Ghana in general and Accra in particular suffer from poor public sanitation. Refuse is scattered across most of the capital city’s streets, and in many neighborhoods it clogs gutters and sits in heaps by the roadside.
While homeowners are obligated to equip all houses with toilet facilities, many do not, leaving residents to defecate in gutters or overused public toilets.
These sanitary conditions contribute to the spread of infectious diseases like cholera and a host of other problems, making sanitation a major challenge in modern day Ghana.
It should come as no surprise, then, that when John Mahama assumed office in July under tremendous pressure assert himself as a capable president, he chose public sanitation as a platform to showcase his leadership abilities.
He declared the last three months of the year a time for public hygiene overhaul, and on September 12th the National Sanitation Taskforce was inaugurated under the Ministry of Local Government and Rural Development to achieve this goal.
The major features of this initiative are a series of clean up days targeting dirty areas, the establishment of the private waste collection entity called Zoom Alliance, an anti-littering ad campaign, and the distribution of household waste containers as well as larger public waste containers and trash bags. An engineered landfill site is being constructed as are several waste separation plants, and Local Government Minister Samuel Ofosu-Ampofo has called on assemblies to prosecute more sanitation offenses and on the judiciary to establish more sanitation courts.
Clean up exercises
Clean up exercises consist of people gathering in a refuse-choked area to clear out the waste and spray disinfectant in its place.
These activities are executed under the supervision of Zoom Alliance by a temporary staff of 16,250 sanitation workers, alongside other public servants such as the police, military, NADMO, and the fire services. Sometimes local residents also participate.
The biggest clean up event I’ve personally seen took place in Shukura. It featured four trucks carrying PA systems blaring music and sanitation slogans, more than a hundred sanitation workers (over half of whom appeared to be standing around awaiting assignment at any given time,) twenty or more police, and about that many journalists jostling for a snapshot of Minister Ofosu-Ampofo as he sank a shovel into a gutter full of black sludge.
These operations can be smaller as well: I’ve seen a group of about fifteen temporary workers clearing a gutter along the Ring Road West.
These exercises will end before the new year, but as Ofosu-Ampofo told me during an October 19th interview at the Shukura cleanup, their real goal is to create a culture of hygiene awareness in local communities.
“The clean up exercises have to be sustained… What we intend [to do] is to set a very positive example so that when we finish this special exercise, the awareness would have been created… and then the Assemblyman and the Member of Parliament and others will then be able to galvanize their constituents and the electorate to help them to continue this exercise,” says Mr. Ofoso-Ampofo.
While these communities surely benefit from the massive clean ups, I personally doubt that these activities will have the desired long-term effect. I believe that sanitation habits are cultivated and reinforced over the course of a lifetime, and I doubt a single government-funded event can fundamentally transform long held attitudes on sanitation.
Many of the local people whom the government hopes will participate in future clean ups are the same ones who threw the trash into the gutters in the first place. They can be coerced into participating in exercises through the threat of fines, but for most, it will almost certainly take more than a single clean up demonstration to get them to take an active interest in communal hygiene.
One of the Taskforce’s most high profile components has been its ad campaign, conducted primarily via television and radio. These public service announcements admonish litterers and promote the proper disposal of waste through songs and spoken messages.
Ofosu-Ampofo could not say offhand how much money is being spent on these ads, but the campaign is very extensive and the messages play regularly on many stations.
These commercials fit the Taskforce’s theme of changing the nation’s outlook on littering public hygiene. As with the clean up days, though, I suspect that the people who the Taskforce hopes to reach are too set in their ways to be swayed by impersonal commercials. To break long held habits, most people need to be engaged directly for an extended period of time, not lectured over the radio.
During a Joy FM interview on the day of the Taskforce’s inauguration, Ofosu-Ampofo announced that Taskforce partners would distribute 7,000 of the household waste bins that waste collection companies require customers to use. In the October 19th interview, the Minister said that distribution will be expanded nationwide and that the number of bins has consequently been bumped up to 20,000.
This will reduce the financial burden on low-income households who might not have been able to afford the bins otherwise, but they will still have to pay for the collection service itself.
In his September interview, Ofosu-Ampofo also announced that the Taskforce would place biodegradable waste collection bags in taxis and lorries and place “roll on roll off” waste collection containers at lorry stations. In the October interview, he failed to respond to a question about the bags and neither I nor anyone I have spoken to has seen them in use.
In other words, there is presently no indication that the promise of the bags will be kept, and in the event that these bags are manufactured and distributed, it’s unclear where they would even fit in trotros packed tight with passengers and baggage.
Ofosu-Ampofo did respond to a question about the roll on roll off waste containers in the October interview, insisting that 150 have already been distributed, including one at Madina Station and two in his own Tema West Constituency, at Sakumono Station and Chemu Secondary School.
I visited Madina station on October 22nd but was unable to find the new container. Zoom Lion workers there confirmed that the station is served by a large waste container, which I observed personally, but they said that this container predated the National Sanitation Taskforce by 5 or 6 months and that no new containers had arrived recently.
On October 24th, I visited Chemu Secondary School, where I found one of the containers, and Sakumono Station, where I did not. Some taxi drivers who use the station as their base of operations said that a container had been brought for a clean up exercise but that since it had been taken away, no waste container had been permanently installed.
The Minister did not reply to a call or a text message asking him where exactly the Sakumono container was.
On October 22nd, I also spoke with Johannes Danso, the Director of Operations at Zoom Alliance, which oversees the distribution of these containers.
That day, he told me that the 150 containers, (a number that he said would eventually increase to 250,) were currently sitting in a warehouse awaiting distribution until Zoom Alliance could meet with city authorities to determine where they would have the biggest impact. He seemed surprised that the Minister had said the containers had gone out already and denied that there were any at Madina or Sakumono.
When I spoke with him again the following day, he changed his story, saying that he had been mistaken the day before, that he had been thinking of a different 150 bins and not the roll on roll off containers.
When I asked him where I could find one, he told me that he would have to check and get back to me. I called him later the same day and he said that the man he had wanted to ask was in a meeting. He did not return my call or answer my subsequent calls the rest of the day.
I reached him the next morning, October 24th, and he told me that he would call me back in a few minutes. He failed to do so and has not answered any of my calls since. As was the case with the lorry bags, neither I nor anyone I have interviewed has seen such a container anywhere, except of course at Chemu Secondary School.
Two things about this situation are troubling: first, the Minister was at best mistaken about the containers, and at worst he and Danso lied about their distribution.
Second, if most of the containers really were sitting in a warehouse awaiting distribution and the Minister took a bin for the benefit of his constituents before it could be decided where the bins would have maximum impact, then citizens in other constituencies may suffer as a result of his desire to please his own voters.
According to an Accra Metropolitan Assembly Waste Management Department report, the city produces about 1,800 tons of municipal solid waste per day. Assuming that a cubic meter of mixed solid municipal waste weighs 294 pounds, then these 150 containers, which hold a maximum of 23.25 cubic meters apiece before overflowing, could handle well over half of Accra’s waste assuming that they are filled and collected daily.
Of course, there is no guarantee that this will be the case. While the Zoom Lion workers at Madina told me that the container there is collected every day, an administrator at Chemu Secondary School said that since the container had been delivered about a week before, it had been collected once.
Furthermore, the school’s old container, still overflowing with trash, was sitting neglected behind the new container. The same administrator told me that in the past when the old container would fill up, the school often had to call the waste company multiple times before they would collect it.
These large containers have the potential to seriously impact the amount of trash around lorry stations and Greater Accra in general, but it all depends on how often they are emptied.