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Rebalancing Waste Management Governance in Cities with Informal Systems: Engaging Local Stakeholders and Academics through Transdisciplinary Research

The recent LIRA 2030 Africa reports highlight the impressive efforts of 28 research leaders in driving sustainable development across African cities. One particular project titled "Cleaning from the bottom up" showcases the use of inclusive stakeholder participation in integrated waste management in Accra (Ghana) and Lagos (Nigeria).

This blog is part of the ISC LIRA TD Blog Series.

The LIRA project “Cleaning from the bottom up” was led for two years (2019-2021) by Temilade Sesan at the University of Ibadan, Nigeria. The project contributed to SDG 11 on “sustainable cities and communities” by embracing the ambition to reunite informal and formal governance structures for waste management in Accra and Lagos, towards the realization of an integrated and sustainable approach. The existing practices of waste management pose formidable environmental challenges to citizens in both cities and even lead to conflicts between citizens and public institutions, resulting in a disinterest from institutions to resolve the waste management challenges in poorer neighbourhoods.   

In this context, transdisciplinary (TD) research was examined as a powerful tool that can effectively bring together two key parties involved in waste management: informal actors leading local waste management, and public institutions responsible for its governance.

“We chose Lagos and Accra for different but complementary reasons: Lagos is by far the largest city in Africa, with over 20 million people; while Accra, though comparatively small, has been named the fastest-growing city in the region. We were interested in addressing the waste management problems that accompany the growth and dynamism of both cities, and to see what lessons might be transferable from one context to the other.”  

Temilade Sesan

Prior to the LIRA project, both the principal investigators (PI) and Co-PI had worked with other academics, informal actors, and civil society actors to promote waste-to-wealth initiatives at the community level. The proposal submitted to LIRA was based on the knowledge and networks the researchers built from those previous projects. Although informal actors in these cities have demonstrated a capacity to develop decentralized systems for waste management over time, they have been unable to access the technical and policy support they need to maximize their contribution to the value chain. By improving the governance of community-based waste management initiatives and facilitating in-depth engagement between formal and informal actors in the sector, the project helped to establish multi-scalar connections upon which further collaboration and action can be built. However, TD research was new to main actors, and apprehending it and putting it in place throughout the project appeared challenging and time-consuming. 

“We do not have a culture of TD research in either of the project cities or countries. Indeed, in both cases, it proved difficult for the research team to engage with city-level authorities as was originally planned. Still, the enthusiastic engagements and concrete outcomes we had at the municipal level show the potential that TD research has to drive evidence-informed policy-making on a bigger scale.”

Temilade Sesan 

Expertise and partners involved: academics meeting stakeholders in the field

To achieve its goal, the project involved a wide range of actors, academics and non-academics; as TD research implies. Five researchers based at the University of Ibadan, of Ghana and of Cape Town, drawn from the fields of environmental science, public health, sociology, economics and geography, worked closely with practice partners that came from the waste management, public policy, private sector, civil society, and media advocacy.  

The project’s key stakeholders in Accra were the Ga East Municipal Assembly and the Borla Taxis and Tricycles Association. Green Africa Youth Organization represented civil society in Ghana. The main stakeholders in Lagos were the African Cleanup Initiative, Thermal Initiative, Biosphere Technologies Limited, the Environmental Health Department of the Apapa-Iganmu Local Council Development Authority, as well as seven communities under the Authority. Rethinking Cities represented the media advocacy sector, while En-pact Solutions represented the formal private sector.  

The relationships between the academic and non-academic project partners were mutually rewarding. It appeared that multiple incorrect assumptions about the waste management landscape had grown between the actors, and the media advocacy partners, who had a lot of prior experience engaging with stakeholders in practice, helped the team articulate and resolve those assumptions. Conversely, these same partners were able to incorporate some of the research findings into their waste management campaigns.  

The added value that TD research brought to the project was that we were empowered to engage with a broader range of stakeholders – from academia and civil society, but also from the private sector and government – than we previously did. In mediating direct conversations between the informal sector and municipal authorities, the project broke new ground in both contexts and helped lay the foundation for mutual understanding and action. At the community level, the clean-up exercise that we implemented in collaboration with community volunteers not only made a tangible difference to the environment, but also showed the community and municipal authorities that incremental change is possible.”

Temilade Sesan

Read the LIRA 2030 Africa report

LIRA 2030 Africa: Learning from Practising Transdisciplinary Research for Sustainable Development in African Cities

International Science Council. (2023). LIRA 2030 Africa: Learning from Practising Transdisciplinary Research for Sustainable Development in African Cities. Paris, France, International Science Council. DOI: 10.24948/2023.02

Collaborative Methods: The Key to Sustainable Shift and Lasting Success

The team tested various collaborative methods to engage communities, municipal authorities and the wider public at various stages of the project. Local communities and municipal authorities were mostly engaged through face-to-face engagements (focus group discussions, meetings, transect walks). This allowed for real-time deliberative exchanges and helped to build trust and social capital.

Once the actors were fully committed to the project, the researchers conducted in-depth interviews and focus group discussions with individuals and affected groups (men, women, youth, informal worker associations) in the project communities. These yielded insights which were then used to engage formal stakeholders at the municipal and city levels on ways to integrate community-level needs and capacities into the planning and delivery of waste management services, from the collection, through recycling to the final disposal. The project found the stakeholder workshops and focus groups were most effective in spurring collaboration among diverse actors, likely because of the face-to-face conversations they fostered.

Successive deliberative meetings held by the LIRA team yielded some surprising successes: in Accra especially, the municipality made some immediate changes to longstanding policies on informal waste management. 

To engage the wider public, the project produced media outputs – primarily interactive radio talk shows and video documentaries. The purpose of these outputs was to increase awareness of informal and community-led waste management solutions among middle-class citizens, with a view to harnessing public support for policy change in the medium to long term.  

“The radio shows ended with the project, but we have continued screening the documentaries as opportunities arise on subsequent projects. We have come to recognize these visual mediums as powerful tools for mobilizing citizens to champion environmental causes in their respective domains.”

Temilade Sesan

When the COVID-19 crisis forced a move to remote work in early 2020, the project team devolved a lot of engagement responsibilities to community actors, building the capacity of the latter in the process. In the wake of the crisis, the project also ramped up public outreach through social media platforms (Twitter and Instagram) and interactive programmes on local radio stations. 

Gathering communities around waste management, a powerful resilience tool

The PI believes that relationship building and strong communication were key factors that helped to achieve project goals. A major result in Accra was the creation and registration of an association of informal waste workers with the Ga East municipality, an outcome that was previously considered too difficult to achieve. Indeed, this association was the first of its kind to achieve formal status in the city. The association has set up a governance structure, complete with an executive committee, that will enable it to keep functioning beyond the life of the project.  

In Lagos, a community clean-up exercise tagged the #GreatBadiaCleanUp was implemented in partnership with civil society actors. The exercise was the anchor for a community-wide behaviour change campaign driven by a committee of resident volunteers. This volunteer-led, democratic committee was also the first of its kind to be established for waste management purposes in the project area. Findings from the project have also been presented to stakeholders in Nigeria running for political office in upcoming elections, potentially contributing to the formulation of evidence-informed policies and laws in the waste management sector.

Furthermore, the collaborations on the project enabled the PI to secure a competitive grant from the Volvo Educational Research Foundations (VREF). The grant was used to design and deliver an academic writing course to scholars of sustainable urban development in African universities in 2022. Based on the success of the course, VREF renewed the grant for a second round to be delivered in 2023. 

More than technical results, the TD project enabled structural social benefits for the communities in both cities and highlighted the need of TD use in urban contexts projects. The PI has applied the TD approach to other projects since this one. The researchers have also integrated TD methods and tools into their lectures and invited talks, thereby increasing knowledge of the approach in teaching and research circles.  

“The project has now ended, and we are looking to get another round of funding for a follow-up. The main aim of this round would be to help the communities and municipal authorities involved to institutionalize the waste management solutions demonstrated by the LIRA. This would involve identifying and providing appropriate incentives for both parties to replicate those solutions sustainably and at scale.”

Temilade Sesan 

Additional resources :  

Some of the early reflections on the project were presented in a paper titled “Lessons from facilitating community-led waste management processes in Lagos, Nigeria” at the Conference on Climate Resilience and Waste Management for Sustainable Development hosted by the University of Ghana in October 2019. More recently, the PI on the project led the publication of a paper in the journal Urban Forum, in collaboration with other researchers on the LIRA programme: 

  • Sesan, T., Sanfo, S., Sikhwivhilu, K., Dakyaga, F., Aziz, F., Yirenya-Tawiah, D., Badu, M., Derbile, E., Ojoyi, M., Ibrahim, B. and Adamou, R. 2021. Mediating knowledge co-production for inclusive governance and delivery of food, water and energy services in African cities. Urban Forum. 
  • Sesan, T. and Siyanbola, W. 2021. “These are the realities”: insights from facilitating researcher-policymaker engagement in Nigeria’s household energy sector. Humanities and Social Sciences Communications, Vol. 8, No. 73. 

Photo by Katsia Paulavets – ISC

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