Reporters' Notebook: Can selfies solve Guinea's trash problem?

Trash represents an enormous challenge for Guinea, but also huge opportunities.
Trash represents an enormous challenge for Guinea, but also huge opportunities.

For the latest edition of "Observers Direct," the Observers team travelled to Guinea to meet Fatoumata Chérif, an activist who uses selfie videos to draw attention to one of the country's chronic problems: trash.

Derek Thomson and Alexandre Capron spent a week with Fatoumata in Conakry, the Guinean capital, filming huge piles of trash across the city, and following some of the thousands of Guineans who make their living from it. Read their reporters' notebook below.

Watch the trailer for "OBSERVERS DIRECT: Can selfies solve Guinea's trash problem?"


When Guineans asked us what we were filming and we answered "trash," they had two reactions. First they said, "Oh no, I hope you're not going to make us look bad - we're not the only country that has a problem dealing with our trash." But they also thanked us for focusing on a problem that complicates their daily lives.

It's clear that the country lacks the resources to dispose of the 800-1,000 tonnes of waste that are generated daily in the capital alone. Despite numerous high-profile initatives in recent years, there are still huge piles of trash across the capital - even in the city center, a few hundred meters from ministries and embassies.

On the Minière beach in Conakry, local residents and online activists gather every Sunday to clear plastic bags and bottles and other waste that washes up from the sea and a nearby stream.

We were surprised by the number of citizen initiatives that have sprung up to deal with the problem. When we accompanied Fatoumata to a clean-up operation on the Minière beach, there were dozens of different volunteer groups present, as well as people from the neighborhood just across from the beach. They managed to clean one small part of the sand - just enough to allow local kids to play football. The volunteers worked hard - and if at times they seemed to be spending half the time taking selfies and doing Facebook lives, there was a reason: they want to use social networks to inspire other Guineans to take action.

Selfie-mania on the beach at La Minière. Activist in Guinea use social media to spread the word that citizens can make a difference if they take matters into their own hands.

In the absence of a well-run, well-funded waste system, Guineans have come up with an informal system. Young men with handcarts handle door-to-door pickups, taking payments that range from a few cents to a few dollars, depending on the amount of trash. They take the trash to dumpsters, where they do an initial selection, separating out materials that can be easily recycled. It appears to be a miserable job but, in fact, the young carters make up to 10 times the minimum wage. They are entrepreneurs who have invested in a cart to make a better life for themselves. But they are working in a system that is unregulated. One consequence is that they have to pay bribes to local bosses for the right to work the area.

Ibrahim paid 120 euros for his handcart - an investment that allows him to earn 10 times the minimum wage.

We saw a lack of regulation at the city's main dump, Concasseur, as well. A mountain of trash as much as 30 meters high, it provides a living for around 1,000 people, many of them children. .

We saw children of primary school age sifting through the trash - looking for the white or blue "rubber" (their word for plastic) that they know they can sell for recycling. As we stood on the top of the dump with environmental engineer Mohamed Lamine Sidibé, looking on as dozens of children ran behind a massive bulldozer as it ploughed through the trash, he told us he saw only "opportunity" - raw materials that could be a source of wealth if recycled properly.

In fact, at the bottom of the mountain a local recycling firm called Sodiaplast has a depot where they buy plastic from the collectors. At a factory a few miles away they melt the plastic down, add dye, and churn out washboards and trashcans.


Derek Thomson and Alexandre Capron

The Observers