Retired Cameroonian footballer Roger Milla is already famous for being the oldest goal scorer – at age 42 – in World Cup history. And now the footballer is proving an unlikely hero in Cameroon's struggle against climate change-related flooding.
A project by his organization Coeur d'Afrique (Heart of Africa), which aids abandoned children, is helping lessen the damage to the country's flood-prone political capital while also fighting youth unemployment – all by just picking up some plastic.
Over the past two years, Yaoundé's population of over 3 million has suffered some of the worst flooding on record. But nature isn't solely to blame, say experts. Part of the problem is the plastic waste clogging up rivers and blocking gutters.
"Heavy and prolonged rains cause floods, but reckless human activities are as much to blame for aggravating the flooding," said David Payang, sub-director for conservation at the Ministry of Environment, Nature Protection and Sustainable Development.
Last year, Coeur d'Afrique started paying young people to collect plastic litter, to cut down on pollution and unblock the gutters. The second part of the project sees the plastic recycled into slabs that can be used for construction.
With a single initiative, the organization aims to help solve four of Cameroon's major problems – youth unemployment, plastic waste pollution, flooding, and non-sustainable building – at once.
Cameroon's government has been trying to tackle the country's plastic waste troubles for years, with little success.
Cheaper than other alternatives, plastic bags and bottles are popular in a place where the average income is less than 500 Central African francs (cfa) (less than $1) a day, and laws aimed at curbing the use and sale of disposable plastics have been ineffective.
"We cannot do without these plastics because they are affordable and government has not provided any alternative," Albert Eko, a teacher in Yaoundé, told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.
But the plastic items often wind up tossed into the streets of the capital city, making their way to gutters and waterways. The River Mfoundi canal, which was constructed about four years ago as a major route to drain away floodwater, is now regularly blocked by plastic waste, say city authorities.
In a collaboration between local councils and garbage-collection company Hysacam, Coeur d'Afrique employs over 300 youths in various flood-prone Yaoundé neighborhoods to regularly collect plastic from garbage cans, gutters and streams. They work three days a week for 2,500 cfa (about $4.40) a day.
"I am happy with the job. It provides me with some income to support my daily living," said Julius Ngwe, 25, who is part of the plastic-collecting crew in Etouge-ebe Yaoundé.
The waste is picked up by Hysacam and sorted, then another group of young people – different from those collecting the plastic – melt it down in a large tank over a wood fire. They later add sand to the molten plastic and pour the hot mixture into molds.
The process doesn't need water and the slabs set and dry at room temperature within 15 minutes, as opposed to the 24 hours it takes conventional sand-and-cement-based products, according to the head of the project's technical team, Pierre Kamssouloum.
The plastic slabs are cheaper than conventional concrete slabs, costing 3,500 cfa ($6) per square meter compared to 5,000 cfa ($8.80).
And, approved as sustainable by the country's National Civil Engineering Laboratory, they are "environmentally friendly and waterproof," said Samuel Nguiffo, executive director of the NGO the Centre for Environment and Development, meaning they can also be used in marshy areas and in the building of septic tanks.
The recycled slabs have already been used by the Yaoundé city council for various projects and by the National Olympic sports committee in the construction of the national handball field, officials say.
And so far over 750 youths have been trained in the process of making the plastic slabs. The project aims to train a total of 2,500 people by 2017, Kamssouloum said.
Heavy rains returned to Cameroon's capital city starting in February. But residents say the flooding has been much less dramatic than in the past, when rising waters sometimes forced fleeing residents onto the roofs of high buildings.
"We have not seen floods this year around the city center as we used to in the past, thanks to the regular cleaning of plastic garbage that blocked the draining passage and culverts," said local shopkeeper Njana Modo, 50.
Officials say the cheaper, sustainable plastic building slabs also could prove transformative for the various infrastructural development projects the country is pushing.
"We hope this technology can be replicated in other countries in the Central African region," said Cameroon's minister of environment and sustainable development, Hele Pierre, at the launch of one of the youth training sessions in Yaoundé. "And why not in Africa as a whole?"
• Reporting by Elias Ntungwe Ngalame; editing by Jumana Farouky and Laurie Goering. This story originally appeared on the website of the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters that covers humanitarian news, women's rights, trafficking, corruption, and climate change. Visit www.news.trust.org.