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Due to the challenges faced by coastal communities in West Africa as a result of flooding and erosion negatively affecting the ecosystem and livelihoods, the West Africa Coastal Areas (WACA) management program organized a Call for Innovation to mitigate these challenges and boost the economy through sustainable and innovative solutions from both international and local experts.

Teenage boys in a destroyed house on the coastline of Bargny, Senegal. The house was destroyed by rising water and the coastal erosion.
Photo by Vincent Tremeau/World Bank.

The presentation and award event in November last year brought together top 5 finalists with 3 getting funded by Nordic Development Fund (NDF), the World Bank Group, and Quality Infrastructure Investment (QII) Partnership.

Recently interviewing Tom Wilms, the project manager for Witteveen+Bos who delivered a systematic integrated approach known as SA-POD, “Systems Approach for Port Development”, more insights about the project was shared.

Hi, Tom. It’s a pleasure to have you.

With the Systems Approach for Port Development (SA-POD) funded, what is the current state of the project so far?

We’ve used this approach quite regularly within our company (Witteveen+Bos). As a company, we work in the Netherlands and also abroad. We use this approach in various projects and disciplines, and also in various infrastructure.

We see it is useful, and that’s why we want to apply it for the West African coasts. It is an inclusive approach that creates active participation of stakeholders as well as understanding of all the different systems, and will provide benefits to the West African coasts.

What are the current challenges?

We are not applying this approach that frequently in the West African region yet, we used parts at Tema (Ghana) and Lekki (Nigeria). That’s one of the reasons we were competing for the Call for Innovation.

So that we can have an opportunity to use this approach in West Africa. We already used this approach in Indonesia, and I think the challenges are similar around the world. One of the challenges is the involvement and interaction of different people each with their own expertise.

As everybody has its own background there can be miscommunication between for example engineers, ecologists, social experts, government officials and local communities. It is important that they listen to each other, understand each other and their knowledge is valued equal.

This equal interaction is not everywhere the case as I experienced in Indonesia where I’ve lived and worked for 4 years. There it is sometimes difficult to speak up when a senior has another opinion, due to culture and hierarchy. Colleagues in Ghana told me that in West Africa it is easier to talk to a local fisherman about his own local expertise and that he can discuss that with an expert from a local university.

You’ve over 10 years of experience in Building and Nature projects, what role did you play in the SA-POD?

Within our innovation, I was the project manager, so I was in the lead to get all the team members from all the different partners on track, get all their knowledge combined and to align all their expertise to this winning innovation.

So how was it like for you putting things together, managing resources and filtering ideas from different individuals at the same time?

I really get enthusiastic when I use our integrated approach, so we used the approach to develop our innovation. There is a lot you know yourself, but there’s so much you don’t know.

So you need people from an NGO like Wetlands International or the knowledge from Harry Barnes from PENAf and Tiedo Vellinga from the TU Delft or the expertise from engineers at CDR and contractors from Boskalis. And we want the ports and local communities to get involved as well and bring their expertise to the table.

Everybody has their own expertise and with all knowledge combined you get the best solution. That counts within our team and for the projects we intend to do with the African ports and also at other locations in West Africa.

But looking at the fact that you’ve worked in Indonesia and also replicating some of your works in Demak District, how would you compare that location with these West African ports?

I think what is similar is that each project is unique and you need to understand that situation and you need participation of stakeholders as soon as possible. Of course the more people you involve the more complex it gets, but it will be more inclusive and the solution in the end will have more support.

The other important topic, besides the stakeholders, are the different systems, for example at the Lekki Port the focus was really on the natural system: How the coast behaves.

And in Demak district, the focus was on all systems: the natural system, the social system, the economic system and the institutional system. It is beyond looking at the port authorities, but also the people working in the port and living around it like the fishermen and shop owners.

So it’s involving both stakeholders as well as those different systems which is essential to get a better solution.

Tom, If you could picture the future for the coastal communities in Africa what can you say your project can solve?

The utmost goal for me will be that any coastal area is sustainable, with or without a port, so that the people living there will have a good and safe life and the next generations as well. And a good life is of course in good health and that requires a balance with a healthy environment and economy.

It needs to be the mix of people, planet and prosperity. When all those are good, then we have a sustainable future, and that needs to fit into institutions, laws and regulations. And I think it’s possible, so the generation after us will have a good life as well.

Thank you for speaking to us, Tom.

By Elijah Christopher

Elijah Christopher

Elijah Christopher is a journalist at A New Touch Of Africa, is also a creative writer, a poet, and an IT enthusiast. He contributed to the collaborative poem written in celebration of Edwin Morgan Centenary, the first Glasgow poet laureate and Scottish national poet from the University of Glasgow. He loves meeting people and learning about new places, cultures, events, and lifestyles.