Artisanal dyeing in Bamako, Mali

Important economic activity as well as serious health threat 

Titia Wouters (Programme Manager VIA Water) and Caroline Figuères (Consultant) visited artisanal dyeing companies in two districts of Bamako to explore possibilities for cooperation. Can we find innovative solutions to this pressing issue, which can be supported by the VIA Water programme? Caroline wrote a blog about her findings.

‘The socio-economic situation in Bamako’

Artisanal dyeing in Mali and in Bamako in particular is an important economic activity for the Malian population. In preparation for the workshop we organized, visits were planned to two districts of Bamako, Kalan Bancoura and Dianeguela. The first receives support from the province of Andalusia (Spain) and the Spanish NGO MZC. The second was built in 2011 as a project of "governance and culture", coordinated by UNESCO and funded by the European Union. In Dianeguela it is said that nearly 80% of the women in the area are active in the artisanal dyeing process. Men are involved in the production during the so-called “tapage” phase.

Production of the famous basin fabric, considered a rich African textile, is laborious and poorly paid work for women. The white shiny damask cotton basin usually comes from European countries including Germany and the Netherlands but is also sourced out of China. Chemical dyeing products are also imported from these countries. The fabric sells well in domestic and regional markets as well as internationally. However, female-producers complain about the low prices that they are offered and are forced to accept for lack of alternatives. In their statements women make clear that the chain of production and marketing is not fair trade and it is certainly not a friendly production chain taking care of public health and the environment.

The health-related issues and environmental degradation

The problem of pollution from artisanal dye activities is well known in Mali and has many dimensions. Within the tissue dyeing process toxic chemical products are used, often without protective gloves or masks. This has a detrimental effect on the health of people working with them and people (often kids) close by. Chemical dyes themselves contain polluting components such as heavy metals and are mostly non-biodegradable.

Wastewater from dyeing is stored on site in so-called septic tanks or underground pits which often leak into the phreatic groundwater. In the best case scenario a wastewater treatment plant is installed at the dyeing center. Most often the collected wastewater is recovered by a special truck and after payment transported to the wastewater treatment plant of the SOTUBA. In the worst case scenario wastewaters still loaded with dyes and other chemicals are discharged directly into the environment which leads to pollution of surface water and groundwater and soil.

In recent years studies have been done by various organizations such as UNESCO/IBEA in 2008 and SLU in 2009. Dye waters are mentioned in the chemicals management program in Mali in 2014.

Possible solutions: Global Approach - Prevention and Treatment

During the workshop on April 15th in Bamako a visualization of the problem (mind-mapping) was conducted with participants from different sectors (several ministries, municipalities, NGOs, associations formally organized or not, dyers, companies, universities). This visualization helped clarify the issues faced by the different actors and a conversation between actors to allow their resolution was initiated. Solutions to reduce health risks exist and the vast majority of Bamako dyers know what risks they face. Awareness programs which stimulate sustainable behavior change among the actors in the production chain are surely needed. Technical solutions for treating wastewater from dyeing processes do exist but are often cost prohibitive for the quantity produced in many places, depending also on the chemicals used.

During the workshop interesting alternatives were suggested, such as using natural dyes. Similarly, proposals have been made regarding other methods for the collection and treatment of wastewater in order to reduce the environmental impact and costs. Solutions cannot be designed and implemented in an institutional context. It is necessary to use an integrated model, encouraging problem solving and taking into account the socio-economic context of the dyeing activity, particularly taking into account the whole chain from producer to consumer. As part of the VIA Water program, innovative solutions for waste water must therefore be included in this global integrated perspective.

The Malian National Water Partnership (PNE) has scheduled a follow-up meeting between the participants already interested and missing players identified during the workshop to work out one or two ideas for projects that could be funded by VIA Water.