Seven Lessons for Arts Entrepreneurs Learned from Waste Recouperators and Transformers in Senegal

As an undergraduate student I was interested in ideas of urban "materials efficiency" -- the ways resources could be conserved by extending reuse and recycling practices. Later I became interested in the role municipal dumps play in advancing these practices in emerging economies. On a field research trip to Senegal I learned how the municipal dump -- a landfill in a 2km/sq lake outside of the capital city -- served the survival needs of the urban poor; I learned how the dump served as an entry point into the informal urban economy, and I knew that it was often the last stop as one slipped out of the urban economy.

By working alongside and talking with the recouperators, waste transformers and distributors I learned how informal networks facilitated a vast series of enterprises that produced goods for the urban poor. This experience profoundly shaped how I understand entrepreneurship, and what I value most in the artists and entrepreneurs that I have the good fortune to work with. Here, twenty years later, are seven of the key takeaways that I learned from these resilient entrepreneurs:

You hustle. There's a restless kind of urgency to the work that happens at the dump. With trucks arriving by the hour there's intense competition for discovery; there's potential value within each load and you know you can't afford to wait for someone else to discover it first.

Fast filters. As resources flow into the dump, recouperators know what they're looking for. They make thousands of snap judgments every hour as they work through the tonnage, sorting materials by kind and by condition. These are raw materials, the stores of future value.

One thing, done really well. Transformers specialize; some are expert locksmiths, others repair sandals. One only collects buttons, zippers and other items useful to tailoring. Specialization helps you to differentiate, and you own that identity like a Saints fan.

Partner opportunistically. Survival at the dump means that you are savvy enough to protect your skills and assets while relying on trusted colleagues for help, and knowing when you need it. You seek that balance between self-interest and loyalty to the group that will ultimately be a part of your success.

Stretch your resources. It can be hard to gain perspective at the dump, there is such an intense volume of material and the work hazards are staggering. The most successful workers know how to build a stockpile of goods, get those goods to market at the right time, and spend as little as possible in the process.

Inventive. As much as recouperators are driven and they are fast, transformers are endlessly inventive. Every item in the dump is broken in its own way; the tears and bends, cracks and warps offer unique possibilities into doing one thing differently, forever.

Goal orientation. In addition to doing what you do because you love it, its your métier, you are motivated by a long-term aspiration -- you have a vision of yourself thriving. Few people aspire to remain for long at a dump without a profoundly optimistic view that work draws you closer to something better.


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