, so we want them to keep it up and keep the momentum going.”

Keeping the lights on

Localities such as Niaga are drenched in sunlight throughout the day, but by night, they need artificial lights to help both drivers and pedestrians navigate their way along the narrow dusty roads safely. Senegal has trouble with waste disposal, but reliable street lighting is another issue where the locals need a helping hand.

EcoZone has been resorting to helping ensure the installation of lighting systems powered by photovoltaic cells, the most common method of harnessing solar power.

“We had noticed while we were doing diagnostics that a few areas were lacking in safety because there was no lighting”, Stephan explains. “In the project, we integrated lighting up a few spots: the health centre, schools, streets and some high-traffic areas…it increases the time for people to be able to shop and sell, and increases safety in certain areas…it’s another a way of sensitising people towards solar energy.”

Specific places which have benefited from this solar-powered lighting system include the Pink Lake Artisans Market, Niaga Market, as many as three local schools, the aforementioned health centre and many public spaces in Niaga. Safety is paramount, especially with a booming population and increasing levels of traffic, so the lighting has a clear health and safety benefit. However, as Stephan mentioned, it also opens up the possibility of allowing more economic activity for the markets, despite the Sun already setting.

Traditionally, the markets could only operate in sync with the daylight hours, but by harnessing clean solar power, locals can stay open for longer, while pedestrians and drivers alike can move around much safer each night. While Londoners can expect between 50-200 monthly hours of sunshine over the course of the average year, the Senegalese capital of Dakar enjoys between 200-250 monthly hours of sunshine all year round. As a result, the Sun becomes a far greater potential source of power for Senegalese people than for the UK could ever manage.

What can we do? One of the pathways that I know is that we have to explore. One of the solutions that I know is that we cannot stand still and not do anything… the change of mind shift is definitely important

What Stephan Senghor and EcoZone are keen to ensure is that their work attracts enough enthusiasm and support to become self-sustaining in the long run, with minimal need for checking in on projects. Extreme E’s presence in places such as Niaga was already creating a buzz during the visit to the school and community centre.

“I think this operation is going to open up the door…what I’m very proud of is, everywhere I go, they say we’ve never had an event that’s done so much for our community, not one. I’m super-happy because that’s what this is about: it’s about impact, driving change, driving impact and making sure people are feeling the event even if they do not attend the race.”

We asked Stephan what the road ahead looks like: perhaps it’s one which could potentially become a lot more lit up with solar-powered lighting in the evening hours, or one lined with more of those Filao trees. “I think that the whole community will embark on changing the face of Lac Rose”, Stephan predicts. “This destination needs to reinvent itself…I think that taking the ecological and sustainable path is the only road to go.”

As well as encouraging planting of trees, installing those solar-powered lighting systems and promoting the creation of EcoBriques, EcoZone is credited with projects including renovating the local health centre, supporting local farmers through revolving funds as well as promoting the importance of organic waste through composting training. Activities such as these show the true value of bio-agriculture, maintaining a closed loop, using existing biomass to fertilise the next year’s crop, rather than resorting to more artificial fertilisers.

Not only that, but Stephan has also ensured that EcoZone helped train many dozens of local people in eco-construction, an exciting new field suggesting a greener way to build from the ground up, as well as installing public lounges and four water points. These water points, three of which are located in schools and one of which is installed in the market, are crucial, especially to local women, because they give them access to clean drinking water, as well as the means to ensure that products on the market are kept fresh and clean before selling.

In a word, EcoZone is like a seed: it started from small beginnings in the mind of a local entrepreneur, but over the last decade or so, it has taken root and spread itself out, touching people all over the local community surrounding Lac Rose, the Pink Lake. As we mentioned at the beginning, Senegal itself is much like a seed: a young country with a young population, eager to learn and find its place in the world. Projects like EcoZone are unlike anything local people will have ever seen before, but they are no mere flash in the pan.

The trees being planted by the local schoolchildren and Extreme E racers and before their clash on the sandy beaches during the Ocean X Prix will soon grow into sturdy trees. The EcoBriques being created by locals are the building blocks to sturdy structures which could last for years. The other projects are reshaping how the local markets do business and ensure the safety of those navigating the bustling streets of localities such as Niaga for years to come. There’s only one direction for people to go from here that’s onward and upward.

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