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Tanzania's Rubbish Mountains: The problem is messy, and so are the solutions

Less than half of Dar es Salaam's 4,600 tonnes of daily waste reaches the landfill, and poorer neighbourhoods have been tasked with finding their own fixes. Author Duncan Green discusses how Palladium's I4ID programme is using Adaptive Management (AM) to help.

It may not set the pulse racing, but rubbish disposal (formally known as solid waste management, SWM) is a big deal in any city, and is really bad in Dar es Salaam. Here’s how the Institutions for Inclusive Development (I4ID) programme describes the problem:

‘Waste collectors must plough their way through a mound of hurdles. The government provides waste collectors with little subsidy or help with fee collection. Many residents fail to pay refuse collection charges because their service has got so bad, and the only legal dumpsite is dangerous and out of control, a long way from the city.’

The resulting accumulation of rubbish and illegal dumping sites is not only ugly and smelly, but dangerous: Soil and water contamination affects public health and marine life, while the build-up of rubbish in waterways contributes to devastating and deadly flooding every year.

How can a relatively small AM programme like I4ID make a dent on Dar’s rubbish mountain?

To find out, we visited three venues that gave us a sense of the range of Dar’s SWM challenges and how AM approaches can help resolve them. First up 10 flights of stairs in a grimy office block, we meet GreenWaste Pro, a modern company collecting rubbish in some of the richer parts of Dar – their 450 employees serve an estimated one million people.

The system, where residents can pay, works by companies winning a licence to manage a whole Ward, to collect fees set by government (50p per family per month), collect their garbage, and keep the streets clean.

The main barrier to Greenwaste’s expansion is non-payment, so they’re trying some tech innovation. Next week, they are attaching small plaques with RFID chips to the front doors of some of their customers, so they can monitor their payments. The politically smart bit was getting the municipal government to agree to having its logo on them – that means residents won’t touch them. In exchange, the government is hoping the data from the chips can help it with tax collection, among other things.

I4ID’s contribution is paying for the 5,000 RFID tags for an initial pilot (the company has its own bright young techie who developed the idea – no need for tech help there), brokering a relationship with University of Dar es Salaam Data Lab who helped with the open source mapping tool and an army of students to go door to door installing the tags and gathering information, and a plan to broker conversations with other waste companies to advocate for much needed reforms.

Then it’s off to a giant dusty packing shed, where Allen Kimambo, a classically hyperactive and driven entrepreneur, has set up Zaidi, a company that recycles cardboard. Now he wants to move into ‘white paper’ as well. As we talk, two women in dust masks are sifting through piles of paper collected mainly from big corporate offices and embassies. Here I4ID is paying for the initial wage bill and some technical support – Allen is loudly appreciative of the technical advice he’s had from a recycler-cum-consultant, who I4ID is hiring to advise both Zaidi and Greenwaste.

By some estimates, less than half of Dar’s 4,600 tonnes of daily waste reaches the landfill. Less than five per cent of the city’s wards are served by formally regulated companies, mainly in the richer and commercial parts of Dar (or as one I4ID staffer puts it: ‘the Council wants the sitting room to be clean, but doesn’t care about the sleeping rooms’).

SWM in Dar’s poorer quarters is left to each neighbourhood to manage, where leaders at the lowest tier of government, the mtaa, are responsible for finding a fix. Some leaders take it seriously and are able to source decent service providers, although rubbish collectors often struggle to provide a good service and still break even, while others do deals with their cronies, allowing them to collect some fees while leaving waste uncollected or dumping it in fields and rivers.

So our final visit is to the ‘Cashpoint’ company in a poor area of Dar called Manzese. The ‘office’ is actually Jenny and Kyalo Mbatha’s front room, one of ten households in a busy compound with lines of washing drying over stagnant, evil-looking puddles.

Back in 2008, Jenny was running an M-Pesa (mobile money) kiosk and got annoyed by a large fly-tipping site right opposite her stall. She took matters into her own hands, hired a truck and cleared 4 truckloads of rubbish from the site, then put a watchman on the site to keep it clean. Enterprising local mtaa leaders promptly dropped round and asked if she wanted to take over the waste contract.

She decided to give up the kiosk and go into the waste management business, but found hardly anyone paid their monthly fees. Since then it has been an endless struggle to collect enough fees to make the collection viable, complicated by the additional obligation to keep the ward clean – so you can’t punish non fee-payers’ by leaving their rubbish on the street.

The contrast with the electricity fee system is striking. When the electricity goes off, Kyalo makes a payment via his phone, gets a text code in return and goes outside to tap it into the compound’s meter, the electricity comes on again within minutes. No payment → no electricity, so everyone pays.

Jenny’s fame has spread and she now has contracts for 5 mtaas – about 3000 people. I4ID is supporting her to expand by experimenting with an approach she piloted in her first mtaa – embedding the service charge in a Pay As You Go pre-paid bright green rubbish bag. In the past, Cashpoint has managed to change the culture of payment and get fee payment rates up to 70% in 6 months, then stop using the green bags (they’re expensive) and get people to keep paying.

What’s interesting is that Jenny and Kyalo have already thought of and/or tried every idea we come up with for improving fee collection (and we have at least 2 PhDs in the room). Collective peer pressure, a la microfinance; punish defaulters with delayed collection; a premium service for good payers; name and shame.

Which really got us thinking about I4ID’s ‘USP’ – unique selling point. Just for comparison, the much larger World Bank concluded a few years ago that the institutional breakdowns behind Dar’s rubbish mountain were just too complex and messy for them to get anywhere. Can an adaptive management approach designed precisely to navigate such messiness do any better?

Too early to say. I4ID’s current offer seems to be a combination of technical assistance/research, convening and brokering conversations between players who don’t normally meet, and small pots of quick money to try things out, unblock processes and build relationships. I think it might also be worth drawing on a wider range of knowledge than just TA – for example, exchanges with SWM experiments elsewhere in East Africa. Or exploring the ‘positive deviance’ of people like Jenny – maybe there are lots more frustrated kiosk owners who are dying to tackle Dar’s rubbish problem?

And here’s a short clip from I4ID’s Mary Benda, showing collection day in Manzese – see if you can spot the green bags!

This article originally appeared on Oxfam Blogs and was republished with permission.