Paul tells...


African sustainability



It's slightly cloudy. On the horizon we see some hills, but in general we drive through a flat landscape. If there is a false flat, it is more to our advantage than to our disadvantage. There's nothing to suggest that we're less than 50 kilometres from the highest freestanding object in the world, the highest mountain in Africa, the Kilimanjaro. At a certain moment the clouds break open and we can catch a glimpse of the summit, which is about 5 kilometres above us. We cycle at about 1,000 metres above sea level and the summit is at 5,895 metres. It is a dormant volcano and that explains why it stands alone and not, like the other 'highest mountains' in the world, is part of a larger mountain range.


When the clouds move away a bit more and we get to see it better and better, I notice a small disappointment within myself. The top is white, but less white than I expected. It seems as if there is only a few centimetres of snow, through which the underlying stone mass shines. A few days later a French tourist tells us that we are lucky. He tells us that a few weeks ago there was no snow at all visible from the valley. It’s the first time. This made the Kilimanjaro look a lot less high and therefore less impressive.



The Tanzanians we talk about attribute it to climate change. As well as the rain that has been falling for a month now without any regularity. For the farmers, to whom 85% of the Tanzanian population belongs, it is very uncertain at the moment. Normally there is a short rainy season in November and December and a long rainy season in our spring. In the short rainy season only a limited number of crops can be grown, because the risk of dehydration is high. In the long rainy season it has to happen. But now the farmers don't know what to do. Do they also have to invest in seeds in the short rainy season, which started a month earlier than normal, or does it turn out that the investment in seeds will be a waste of money because the rainy season will also end a month earlier? In addition, it is currently raining so much that it causes a lot of flooding, which is also a threat to a good harvest. This is an important topic for discussion in Tanzania. They also talk to us about it. It feels as if people are trying to find out what the best thing to do is and gather knowledge and insights in order to come to a good decision together.



In the weekly newspaper 'The EastAfrican' we read that certain parameters have reached values that have never been reached before. Meteorologists therefore expect extreme rainfall and a direct transition from the short rainy season to the long one, which means that it will rain until March; not only in Tanzania, but also in Kenya and Uganda; our next countries. 

Where I thought that sustainability and climate change was mainly a Western issue, we soon notice that the Tanzanians are much more concerned about it than we are. For example, everything is reused and a new function is sought for it when it no longer works for its original use, as I wrote in my previous blog. The bus is also the means of transport here. From a sample that I took of our passing vehicles, 40% turns out to be a bus. The other 60% is for half lorry traffic and the other half passenger cars. A large part of the latter category are Jeeps in which the 'Mzungu', western tourists, are transported on their way to their safaris. Private car ownership is reserved for only a few.


People only eat what is produced locally. Since two days we suddenly get cabbage and a few slices of cucumber with our rice and chicken and not the brown bean sauce we got the last three weeks. There are also no expensive fruits from another continent on the market. Apples, pears and plums are not available here. We have to deal with the local fruit: avocado, papaya, banana, pineapple, mango and passion fruit. Everything tastes as if it was still hanging on the tree 'yesterday' and I think that in many cases that was the case. After all, in a tropical climate without a refrigerator, fruit has the longest shelf life on the tree itself. People only harvest what they think they can sell that day.



Of course I realise that the above points are not so much conscious sustainability choices as well as a direct consequence of the level of prosperity in Tanzania. People simply cannot afford anything else. Yet there are also many people who are consciously working on sustainability. We meet three young Tanzanians along the way. It turns out that they organise a monthly waste clearance day to collect the waste from a local river. They also plant trees every year on their own initiative and at their own expense, together with school children, telling them the importance of 'green'. They take us on a trip to the 'Rau-forest' for a couple of days. There we see, among other things, how coconuts are harvested. The supervisor of the adjacent rice fields climbs into a palm tree barefoot and without any aid to pick them. We are each offered one. When the nut is opened with a huge chopping knife, he also cuts off a stem from a water plant. ‘We don't want to use plastic anymore, so we don't use plastic straws anymore'. The hollow plant stem turns out to be an excellent replacement for a plastic straw.



When we get an explanation about the coffee growing on the slope of Mount Kilimanjaro, we learn that the coffee plants are between bananas and potatoes. All mixed up. I ask what the reason is for this. After all, it seems to me to be a lot more convenient to make a separate field for each crop, so that people can work efficiently. By mixing these three plants together, we do not need any pesticides or artificial fertilisers. The plantations were established in 1983 and have been in operation ever since. I realise that this is a form of permaculture; an (agricultural) method that is still in its infancy in the Netherlands (and probably also in Belgium) and is only used on a small scale and often as an hobby. Here on Kilimanjaro it is a healthy economic business model that provides a village of 3,000 farmers a good income.



A few nights later we sleep at a banana farm. We talk to the young owner of the farm and he asks if we like to get a tour. Of course we are interested. Although the main part of his farm consists of different kinds of banana trees, he also grows coffee and other fruits. However, he starts his story with his seven dairy cows. The banana trees provide a lot of organic waste; they only bear fruit once and then die off. In order to give the remains a function, he has cows that are fond of the banana plants, especially the leaves. ‘Cows, however, produce a lot of methane gas, which is very bad for the environment,' he continues. That's why he built a simple biogas plant himself. Every morning he throws in the cows' excrements, mixed with urine and some extra water. He produces 30 times as much gas per day as his farm, including the hostel, consumes. That's why he built an installation that converts gas into electricity. This still leaves him with an overproduction. That's why he also built a pipe installation to his neighbours, who can use it to get rid of the 'grid'. He has already built 15 installations like this one in his village, making his entire village almost self-sufficient.



He then talks about a project he is currently working on. In Tanzania, many people still use charcoal. ‘That too is bad for the environment'. That is why he is now busy producing a kind of coal of which the main ingredient is clay, which he simply extracts from the soil on his farm and which he processes with all kinds of waste products from the village that no longer have any function. It seems to work very well and several large companies have already shown an interest in producing it on a large scale. ‘The problem, however, is that they all want to make big money out of it,' he says. ‘And I want it to remain much cheaper than charcoal, because then the knife cuts both ways. On the one hand, people have to spend less money on fuel and, on the other hand, it is better for the environment. After all, it is CO2-neutral and it does not produce smoke'. He has calculated that if he can sell it on a large scale at cost price, it is seven times cheaper than charcoal. Throughout his story, we become quieter and quieter...



And it doesn't stay with the people themselves. When we entered the arrivals hall in Dar es Salaam, there were large banners that indicated that plastic bags are forbidden in this country. Indeed, we hardly see any plastic if we pay attention to it.  At the market we get our fruit in paper or fabric bags. Also in Kenya plastic bags are forbidden, we read the day before we enter that country. The maximum fine for possession of such bags, which also includes the zip-loc bags which are so easy on a cycling trip, is 4 years imprisonment or $ 40.000,- fine. That evening we go through our bags very thoroughly!



In the newspaper we read that Rwanda has just passed a law that goes a few steps further. There, 'once-used plastic’ is banned altogether. This not only applies to plastic bags, but also to straws, bread bags, balloons and even (water)bottles. The population has three months to get used to it, the industry has two years to switch to something else. The EU has also recently taken the first steps in this direction, but in Europe the number of items is lower. Plastic bottles, for example, are not included. I read that our target is that by the year 2029 90% of plastic bottles have to be collected.

At the same time, Tanzania is no holier than the Pope. In a guesthouse aimed at Western tourists I am surprised to see a garbage can, where the lid is painted in three colours with the inscriptions 'plastic', 'paper' and 'waste'. It's probably an attempt to meet the Western question if they can separate their waste. When I remove the lid, I just see one bin underneath. So much for waste separation.




And I also suggest that we should not be inspired by Tanzania in all areas. Because we get tired of the rice and soft fries every now and then, we buy a loaf of bread, white bread. The first bite makes me decide to look for the expiry date. I don't find it, but I do find the ‘sell-by date’. It's still six days away. Although I am well aware that this will reduce food wastage and is certainly to be welcomed in that context, as a bread lover I would like to suggest that we should not be inspired by Tanzania in this area. I am delighted to eat rice that evening.