DAKAR, Senegal — A small crew of young men and women are fast at work in the Place de l’Obélisque, turning the central square of this capital city from a wide patch of asphalt and sand sidewalks into a colorfully paved plaza.
Some are pushing wheelbarrows full of yellow, red and gray brick pavers that are molded into small squares, rectangles and diamonds. One worker is taking measurements with a wood baton while a colleague snaps a string guideline along the ground. Another is on his knees, carefully positioning the pavers flat on the ground, forming distinctive streaks of color across the square.
They’re working quickly because there’s a deadline to meet. The site must be ready by April 4 — Senegal’s Independence Day. Place de l’Obélisque is where the capital city's rallies and mass demonstrations start or finish, where political parties organize meetings and where musicians come to give concerts. On April 4, the president of Senegal will preside over a parade here.
The work in the Place de l’Obélisque is just one part of an ambitious paving program Dakar embarked on in 2011. Along many big avenues and on the plazas outside of mosques and schools, the colorful bricks are replacing sandy sidewalks and cracked asphalt streets. The paving program is not only changing the face of Dakar. It is also changing the lives of the many young people employed by the project.
That’s because local officials decided not to hire a contractor that would use a lot of machines to do the bulk of the paving work. Instead, they chose to do the job the old-fashioned way: with a small army of workers using their hands — and collecting paychecks. In a city where one measure puts the unemployment rate at 19 percent and the rate for youth even higher, the paving project has created work for 500 people.
The program is an example of a jobs strategy that is nothing new in Africa but is deployed less than one might expect. It's called "employment intensive investment," or travaux à haute intensité de main d'oeuvre — HIMO. Essentially, it means employing many people to build something that could just as easily be made by very few.
It sounds simple, but it requires a deliberate turn away from the way public works contracting is often done now. Despite the high rates of poverty and youth unemployment in many African cities, projects such as street paving are often the domain of international contractors who mechanize the work using modern construction methods. Dakar’s more jobs-focused approach won recognition in 2012 from the Guangzhou International Award for Urban Innovation.
Oumar Dièye coordinates the program at Dakar’s Municipal Technical Services department, where his enthusiasm has earned him the nickname "Mr. Pavement." Dièye says there are many social benefits to the HIMO approach. It’s keeping public spending within the community. It’s giving workers skills they can use elsewhere. And the cost comes out less than using mechanized approaches.
"If we hired a usual company for the paving," Dièye says, "we would have missed the opportunity to create jobs and enable young people to gain qualified training." He remembers the first paving program done by Agetip, a public work agency, years ago. For every one worker employed then, Dièye says, Dakar is now employing ten.
"It's Better Than Unemployment"
Many of those jobs are based at a factory in an industrial area near a neighborhood called Colobane. This is where the pavers are made. Workers here load concrete into spinning mixers, pack the wet mix into molds and stack finished bricks onto pallets to be trucked out to the construction sites. Some of the workers here wear shirts that read Stop au chômage des jeunes — Stop youth unemployment.
The factory is run by the Beli Sasha Group, a subsidiary of Yelhy Technology Africa based in Burkina Faso. The company is committed to the HIMO approach. Jules Legma, the factory manager, says that for 80 percent of the employees, this is their first job. "Doing public works usually means more gear and fewer men," Legma says. "The high-intensity labor option gives priority to human beings."
About 4,000 people applied for work through the program. The only job requirement was to be healthy enough to handle the physical demands of the work. The elected municipal council of Dakar selected 800 to go through training in how to make and install pavers. About 600 signed contracts for jobs and about 500 are working now. "Today, any young person who stops working in this program may qualify for a job in construction companies," says Dièye. "And they also have documents that prove the training."
For their part, workers interviewed on the site generally seem pleased to have decent jobs with medical benefits. They also receive a contribution toward retirement savings, paid vacation and medical support for spouses and minor children.
But many complain that the pay is not enough. Depending on the job, salaries range from $161 to $209. "This allows us to afford some expenses and ensure home duties," says Ibrahima Diao, 30. "But we cannot do anything more with 77,000 CFA francs. In addition, the days of unexcused absences are not paid.
"We have many concerns," continues Diao, who is married and is the father of a young boy. "Our main concern is that paychecks are sometimes late." Other workers we talked to agree that this is a recurring problem.
The workers prefer time in the factory over laboring out at the paving sites. At the factory, once they finish their daily bulk of work, they can leave. By contrast, working hours at the paving sites are from 8 am to 5 pm. Workers do get paid for overtime. Youssou Fall, 40, says the job is about "livelihood rather than salary.” But, he adds, "It's better than unemployment or panhandling."
A number of workers cited the camaraderie that’s developed among them. Several relationships formed over pavers have actually resulted in marriages. Mouhamadou Fall, a 27-year old with dreadlocks above his shoulders, puts it this way: "More than wages, we found a family and gained experience.”
Can it last?
The main criticism of HIMO projects is that they aren’t sustainable. They employ people until the money runs out, and then the workers are out of a job. Dakar’s program could encounter that problem. It’s intended as a five-year program, but funding expires from year to year and must be renewed in the annual municipal budget.
The funding varies. In the first year there was a budget of $12.5 million U.S., but this was mainly used to buy equipment and the land where the paver factory was built. For 2014, Dakar has budgeted about $6.3 million U.S.
Whatever happens, Dakar is getting new streets. The city needs them badly. Drivers here like to joke that "one cannot avoid holes in the roads, so one just has to choose holes."
The paving program won’t solve all of Dakar’s road problems. There's not sufficient funding to repave the whole city and even if there was, it would take 20 years to pave all the streets at the current pace.
But the paving is solving some of Dakar’s problems. The pavers are designed to facilitate rainwater drainage. Small spaces between the blocks allow water to filter into the ground rather than run off. In a neighborhood called Grand Yoff, which has suffered from constant flooding during the rainy season since the mid-1990s, streets now drain better as a result of the paving program. Sand streets and sidewalks that used to wash out in heavy rains are now stabilized.
And one thing everyone agrees on is that the newly paved streets look great. The colorful geometric patterns are giving parts of Dakar a distinctive look. On roads where pedestrians previously had no choice but to walk in traffic, there are new paved walkways where adults stroll or sit talking under trees while boys and girls play. "The dream has become a tangible reality," says Theophile Bama, director of Yelhy Technology Africa. "There is a qualitative change in the appearance of Dakar."
Top image: Dakar is paving city streets using a "high intensity manpower" approach that has put 500 people to work. (Mamadou Gomis)
This post originally appeared on Citiscope, an Atlantic partner site.