In this second special report from The Gambia, CIWM’s Immediate Past President Dr Anna Willetts describes the complex issues behind textile reuse and how the circular economy network has earned itself a new name.
Textile waste is a fascinating issue in The Gambia and something that the delegation from CIWM and WasteAid was keen to study on our recent fact-finding visit to the country. Wayne Hubbard, CEO at ReLondon, is particularly interested in learning about how textiles can be kept in circulation for longer and prevented from ending up in landfill or incineration.
He explains to me that fashion supply chains are very long, and the transport of clothing causes significant social and environmental problems. Londoners, like the rest of the UK population, consume huge amounts of clothing – more than any other European citizen. The effect of fast fashion is that clothing is less durable and doesn’t last as long.
Vast amounts of used clothing from the UK and the ‘global north’ are sent to markets in Africa, Asia and Eastern Europe.
“Most unwanted clothing ends up in charity shops, but they cannot possibly sell everything they have back into the UK market,” Wayne tells me. “Vast amounts of used clothing from the UK and the ‘global north’ are sent to markets in Africa, Asia and Eastern Europe, with Ghana being the largest hub in Africa. From here, clothes are sent around the globe, but what happens to them next is not really known.”
Indeed, from the moment we landed on the tarmac at Banjul Airport, evidence of imported second-hand clothing was clearly visible: one of the ground crew wearing a fluorescent tabard with the name of a well-known supermarket on the back.
As we drove into town from the airport, imported clothes were on sale everywhere: from shops, market stalls and blankets by the side of the road. They are proudly advertised as “imported” – a mark of status and quality.
In some ways, this is excellent circularity: perfectly good garments, unwanted by their original owners, being used by others and kept in circulation for longer. But there are two sides to every story.
Youma Wally-Ndong is a fashion designer who has spent time in Europe and now runs the Bakoteh Production and Innovation Centre (BPIC) in The Gambia. She told me that imported second-hand clothes are dominating the market and squeezing out locally made clothes.
“People think they are better quality than the locally produced clothing, to the point where there is now very little local industry,” she says. “In fact, there are so few textile manufacturers that, if a machine breaks down, no uniforms can be made for the police.”
There is a huge demand for clothes from the UK and EU in countries such as The Gambia, but this can be at the expense of a thriving local industry.
BPIC is currently offering business development training to The African Swag, which hopes to redress the balance by offering locally made clothing and accessories, often using repurposed materials – for example, aprons that incorporate bubble wrap.
Clearly, there are complex issues to be considered here. Wayne says: “There is a huge demand for clothes from the UK and EU in countries such as The Gambia, but this can be at the expense of a thriving local industry.
“Also, we have no control over the disposal of any unsold or unwanted clothing. It is common for rubbish to be burnt on open fires or disposed of in dumpsites with no sanitary controls. Ultimately, of course, we cannot escape the fact that we need to buy fewer clothes, of better quality, that we make last longer by sharing, repairing and cherishing.”
The vision of The Gambia’s Circular Economy Network is a kind of “CIWM lite”, but it’s been named locally as Dennakuwo, meaning “together we can”. To date, the project has focused its efforts in the Greater Banjul Area, which is home to 26% of Gambia’s population and where a lack of waste-management systems leads to significant health risks, marine pollution and climate-changing emissions.
For the past 18 months, WasteAid has engaged with a wide range of stakeholders through training and networking events, educating people about the benefits of a more circular approach to various waste streams, including textiles, plastics and organic waste.
It also ran a challenge, giving businesses the opportunity to access training and seed funding. The winner of this was Plastics Recycling Gambia, which is using the investment to speed up the collection of up to 30 million tonnes of plastic each year that would otherwise end up in landfill. The organisation is also employing 20 people.
WasteAid is working on creative methodologies to promote behavioural change, using art and music. A 200m long wall surrounding Banjul’s current waste-dump site has been painted with a mural depicting positive reasons to keep materials in circulation.
Dennakuwo now numbers more than 200 members, and I loved seeing how many activists, councils, private sector organisations and creatives it has brought together, all with a common purpose: to clean up The Gambia.
We cannot escape the fact that we need to buy fewer clothes, of better quality, that we make last longer by sharing, repairing and cherishing.
The ideas we saw and heard from the members we met on our visit were fascinating and encouraging, and I really feel that we can learn a lot from the way things are approached here. Something that made a big impression was a discussion with a member of Dennakuwo over lunch.
She asked me: “How is it that you are a doctor?”
I replied that I have a PhD in landfill engineering and that my interest in the waste sector had stemmed from my dad’s career and my degree in geology. I will never forget her reply: “I would really like to do a PhD. I didn’t know girls could do them.”
I had completely misunderstood her question. The limitations on education and career advancement are significant in The Gambia, and it made me stop and think about what we take for granted in the UK.
I really hope that our discussion, and the networking opportunities provided by Dennakuwo, will help her to make the advances she wants.
In the third and final article in this series, Anna will look at the work of the local authority and newly formed waste collection systems in The Gambia.