The EU’s Failed US$3M Bid to Fix Monrovia’s Trash Crisis – part one

In this two-part investigation, Anthony Stephens and Tina S. Menhpaine report with New Narratives on a US$3 million European Union project that was meant to solve Monrovia’s trash crisis.

The spectacular failure of waste collection services is not news to the people of Monrovia and Paynesville who struggle with odors, health impacts and flooding caused by growing mountains of trash. 

But the crisis would be surprising to anyone who read the 2021 annual report of the UK-based charity Cities Alliance. The organization had just finished a four-year project with US$3 million in European Union funding that claimed to have, “helped communities develop lasting capacities to collect primary waste.”

A graphic from the Cities Alliance 2021 Report makes claims that were not substantiated in NN reporting

Under the chapter headed “Lasting Impact after five Years of operations” the Cities Alliance report, aimed at donors, claimed the final independent evaluation of the project found “accessibility to waste collection services increased from 36 per cent in 2018 to 52 per cent by end of 2021.” In fact, the final evaluation completed in November 2021, found that, “households receiving primary solid waste collection services improved from 36% at baseline to 40%,” — far below the 52% claimed by Cities Alliance.

Graphic from the independent evaluation of the Cities Alliance Primary Waste Project

The report also claimed a major component of the project — capacity building of community based organizations including a micro-loan program – had contributed to a tripling of the number of communities served by CBEs and 9500 households subscribed to CBE waste collection services. 

A New Narratives/Daily Observer investigation found a gulf between the claims of Cities Alliance and reality on the ground just months after the project ended. In August 2022, less than a year after the final evaluation report was done, NN/Daily Observer found few of the 21 CBEs that shared in the US$267,000 loan program were still compliant with the program. More than US$245,000 EU taxpayer dollars that was loaned to CBEs seems to have disappeared almost immediately. 

“It’s a failure, and a serious challenge for my administration,” said J. Saah Joe Kenedemah, head of the National Association of Community-Based Enterprises (NACOBE), the umbrella group working in the waste management space. He claimed just five are still compliant. “Even if we have four out of the 21 falling along the roadside it was going to be successful, but five still compliant, it’s a failure.”

The problems began before the project even started, according to Kenedemah. Two major obstacles were never seriously tackled: the competition from unemployed youth known as “Zogoes”, and the failure of the city corporations to provide adequate facilities for dumping the waste CBEs collected. (Another part of the project – giving loans to recycling and composting companies – never happened.) Cities Alliance claimed in an email that a lack of donor funds stopped it achieving the bigger goals of the project. Kenedemah says without tackling those two issues the project would never succeed. The final evaluation also flagged these as major obstacles. 

The first-of-its-kind revolving fund giving loans to CBEs was a central part of the four-year project. Recipients received loans of between US$3000 and US$15,000 to purchase agreed items such as wheelbarrows, computers, rent and other tools for the job. Monthly repayments were to begin in December 2021 in 14 equal amounts plus 1 percent interest. When loans were repaid, the funds were to be made available to other CBEs. 

But the loan program was repeatedly delayed. Covid-19 lockdowns had a role, but Cities Alliance flagged potential problems with the CBEs in their mid-project evaluation. After working with the CBEs since 2018 Cities Alliance warned there may be a limited number of CBEs to take the loans. “Cities Alliance is prepared to award loans and grants to all CBEs but may be limited by the willingness of CBEs to take the loans or failure of CBEs to submit compelling business plans/proposals for funding,” it said. In response to evaluator’s criticism of the slow pace of the loan program, Cities Alliance promised to give out loans by August 2020. Instead they started more than a year later. 

A total of US$436,000 had initially been set aside for loans but, perhaps in recognition of the limited number of eligible applicants, only US$267,345 was given out.

In an email Cities Alliance blamed delays on the “Steering Committee and Technical Working Group” that was composed of representatives from the Cities Alliance, Monrovia City Corporation (MCC), Paynesville City Corporation (PCC), the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), the Ministry of Internal Affairs and the European Union, according to a May 2023 email from Cities Alliance. 

According to the final evaluation proposals went out in August 2021, just five months before the end of the project on December 31, 2021. Forty-two CBEs applied. The Steering Committee and Technical Working Group selected 21 CBEs which received loans in October. Cities Alliance ended all operations and left Liberia five months later handing over ownership of the project to the Ministry of Internal Affairs, according to Cities Alliance’s annual report. 

CBEs Didn’t Meet Selection Criteria

Even the selection of the CBEs had major problems. Winning CBEs needed to meet nine criteria that showed they had been functioning waste collection businesses for the two years before the application date. The first criterion was valid business registrations in the two years prior to August 2021. 

But NN/Daily Observer found that six of the winning 21 CBEs did not meet that criterion. Liberia Business Registry’s registration records show that only fifteen of the CBEs were registered in 2020 to 2021. In an email Cities Alliance communications officer conceded that the requirement for EPA registration was abandoned because it was deemed too costly and onerous by the committee, “of which EPA was a member”. 

Nacobe president Kenedemah said his organization’s exclusion from the selection committee was a fatal flaw because they were better placed to know the capacity of the enterprises. Kenedemah said when he was given the names of the selected CBEs, he had to work hard just to locate some. 

No Monitoring of the Loan Repayments

Once Cities Alliance left, a Technical Committee, led by the Ministry of Internal Affairs, with representatives from the MCC, PCC, EPA, Foundation for Women, Eco Bank and Nacobe was left to monitor the loans and manage the revolving fund. NN/Daily Observer has found no evidence that monitoring took place. Paulita Wie, Deputy Internal Affairs Minister for Urban Affairs, rejected the claim that her office was in charge in a WhatsApp text. 

“I’m not the head of CBEs,” Minister Wie wrote. “There are numerous programs that work with us but we don’t implement for donors. It is the donors that select their own local NGOs or international partners.” She ignored all subsequent requests for an interview with anyone from her office or for documentation from the Committee. 

Nacobe denies it was ever part of the Committee. Officials for the MCC and PCC did not respond to queries about whether their representatives played any monitoring role. Manue Gayflor, at Foundation for Women Liberia, claims it was hired by Cities Alliance to provide “expert opinion on the loans,” but he would not say whether it was still rendering any services, saying it’s “confidential.” 

Despite having no presence on the ground since March 2022 Cities Alliance’s communications officer Yamila Castro Cities insisted that CBEs would be forced to make repayments. She provided no evidence of this.

“Even after project closure, the (technical committee) continued to convene and followed up with CBEs/SMEs that were not complying with the agreed repayment plan… The (Committee) has also followed up with defaulting CBEs. Plans to confiscate the equipment procured are underway as indicated in the legal framework signed by MCC, PCC, MIA, and EPA.”

The only evidence NN/Daily Observer could find of monitoring was Kenedemah’s claim  that Deputy Minister Wie tasked him with reviewing the recipients in August 2022, nine months after the loans were made. Neither the Deputy Minister nor Kenedemah would provide a copy of the report but Kenedemah did provide his findings on repayments. 

Nacobe chief Saah Joe Kenedemah provided a “partial report” with our team. Credit: Anthony Stephens/New Narratives.

Fourteen of the 21 CBEs had made repayments of between US$1,000 and US$2,000. Seven had paid nothing. Just US$20,500 had been recovered from US$267,345 given out. 

Six of the 21 CBEs that received loans were in Paynesville. Kenedemah found they didn’t operate a day because the PCC did not provide a dump site. Jeremiah Diggen, Paynesville City Corporation Public Relations Officer, confirmed in a WhatsApp message that the lack of space at the Whein Town landfill in the City meant the CBEs could not dump there. 

Kenedemah said he sent a report of his findings to Technical Committee head Alvin Gono, Director for Urban Affairs at the Ministry of Internal Affairs. Kenedemah gave recommendations including that CBEs show what they bought with the funds or provide receipts. Gono was to submit the report to Deputy Minister Wie. Kenedemah said the Committee never responded to the report. NN/Observer has filed a Freedom of Information request for the report. 

Even among those that have made repayments it is not clear that they spent the money as agreed. Green World Enterprise, one of the Monrovia based CBEs that was listed as having paid US$1,000 of its US$13,000 loan, does not appear to be doing waste management. A recent visit to their shopfront on Newport Street found them selling domestic appliances and exchanging money.

COWADE, another recipient CBE, based in Clara Town, received US$5,000 to buy five wheelbarrows, one desktop computer, five pairs of rainboots, five shovels, ten pairs of gloves, twenty nose masks, two push carts, pay staff and rent, according to Bestman Toe, the COWADE boss. On a recent visit, COWADE could only show a reporter one wheelbarrow bearing the signage of a different project, two shovels, one rake and five pairs of rainboots.  When asked to show the equipment they were supposed to buy, or the receipts, Toe told a reporter to come back later. He has since refused to answer phone calls. 

Bestman Toe, head of COWADE, with a wheelbarrow, rain boots, shovels, and rake. His loan agreement required far more equipment be bought. 

Toe claimed COWADE had made repayments but it is not listed among those supplied by Kenedemah. Toe also claimed to have increased his paying waste services clients from 105 to 285. But people in the community said the CBE does not collect waste here. Rubbish is strewn everywhere and chicken pecks at waste blocking drains. 

Trash is in every community of COWADE operations.

“No CBE in this community collects our dirt,” said Yatta Kulubah, a resident of Doe Community. “We can dump in the swamp or burn our dirt.”

The 18-month loan period ends this month. It is unclear whether the MLTC or the Ministry intends to make any report and redistribute repaid loan money. 

Castro denied any lapses or liability on Cities Alliance’s part saying that the NGO “handed over the loan facility to the local institutions as per the MoU and Legal Framework,” in order to “ensure local ownership and sustainability. All operations and activities including Monitoring and Evaluation of the loan facility are the full and sole responsibility of the local institutions and their legal representatives.”

In an email, EU ambassador Laurent Delahousse, who has loudly criticized the government’s failures on waste management, said the EU would be auditing the project this year. 

In part two of this two-part investigation Daily Observer/NN looks at the two major challenges that have undermined the overall Cities Alliance EU-funded waste management project. This story was a collaboration with New Narratives as part of the Investigating Liberia project. Funding was provided by the Swedish Embassy in Liberia. The funder had no say in the story’s content.