The typha, or cattail, is an aggressive species of plant that has invaded the rivers of Mauritania and Senegal, upsetting the natural ecosystem and the local fishing industry. But several inventors have found new uses for this plant pest.

A few weeks ago, the FRANCE 24 Observers team first reported about this giant reed that has started to take over the banks of the Senegal river, which flows along the border between Senegal and Mauritania. The cattail destroys the local ecosystem by absorbing the oxygen that the native flora and fauna need to flourish. The reeds also cause the water to stagnate, which increases the mosquito population exponentially, thus increasing the risk of disease. The cattail is also hard to remove because its roots go very deep. In other words, it’s a pest.

In Mauritania, the French NGO Le Gret discovered one way to address the problem, by turning the cattails into charcoal. Other local innovators also started seeing the overpopulation of cattails as an opportunity rather than a problem.

Members of the “Papyrus” project collect cattails alongside the Senegal River in an outing organised by la CERADS in November.

How reed roofs keep a house cool

After spending a few years in France, Oumar Welle returned to his native Mauritania in 2014 to try and develop eco-friendly, sustainable building materials. He uses cattails to fabricate roofs for houses and buildings.

I use cattails to build dropped ceilings. However, I most often use it to help climatise buildings, thus lowering people's reliance on air conditioning. In Mauritania, most roofs and dropped ceilings are made out of sheet metal or concrete, which both conduct heat. However, according to our initial estimates, a structure built out of cattails could help reduce the temperature in a home by 5 to 10 degrees [Editor’s note: However, these tests have not been conducted during the hottest seasons].

The fact that the reed grows back time and again means that it is an abundant and cheap building material. I believe that we are on the cusp of discovering all kinds of uses for cattails as a building material. For example, I am currently trying out cattails as insulation in plaster walls.
This Mauritanian NGO, which trains farmers, already has Oumar Welle’s style of dropped ceiling made with cattails in its building. Photos Habidem.

Cattail papyrus

In Senegal, innovators have found a more artistic use for the cattails. In November, CERADS (Le Centre d'Études Recherche Action au Sahel), a Senegalese research centre, held a workshop to teach people how to make papyrus out of cattails. Patrick Molinier heads up the project.

The residents of Maka [Editor’s note: a town in northern Senegal] loved the project. We got the idea that this workshop helped to change how local people think of this plant invasion. People said “finally, a project that makes use of this plant!”

The cattail papyrus we made is going to be given to local artists to decorate. We’ll then have a showcase of the finished work. We hope that this art paper will become like the banner of the St. Louis region, which is already known for the arts [Editor’s note: St. Louis is home to well-known jazz festivals and a biennale].

The two-week workshop held in Maka Diama trained several people to make papyrus from cattails.

Eventually, we’d like to establish an art workshop and bring in tourists to participate in the entire process, from the creation of the cattail papyrus to an eventual exposition of the finished work in Maka. Not only would increased tourism benefit the region, it would also be a project that brings together art and ecology.

The papyrus project also helps the environment in another way: by using an invasive species to make paper, it helps decrease deforestation.

Did these initiatives pique your interest? Would you like to help out these causes? You can contact Oumar Welle from Habidem by writing to habidemauritanie@gmail.com or Patrick Moulinier about his cattail papyrus project by writing to pjmoulinier@orange.fr. You can reach us by sending an email to observateurs@france24.com!

This article was part of our series Observers vs. Climate Change. To see the other stories in this series, click
here.
Article written with
Alexandre Capron

Alexandre Capron , Journaliste francophone