Where Malian public officials have failed, Cheick Amala Tabouré is successfully mobilizing residents of Bamako's poorer quarters to finance and install household septic tanks instead of the current unhygienic and dangerous practice of disposing waste water in open pits along public streets.

This profile below was prepared when Cheick Amala Tabouré was elected to the Ashoka Fellowship in 1994.


Where Malian public officials have failed, Cheick Amala Tabouré is successfully mobilizing residents of Bamako's poorer quarters to finance and install household septic tanks instead of the current unhygienic and dangerous practice of disposing waste water in open pits along public streets.


Based on a careful survey of community domestic waste water–practices, needs and resources–Cheick Tabouré has designed a low-cost improved household septic tank system, created a loan fund to enable households to afford it, and trained unemployed local youth to construct the tanks.

On the heels of a highly successful pilot demonstration in one of Bamako's most crowded neighborhoods, Bagadadji, Cheick is consolidating his institutional base in order to expand the effort both geographically and programmatically. He is already inundated with requests from other quarters in Bamako to provide septic tank construction, and he aims to expand to similar cities throughout the Sahel. Planned programmatic expansion is of two types. Firstly, he expects to develop downstream products for households with septic tanks, such as tank cleaning services and latrine improvements. Perhaps most significantly, he will undertake more health and environmental education activities with families putting in septic tanks. For example, he would like to build on current activities such as community debates on hygiene and public cleanliness with information services to mothers on pre-natal and neo-natal health care.

Cheick dreams of every urban household in Mali having a septic tank and a sticker on the door saying "Let Us Protect Our Environment." He envisions a future in which the streets of the city of Bamako are free of waste water, garbage is collected and carried away, and malaria and dysentery are eliminated.


The urban centers of the Sahel are notoriously overcrowded after years of rapid migration from rural areas. Mali's largest city, Bamako, for example, has almost a million inhabitants; living on a crumbling colonial era physical infrastructure designed to accommodate 100,000 people. The government cannot even afford to operate, let alone modernize physical infrastructure of older areas, and there is not even an effort to plan (let alone provide infrastructure) for new settlements, which spring up spontaneously all the time. A 1984 sewerage initiative by the Bamako municipal government, for example, collapsed for want of finance.

The sanitation and health problems that are engendered by this pattern of urbanization are significant. Estimates put the daily growth of domestic waste in Bamako, for example, at 260,000 cubic meters per year. Informal practices in dealing with this waste–a shallow, open hole dug in the street next to the home–leads to stagnant pools, where waste water and domestic garbage mix and become foul-smelling breeding grounds for insect larva. Piles of garbage often hinder circulation of vehicles and pedestrians. These conditions are considered a major factor linked to the propagation of typhoid fever, dysentery, malaria, hepatitis, bilharzia and guinea-worm. On any given day one can see children playing next to these little pools. Indeed in Bagadadji, any resident can point out the spot where a small child fell into one such pool and drowned.

Faced with these burgeoning problems, the government is now not discouraging, if not in fact quite encouraging, those seeking to develop local, private solutions to resolve their sanitation and health problems. Such initiatives must overcome the popular expectation that it is the government's duty to provide these facilities, although increasingly residents recognize the lack of realism in this expectation.


The first step in Cheick's strategy involves demonstrating the benefits of his septic tanks in one controlled pilot project. With a highly successful pilot project involving thirty households behind him, Cheick is now concentrating on consolidating an organizational base to service planned expansion.

Cheick's pilot was undertaken in his own community in the Bagadadji quarter of Bamako. He began with a detailed survey of current practices, needs, and resources with respect to domestic waste water. One finding was that household septic tanks would have to accommodate a usage ranging from 15 to 60 persons–a figure far greater than public planning had previously anticipated. He then designed an improved septic tank in line with this finding. The improved septic tank consists of a pit covered with concrete slabs at the base of which porous materials are spread. Beside the tank a "man-hole" is constructed to filter incoming water for stones, slivers of wood, grease and other impurities, leaving the filtered water to flow into the septic tank. The tank is generally constructed four meters deep in order to preserve the water table.

In the early days Cheick went from door-to-door, speaking with family heads, local leaders, and other members of the community to conscientize about sanitation and health problems and to advocate his solution. This succeeded in recruiting a group of neighbors who became the first pilot, as well as creating an interested audience of the entire quarter.

To undertake the work of constructing the tanks, Cheick recruited and trained a group of local unemployed youth. (Youth unemployment is currently running at around 70 percent in Bamako.) The youth produced the first 30 tanks to higher standards and at less than half the cost of the current government prototype, and even at a lower cost than those provided by the private sector. Cheick has two models of tank, one for smaller households (up to 15 users) at $85, and those tailored for 30 users at $124.

To finance the process, Cheick designed an affordable financing scheme that is reinforced by peer monitoring. Repayment of the loans is scheduled in monthly installments (usually about ten) according to the repayment capacity of the household involved. These funds are then used as credit to help finance the construction of further septic tanks for other families in the community. Cheick raised an initial grant to capitalize the loan fund.

As the pilot project unfolded, Cheick simultaneously established the Association for the Rehabilitation of the Environment in Mali as the organization supporting the program. All community meetings are arranged under the auspices of the Association. Those putting in septic tanks become local chapter members of the Association and are encouraged to participate in all of the decision-making relating to the Association's work in their community. They take responsibility, for example, for managing the loan fund and at this time of this writing 75 percent of the total original loans have been repaid without a single default! The youth construction teams are also Association stakeholders with co-responsibility for the governance of the local chapter. The chapter has designated its physical boundaries and is actively seeking to draw all households within the chapter boundaries.

To enlarge on the Association's wider environmental cleanliness and health protection message, Cheick works with two community organizers, one of whom is a trained nurse, to promote understanding within the community on hygiene, the use and upkeep of the septic tank, and to undertake other public education work. While this component of the program continues to evolve, sensitization efforts to date have included discussions and debates on hygiene and public cleanliness. Plans exist for the female organizer to extend training on family hygiene and mother-and-child health sessions to the local clinic on Mondays, when pregnant women attend and others bring their children for treatment.

The visible improvements to street life in the pilot area is so dramatic that everyone who sees it wants Cheick to come to his or her neighborhood next. Cheick is now beginning to respond to these requests from other quarters in Bamako, and hopes to expand the Association's capacity to be able to move beyond Bamako in the near future. He is also deepening the program with his current members by developing a service to clean the tanks and to improve household latrines.


From a humble rural background, Cheick was influenced greatly as a child by a role model whom he admired immensely, a man who brought him up following the death of his own father. Although Cheick maintained good marks at school, he was forced to leave early to support his family. In seeking means to do this, Cheick took several jobs, including working as a postman, and becoming a taxi driver. He also ventured into Libya to seek his fortune, working on several projects, including one assisting on a major film set in the desert.

As a socio-economic agent, Cheick is constantly investigating problems and is described as someone who is always inquisitive, loves debates and discussions about community problems, but also openly accepts criticism and is willing to take risks. Strikingly noticeable is the great humility he displays. He is a person who has with little achieved a great deal. This is particularly evident in the battles he has waged over the last three years to get his program going and overcome the doubters' taunts. Cheick persevered when his house and all his possessions and documents were destroyed in a fire in 1993. He gave up his own small business as a building contractor in order to pursue his dream for the Association.

Cheick derives much satisfaction from the support that he has gained from his community. He presents his neighbors with a human face in their search for solutions to pressing public hygiene problems. People are very encouraging now and actively seek him out. He comments, "I walk with pride in the neighborhood now because people admire me." One neighbor who had thought Cheick was a fool in the early days recently told him, "I really congratulate your courage."