Harnessing the power of waste to deliver clean energy in Ghana

Kirsty Scott

31 January 2023

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

I’m really passionate about environmental sustainability, and I realised that renewable energy is one of the most important topics. This is because climate change is happening and I want to contribute my quota to the Sustainable Development Goal 7: Affordable and Clean Energy.

Tracy Asamoah

In Ghana, approximately 12,710 tonnes of solid waste are generated every day, with only 10% collected and disposed of properly. Plastic waste accounts for a significant proportion of the overall amount of daily solid waste. As major cities like Accra and Kumasi grow, tackling solid waste management is becoming critical to creating sustainable and healthy cities and communities. At the same time, countries are looking to achieve their climate commitments by introducing renewable and sustainable energy sources. Converting solid waste into energy is one way to achieve both goals.

Following her Commonwealth Scholarship and MSc Sustainable Environmental Management at the University of Greenwich, Commonwealth Alumnus Tracy Asamoah-Boateng was recruited as Project Coordinator at Mindnet Technologies, an environmental and business consulting firm in Ghana.

During her time at Mindnet, Tracy undertook a role as an Environmental and Social Impact Consultant for an $80 million dollar Waste-to-Energy plant project funded by the Dutch government. The Waste-to-Energy plant was to generate 20 Megawatts of electricity from municipal solid waste at Ghana’s largest landfill site. Tracy’s role was to conduct stakeholder engagement with the local communities affected by the site development.

A community-centred approach to project implementation

At the time she was brought on board, the project was still at the feasibility stage and Tracy was tasked with managing the sensitisation process, working with various stakeholders to understand their concerns and challenges with the project delivery, and demonstrate the positive impact of the plant in the short and long-term.

In particular, this required Tracy to work with local communities affected by the immediate development of the plant. Two hundred acres of land were required to construct the plant, requiring the resettlement of 5 communities, representing approximately 10,000 people. Developing a picture of how significant re-settlement disruption would be for the community and understanding how best to meet the needs of community members, whilst mediating with developers, was integral to the success of the project.

When approaching stakeholder engagement, Tracy drew on a lasting message from her studies.

“What I learnt from my Master’s degree was that the most important people in every developmental project are the people who live within the neighbouring communities. Everything is about people. Even climate change is about people. You can’t do any powerful thing or any developmental projects without consulting the people who are actually involved.”

As part of a small project team, Tracy was responsible for liaising with the local authorities in each community, which included chiefs, landowners, and religious leaders, to outline the project and discuss the provisions made for resettlement, including compensation fees, and highlight the new employment opportunities at the plant. She remained mindful throughout the sensitisation required during this consultation process.

“It’s going to be an energy plant that’s going to benefit everybody and is going to provide great power which everybody needs, but what about the neighbouring communities? Are they in agreement with this? They have been living there for as long as they could remember. Would they be able to accept this change? That was when we came in. I never thought I could pull this off.”

Despite her initial doubts, following a two-month period of community engagement, four of the five communities representing approximately 8,000 people embraced the project and the provisions made to minimise and compensate for the impact.

One community, however, was reluctant to engage and were not willing to give up their ancestral land for the plant development. This required Tracy and her team to engage in an ongoing consultation and negotiation process to persuade the remaining community of the longer-term advantages of the plant nationally, and the interventions in place locally to support them.

The project is on the way of implementation, but for Tracy and the developers, this was a significant milestone and one that has enabled Ghana to further explore renewable energy production.

Prioritising energy justice

Tracy’s studies and work on this project have sparked a passion to support renewable and sustainable energy implementation in Ghana and to tackle energy injustice.

“During my Master’s we did a lot of things. We did environmental waste management. We did  environmental law. We did climate change. But as the time grew nearer, my love and passion to actually delve into clean and affordable energy arose.”

Whilst in the case of the Waste-to-Energy plant local communities were consulted on the process and are set to benefit from the development of the plant, this is not always the case. Tracy’s subsequent research has highlighted the experiences of Ghana’s 200 island communities who do not have basic access to electricity. In 1965, the Akosombo Hydroelectric Dam was constructed, which is now the main producer of power in Ghana. To construct the dam, most local communities were displaced and re-settled to nearby island communities.

Despite being displaced by the construction work, the island communities remain the closest geographical habitation to the dam, and yet they are not connected to the grid and the communities don’t have access to electricity. The biggest obstacle preventing the communities from accessing electricity is the need for underwater cables which requires significant financial investment and infrastructure. By contrast, energy access in mainland Ghana is planned via overland routes.

Tracy stands in front of a solar mini-grid implemented in one island community in Ghana

Tracy stands in front of a solar mini-grid implemented in one island community in Ghana

Tracy is now in her final year of doctoral studies at the University of Aberdeen where she is completing research into energy justice. Her research considers the impact of energy injustice on the quality of life for rural communities in Ghana and how renewable energy solutions could provide opportunities for rural electrification. One of such solutions is solar energy in the form of solar mini-grids, which has been partly implemented in some of the island communities Ghana, although further research and assessment is required to realise this as a sustainable solution to energy injustice.

Putting the Scholarship skills into practice

Tracy cites two modules completed during her Commonwealth Master’s Scholarship which have influenced her work and current research.

“I learnt environmental law and I also learnt about environmental impact assessment. These two courses made me feel like a consultant because we had workshops, we had presentations, we had case studies that we were dealing with.”

On the course, Tracy wasn’t just required to understand environmental laws, guidelines, and case studies, she was also expected to use this information to present practical solutions to real-world situations. This meant that on completing her studies and returning to Ghana, she was able to demonstrate to employers an ability to implement her learning, beyond research and textbooks.

She also used this time to develop important soft skills, most notably giving presentations. Tracy admits that prior to her studies she was shy and reluctant to present her ideas in front of colleagues. Now, however, she feels able to speak as an expert on her topic.

“When I went to my workplace it was very simple for me because I was able to talk in the midst of people, present my work, engage in workshops freely, because I had built that confidence based on my Master’s research. And I will never forget, my highest scores were all with regards to presentations, and I think these presentation skills have really helped me in every aspect of my life.”

Learning from the sustainable farming sector

A further output of her work with Mindnet Technologies was the co-founding of Gaia Greenfields, an agri-business which focuses on integrating sustainable technologies and practices into West African agriculture. Tracy’s motivation in setting up the project was to contribute towards the Government of Ghana’s flagship project, Planting for Food and Jobs, which seeks to achieve food security and sustainable job creation.

On a 10-acre plot, Tracy and her co-founder have used sustainable farming practices to cultivate green peppers and cabbages on a large scale for local consumption. They have been able to sell produce to shopping malls and high-end restaurants in Accra.

Their quest to incorporate sustainable agriculture was inspired by Tracy’s studies in environmental sustainability and management, which have equipped her with the requisite skills to implement best environmental practices in their farming operations. This includes the adoption of a drip irrigation system that waters crops all year round, allowing the cultivation of high-quality cabbages and green peppers even in the dry season. The water for the irrigation system is sourced from a solar powered borehole to cut down the consumption of fossil fuels and related fuel costs, exemplifying the environmentally sustainable and economically beneficial structure of the cultivation process.

Tracy stresses that it has been hard to develop the farm and gain interest in both the produce and the sustainable farming techniques used, but they have been able to share guidance and advice with other local producers. With a growing interest at the public level for local and sustainably produced food, they are also supporting local farmers to change their farming practices and meet the demands of buyers, sellers, and restaurants.

Tracy continues to stay involved in Gaia Greenfields and invest in the importance of sustainable environmental management in both her academic research and career, as well as in her private ventures.

“Branching into Gaia Greenfields was an amazing experience I will never forget in my life, because it was a new thing altogether. I had not considered agriculture in any way of my life, because when I thought of environmental sustainability, it was just going into clean energy. I will forever be grateful for being part of this Gaia Greenfields project, and that’s something I’m really passionate and I’m happy about.”

Tracy Asamoah-Boateng is 2016 Commonwealth Scholar from Ghana. She completed an MSc Environmental Management at the University of Greenwich.