Oumar Sarr

Ashoka Fellow
Oumar Sarr
Fellow since 1996
Ashoka commemorates and celebrates the life and work of this deceased Ashoka Fellow.
This description of Oumar Sarr's work was prepared when Oumar Sarr was elected to the Ashoka Fellowship in 1996 .


By introducing locally developed and operated technologies for domestic waste disposal, Oumar Sarr (Senegal 1996) is creating a "virtuous cycle" of environmental education andcommunity action that begins in the household with the sorting of waste and leads to recycling, alternative waste disposal, new community-based enterprise activity and a widening range of local civic action on behalf of a safe and clean urban environment.

The New Idea

Africa's cash-strapped municipal governments simply cannot cope with the ordinary living requirements of their rapidly expanding populations. For the poor, who constitute the majority in all African cities and towns, municipal services-such as water, power, shelter, sewerage, streets, parks, transport and sanitation-are either inadequate or nonexistent. Oumar Sarr believes that the inevitable shift to community-based "self-help" type solutions can be stimulated and accelerated through the introduction of appropriate technologies. He has demonstrated his approach in one of Dakar, Senegal's poorer communities and is now poised to spread it throughout Senegal and the wider West African region. Oumar has devised a neighborhood-based system for domestic waste management that begins with sorting waste in the home, involves thrice-weekly curbside garbage pickup and proceeds to one of three options, depending on the nature of the waste. Flammable waste materials are sorted for nontoxic incineration at a community-built incinerator. The potassium and carbonate rich ash by-products of incineration are then sold to generate project income. A second category is made up of recyclable materials, which are sold. The final part is removed to municipal landfills. The unique contribution of Oumar's approach is the use of new technologies to implicitly educate about the environment and, more to the point, inspire citizen action. Community organizing and education sessions instill in the local population a "culture of environmental protection" that promotes the idea that together members of the community can solve some of their health and sanitation problems without depending on government. As Oumar states, a change in awareness, attitude and behavior is a major key to unlocking household and community efforts to resolve the domestic waste management problem in Senegal. Oumar is convinced that the solidarity and understanding that develop around the "simple solution" of introducing his community waste disposal system also yield a secondary benefit of encouraging citizens, and young people in particular, to seek other creative solutions to the problems facing their communities. Having demonstrated his approach in one poor neighborhood on the outskirts of Dakar, Oumar is facilitating the replication of the model throughout urban Senegal. Simultaneously, he is developing a rural model. The original model was designed for replication at least throughout the Sahel region.

The Problem

Rapid, chaotic and under-managed urbanization in African cities has intensified environmental problems of all types. As the urban environment deteriorates, the health and safety of citizens suffer accordingly. The generation and removal of household waste is one key area of concern to urban planner, and to all citizens concerned about living in a sanitary and healthy environment. As Africa's urban areas have expanded over the past decade with the influx of rural migrants, and as urban consumption habits are taken up by greater numbers of people, the amount of waste produced has grown exponentially. Senegal currently produces more than 900,000 kilograms of household waste per day, and this amount is estimated to be increasing at an annual rate of seven percent. Reductions in public spending have made it increasingly difficult for local governments to keep pace with the expanding need for waste removal services, leading to erratic and disorganized waste collection in the best of circumstances. Where services do function most household waste collected by removal is trucked to environmentally suspect landfill sites. The landfill site for Senegal's capital city, Dakar, for example, is situated in the middle of an area that serves as the filtration site for the aquifer providing the city's water supply. This landfill, which should have been closed years ago, has expanded to the point where it threatens to poison the city's main water supply. In the outlying, poorer, marginalized neighborhoods of Dakar the situation is even worse. Municipal waste disposal services have broken down completely, and these fast-growing, sprawling settlements are most often left to devise their own solutions to the problem of waste removal. Nearly all families dispose of their waste in a nearby open area on the edge of their neighborhood, and those living within easy reach of the coastline dump their waste into the sea. Various attempts to deal with this problem have failed, mainly because they have sought to resolve the problem by importing capital intensive incineration equipment that is well beyond the means of municipal budgets. A state industrial initiative for waste incineration to produce compost was opened in 1968 and abandoned two years later due to many factors, including, as Oumar deduced, the fact that the waste collected was not sorted at any time during the process. As public services have deteriorated, African citizen sector leaders have come to appreciate the need for citizen initiative and grassroots participation in all aspects of social services and development. With the 1993 launch of Civil Forum in Dakar, a voluntary citizens' lobby, impetus was given to stimulate and organize citizen-based initiatives for social development in Senegal. Oumar formulated his community waste management system cum environmental education and action program within the framework of the Civil Forum, which he serves as a founding member and Head of the Environmental Section.

The Strategy

Oumar developed his pilot demonstration with a community based in the largest and perhaps most chaotically unfolding peri-urban area adjacent to Dakar, called "Parcelles Assainies" (an unintentionally ironic name that means "salubrious plots" in English). This area is growing rapidly in a mostly unregulated fashion, and its inhabitants, many of whom live in over-built-up areas inaccessible to vehicles, are confronted by urgent problems of waste disposal and other problems of environmental sanitation. His project began by sharing his vision with community leaders and a local youth association, inviting them to make it their own. He explained how the youth could gain skills through building the mini-incinerator, how the community would benefit from regular household waste pickup, how the entire enterprise would be very low cost and self-financing and how it would initiate environmental learning and action. For several months he devoted all his spare time to marketing his idea by speaking at social, religious, sport and civil gatherings in the community. He encouraged the community to act to resolve its problems rather than to wait for outside assistance from the government. His appeal to their sense of civic duty gained credibility from his visible and persistent example and because that he operated under the umbrella of the Civil Forum. He was able to explain that Civil Forum would also provide modest resources for the construction of a prototype incinerator. He also secured a donation of land from the local marabout (religious leader) to serve as the site for the construction of his model mini-incinerator. In due course, a citizens' committee made up of local leaders and technical experts (who were to function as trainers) was formed to manage and oversee the pilot project. The committee's role is to mobilize community involvement, transfer training techniques and collect and manage household user fees. With the citizens' committee established and the youth association interested and involved, the next step was to conduct a survey of all households in the project zone asking occupants about their interest in the problem, the contents of their solid waste, and their desire to take part in the project. Both a way to secure data and the beginning of an ongoing process public education, the survey was undertaken mainly by the youth group, providing them with new skills and an exciting new role in the community. Simultaneously, Oumar worked with a pair of local artisans to adapt his incinerator design to local construction materials, skills and production practices. This led him to extend the chimney so that the furnace would draw better, as well as to make other modifications and improvements. Construction of the mini-incinerator was supervised by volunteer engineers and construction workers with labor provided by the youth, who gained building skills. Local materials were used whenever possible. The type of clay required was not available locally, but Oumar persuaded a friend who owns a small transport operation to haul in clay from a region outside Dakar whenever one of his vehicles was returning empty to the city. Observing the state failures at incinerating and recycling domestic solid waste, and knowing the health and environmental risks from incinerating certain common household waste, Oumar understood that the model depended upon households sorting and separating their waste. He notes that recycling and disposal would be made much easier if sorting were done within the home. A change in attitude, however, lies at the heart of successfully implementing the model. "We are the individuals that generate the waste," says Oumar, "and we have to take responsibility for what we throw away and how we do it." In the model, as demonstrated in the pilot, community committees "own and operate" the waste disposal program, with Oumar and other Civil Forum leaders serving as voluntary technical and management advisers. The combination works well. In Customs City, for example, the citizens' committee manages the thrice-weekly waste collection and incineration service (an owner-operator with a horse cart and two local youth whose salaries are partly met by user fees and partly by the sale of recyclables). The fact that users willingly pay fees for curbside waste pickup is in itself noteworthy as previously they paid no fees for the municipal service, which unreliably picked up waste from one point in a four-block radius. Oumar, in addition to designing and supervising the testing of the incinerator, showed the management committee how to harvest the potassium rich by-product found in the ashes of incinerated waste. This by-product can be used in the traditional process of making soap, for local use and sale. Another carbonate by-product can also be used to revive a traditional dyeing scheme, producing a type of dyed cloth that is much sought after. Sales from these by-products generate income for managing the project, while at the same time providing local community associations, such as women's groups, the opportunity to undertake modest income-generating activities. The potential for replication of this low-cost scheme is encouraging. The pilot model has already been extended to immediately adjacent communities. The test incinerator now covers around 120 households with capacity to spare. The publicity around the official inauguration of the incinerator project in May 1996, attended by the Minister for Cities and other notables, has generated interest from communities outside the huge Parcelles Assainies housing area. Oumar has prepared carefully for the current replication phase. He has secured a formal agreement with the local youth association to undertake aspects of the education and training associated with spreading the idea through the greater Dakar area. Looking beyond Dakar, Oumar has begun to set up a series of demonstrations that will touch every region of the country, allowing adjustments to the incinerator design and larger strategy according to existing local materials and conditions. One such idea is to add an organic composting dimension for the rural areas where peasant farmers have become dependent on expensive and polluting chemical fertilizers. He is engaging the Senegalese Youth Movement, which is organized as Sporting and Cultural Associations throughout the country, to help spread the model, and is now designing a training program for the Movement in environmental awareness, sanitation and the construction and operation of the mini-incinerator approach. As he rolls out his model, Oumar is tapping national government interest. After reviewing the initial pilot project, the Minister for Youth and Sports asked Oumar to construct thirteen incinerators spread throughout the four largest cities in Senegal. To realize this project, Oumar will also put 50 local government officials from the thirteen target regions through his training program who will, in turn, train others in their respective regions. Oumar will then supervise the construction of the thirteen mini-incinerators and the more sensitive activity of community organizing and training. For the future, Oumar envisions the mini-incinerator initiative devolving to local voluntary groups-in schools, in neighborhoods, in women's or sporting or cultural associations-throughout the country. Through this approach he expects to change peoples' attitudes not only about the management of domestic waste, but to forge a new sense of community responsibility for self-development.

The Person

Born in 1952, Oumar grew up in a traditional family in a modest neighborhood in Dakar. A resourceful and practical person, Oumar was inspired by his father, who convinced him that he could have anything he wanted if he worked hard enough for it. Oumar recollects how, as a young boy, he collected and sold empty bottles in order to go to the local cinema. As a young man, Oumar was active in his local sporting and cultural association, organizing community events such as theater productions, dances and football matches, and becoming a champion comic among his peers. Through merit selection, he gained entry into the exclusive William Ponty School in Thies, enabling him to get on a track to university education. Oumar excelled in university, where he earned his doctorate in chemistry and become a lecturer in 1979. Oumar has since had a distinguished research and teaching career in chemistry at the Dakar University. He has traveled widely in Europe and the West Africa region to present conference papers on scientific experimentation and socially applicable scientific data. Concentrating on socio-environmental problems, Oumar has put his expertise at the disposal of research agencies and nongovernmental organizations, as well as government ministries. He has developed and presented papers on the practical aspects of such topics as the chemical analysis of "monkey bread" for a socio-culturally accepted method of oral rehydration for infant diarrhea, the environmental consequences for Dakar of the ocean disposal of chemical waste and the management of used water for municipal purposes. He has long shown particular concern for putting science to use in dealing with people's social issues and problems and has used local languages in the teaching of science. He is also particularly concerned with the well-being of his students, who face many difficulties upon graduation in gaining access to professional job opportunities. At the university, Oumar is an active union member, involved in and concerned about the problems and future of the university. As noted above, he is a founding member of the citizen lobby, Civil Forum, where he heads the Environmental Section. Once the community-based waste management model is fully launched and the methods for its wider replication are clear and in place, Oumar sees himself innovating further low-cost solutions to resolve other environmental problems faced by the citizens of Senegal and surrounding countries.