Connecting communities across the Commonwealth

Kirsty Scott

22 August 2023

This is an article from the CSC Development Theme: Strengthening resilience and response to crises

There’re so many aspects of environmental benefits of transport. And these include developing roadways in a manner where the materials that we use, for instance, could be more climate-resilient to be able to withstand flooding.

Ajara Ceesay

Across the globe, inadequate transport systems deprive people of opportunities and exacerbate safety risks. According to the World Bank, one billion people do not have easy access to an all-weather road while one in six women avoid job seeking out of fear of harassment in transit. Despite the need to improve and increase transport systems, there is also an urgent need to reduce the climate impact of transport.

Sustainable transport has the power to foster inclusive growth by connecting communities, providing economic opportunities, and combating climate change. Sustainable Development Goal 11 seeks to provide access to safe, affordable, accessible, and sustainable transport systems by expanding public transport to meet the needs of those in vulnerable situations.

Commonwealth Alumnus Ajara Sompo Ceesay is a Transport Specialist with the World Bank Group. Initially, Ajara was part of the World Bank’s East Asia and Pacific unit and now works in the Africa West and Central unit, where she provides technical support on the preparation and delivery of transport projects. The projects are focused on improving transport efficiency, increasing road connectivity and addressing the resilience of transport infrastructure to cope with a changing climate.

Implementing climate resilient infrastructure in the Pacific

Understanding the impact of climate is vital for improving the sustainability and resilience of transport infrastructure and devising solutions that are durable and long-lasting.

“When other sectors or people hear about climate resilience transport, it’s like, is it electric cars? Is that the only way forward? But there are so many aspects of the environmental benefits of transport. And these include developing roadways in a manner where the materials that we use, for instance, could be more climate-resilient to be able to withstand extreme weather events such as flooding.”

During her time working in the East Asia and Pacific region, Ajara’s work was concentrated on evaluating the impact of climate conditions on transport infrastructure and developing adaptation solutions.

Building blocks featuring sustainable energy iconsAjara has worked on transport projects in Tonga and Papua New Guinea on their climate and disaster risk assessments. In this capacity, she examined how climate conditions, such as increased temperatures, sea level rise, and the frequency of extreme weather events, had changed over time in order to provide advice on adaptation and mitigation interventions. Focusing predominantly on roads and existing transport infrastructure, she presented considerations for remedial improvements as well as identifying sites for possible relocation.

In 2020, Ajara was part of a team that prepared a project to improve the resilience of Tonga’s transport infrastructure in response to rising temperatures and flood risks. The project encompassed studies, design, and physical works on road, aviation, and maritime infrastructure.

To address rising temperatures, the team adapted the materials used in road construction to improve the durability and longevity of road surfaces. They also implemented new drainage structures to tackle the effects of flooding. This adaptation allowed water to flow away from road surfaces, thereby increasing the usability of roads during periods of flooding and reducing the impact of water damage to road surfaces.

In addition, the project focused on enhancing seaports and improving the resilience of airport runways and services to reduce the potential effects of climate-related damage and lessen the costs of long-term maintenance.

Building opportunities for women

The project also involved a pioneering programme to support commercial driver licensing for women in Tonga.

Across the region, there is a significant gender imbalance in the commercial driving sector and women are often excluded from employment opportunities as drivers. As such, the programme was designed to provide driver training specifically for women to support skills development and enable them to attain a commercial driver’s license.

Through the programme, women in Tonga have been able to improve their employability in the transport sector by obtaining commercial driver’s licenses. The programme is ongoing and aims to improve women’s economic status while at the same time contributing to national economic development activities.

“There are cultural barriers because it’s not a norm for women to be driving trucks. But we were able to successfully convince the client that this could be an opportunity that could help women improve their access to jobs and economic development.”

Investing in local knowledge

Climate resilient transport infrastructure requires significant investment and many low and middle income countries do not have the resources to implement their transport needs.

“Transport infrastructure is a sector that demands high resources, from the materials that you need to do the work, to the labour, but also the capacity. Most of the countries I work with don’t just have transport development that they have to focus on. They have education to develop. They have healthcare to develop. They have social networks to develop. Combining all these development challenges makes it difficult to just focus on a good transport system.”

Many countries are also reliant on international consultants for the development and delivery of transport projects. This increases the costs of a project and threatens opportunities to nurture in-country knowledge and expertise which could be harnessed to deliver future projects. Even where in-country consultants are available, Ajara has observed that they often lack the capacity for large-scale projects funded by international organisations.

Projects led by the World Bank work closely with local in-country institutions to ensure they are directly involved in project delivery and benefit from knowledge they have gained once the project is over. International consultants are encouraged to work with local consultants and contractors under a joint venture to further promote knowledge transfer and strengthen local expertise.

Bridging the trade gap

Before taking up a Commonwealth Scholarship, Ajara worked for the National Roads Authority (NRA) in The Gambia.

She joined the NRA in 2010 at the start of the project preparation for the 942-meter Trans-Gambia Bridge. Completed in 2019, the bridge was intended to facilitate trade between The Gambia’s northern and southern regions and neighbouring countries Senegal and Mali. Additionally, the bridge was designed to improve transport efficiency and reduce travel times within the country. Prior to the bridge development, crossings could only be made by ferry which did not operate at night and impeded trade and travel when out of service.

Ajara joined at the initialisation stage and worked on procurement and contract management alongside various consultants and contractors involved in delivering the project. She also regularly attended site visits to observe the implementation of the project.

The bridge was the first toll infrastructure facility in The Gambia and reinvests its revenue in maintaining the bridge structure. As well as meeting its trade objectives, the bridge also provides an accessible route for Gambians to cross between the north and south at any time.

The Urban Roads Development

Her experience of working at the NRA inspired Ajara to undertake further studies.

“My motivation was to learn new transport knowledge. What are the new transport skills that I can develop to help support the National Roads Authority? But also, to help my career progression to work outside of The Gambia from a regional perspective to an international perspective, to be able to experience a wider outlook of transport development itself.”

During her Master’s, Ajara became interested in urban development which she realised was a significant challenge in The Gambia and across sub-Saharan African.

After completing her dissertation on urban street design, Ajara worked with colleagues at the NRA to set-up the Urban Roads Development. This initiative aimed to map informal roadways and alternative routes that could be improved to ease traffic on metropolitan trunk roads. Ajara played a key role in identifying existing roadways and mapping diversions and alternative routes that could be developed over time.

Since its inception, the Urban Roads Development has strengthened the metropolitan transport network in The Gambia and progressively increased connectivity for economic and other essential activities.

Transporting ambitions

Ajara credits her studies at Imperial College London with enabling her to learn about different transport innovations and developments across the globe. Reflecting on her motivations, she highlighted that her Commonwealth Scholarship had made a lasting and important impact on her career, and supported her ambition to work internationally.

“It has opened up a lot of opportunities for me. And hopefully my career progression and the projects I’ve worked on have also touched on other local communities. It has extended past just impacting me and my life. It is a great opportunity that, I hope, continues to benefit others.”

Ajara Sompo Ceesay is a 2013 Commonwealth Scholar from The Gambia. She completed an MSc in Transport with Sustainable Development at Imperial College London.