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By Semira Beyan and Sadie Groberg '24
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  • Global Development

The Humphrey PACT (Practitioner - Assistant - Collaborative - Training) Program pairs undergraduate students in Global Development with Hubert H. Humphrey Fellows to work on a research endeavor in the fields of agriculture, rural development, and natural resource management. In this bilateral exchange, each undergrad is assigned as a research assistant, contributing to the Humphrey Fellow’s work from their home countries. Humphrey Fellows, who are mid-career professionals from around the world, gain support from students, while students get direct experiences with real-world development projects. 

In this field note, Semira Beyan (Humphrey Fellow from Ethiopia) and Sadie Groberg ‘24 (Global Development), reflect on their research partnership which focused on rethinking the management of household solid waste in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia. Specifically, Semira and Sadie examined the methods of disposal and management which are employed by residential condominiums in the city. Together, they prepared a grant proposal aimed at reframing the way that individuals and systems approach waste management. 

What are the big challenges that your PACT project confronted? 

Sadie: The issue of improper management of solid waste is one that significantly impacts the health and wellbeing of Addis Ababa’s residents. Due to inadequate collection, organization, and treatment practices, the city lacks an effective system for removing waste from households. Until this issue is addressed through policy reforms and other interventions, the people of Addis Ababa will continue to suffer the consequences on their health and surroundings.

More than 60% of communicable diseases in Ethiopia are significantly linked to poor environmental conditions, particularly related to unsafe water and inadequate sanitation and hygiene. This high percentage underscores the critical impact of environmental factors on public health in the country. 

When we say “domestic” or “household” waste, this refers to food scraps, ash, plastics, paper, packaging and any other household byproducts. As Addis Ababa's population grows rapidly, this waste is being produced in increasing quantities. The city's waste management system is overwhelmed, with only 65% of the daily waste generation actually being collected. The remaining 35% is either improperly dumped or accumulates around residences. 

Through our research review, Semira and I identified a number of root causes to this issue — mainly, the lack of strong infrastructure, low enforcement of regulation, and lack of awareness about proper management. As a result, we explored the subsequent problems of environmental damage, economic burdens, and a multitude of negative health effects on residents. 

Semira:  The country doesn't have a well-established collection system where people can dump their household waste properly. The management is mainly handled by groups organized by the Woreda municipal office, while pickers are mostly women. The problem is severe in areas where people live in condominiums. For example, where I lived, we used to dump our unsegregated waste every Tuesday and Friday at a nearby location, basically into the road across from our residential building with no collection bin. Then the waste collector piles waste and puts it into a bigger waste collector vehicle and transfers it to a landfill. Individuals and organizations interested in waste recycling and reuse usually navigate the landfills to pick their preferences. It is not unusual to see women and children collecting/picking plastic cans/bottles — they transfer them to recycling companies.

This means of disposal has created a problem for the people living around the area, primarily the waste collectors. It has health, aesthetic, and environmental effects and impacts the overall well-being of communities. 

Therefore, without major policy adjustments and infrastructure improvements to rebuild a waste management system that is capable of handling Addis Ababa's population growth, the city's residents will continue to suffer. 

How can your PACT project make an impact on that challenge? 

Semira: In the PACT partnership, Sadie and I developed a project that considers the huge health and environmental effects of improper waste disposal. The proposed project will contribute to waste management in the Tafo condominium residential areas of Addis Ababa. 

This initiative is not just about improving household waste management. It's about empowering the community to recognize their role as the key stakeholders and take charge of their environment. By engaging the community and upgrading the infrastructure, we aim to boost local participation and awareness about responsible waste disposal, thereby minimizing health and environmental risks. 

Key efforts include modernizing waste collection facilities, enhancing recycling processes, and educating residents via workshops and school programs. The project also plans to establish better-equipped waste collection sites and train waste pickers on safety and efficiency. The initiative hopes to replicate its success in other locations by demonstrating a scalable waste management model, ultimately fostering sustainable environmental practices.

Why did you want to get involved in the PACT program in the first place?  

Semira: The issue of waste management has been in my mind for the longest period of my life since I became involved in the field of soil science. I would ask myself, how can we solve it? Who is responsible? And coming to Cornell and learning about the PACT program made me interested in learning about the solid waste management system of the US by using the opportunity to collaborate with a sustainability student like Sadie. 

Sadie: As an undergraduate student in the Department of Global Development, I have long admired the Humphrey Fellowship participants for their regional expertise, diversity of interests, and the sacrifices that they make to further their research and pursuits. The PACT program provides a unique opportunity for undergraduate students to collaborate with someone who has a wealth of tailored knowledge as well as a nuanced understanding of global complexities. In my final semester at Cornell, I have been intentional about devoting my time to the GDEV community while also seizing any possible opportunity to hone my research and collaboration skills. Although I was impressed by the resumes of each of the Humphrey Fellows, I am so lucky to have been paired with Semira and able to work under her guidance. This experience has been educational as well as empowering for me as a researcher, and I look forward to following the progress of the program in the future. 

What’s next?!

Semira: The next steps are executing the project plan by securing funding. I look forward to submitting the grant proposal that we were able to work on together. 

What are you taking away from your time in this research partnership? 

Sadie: My time working with Semira has had a significant impact on my research and collaboration skills. I was eager to learn from Semira, as an expert in her field with first-hand experience and a true recognition of how improper waste management impacts the lives of Ethiopian residents. 

I was previously unaware of the crisis of improper household solid waste management, and was particularly struck by the personal perspective that Semira was able to provide. Not only does mismanaged waste have a negative impact on population health, but it also affects civilians’ relationships with their environment and society. Moving forward, I am eager to continue observing how the structures of disposal alter a region’s functionality and attractiveness. 

Throughout our partnership, Semira encouraged me to take the lead on the direction of our research and the presentation of findings. Although she already knew many of the answers to my questions, she supported me in reaching my own conclusions. Despite the many contrasts in our personal backgrounds, Semira and I found common ground through the PACT partnership and I am grateful for her leadership and encouragement. 

Semira: Working with Sadie was a wonderful experience; she is an amazing, hard-working student with a strong passion for community engagement. For me, key takeaways include the importance of simplifying complex ideas without losing essential content; the value of this connection for future collaborations and professional opportunities; and an understanding of the problem and its root causes. 

About the authors

Semira Mohammed Beyan headshot

Humphrey Fellow, 2023-24 (Ethiopia)
Specialization: Natural/soil resource management; environmental policy and climate change; gender in agricultural development and innovation

Headshot of Sadie Groberg

Major: Development Sociology with minors in Inequality Studies and Crime, Prison, Education, & Justice
Research focus: The sociology of prisons

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