Abdou Touré carried his childhood lessons from Boy Scouts into a life dedicated to inspiring environmental action in Dakar, Senegal.
Dakar, Senegal, is a jewel of West Africa, adorned with white sandy beaches and tropical islands lined with palm trees. But it is also a city mired in plastic pollution.
Spearfishers wade through single-use bags, bleating sheep nibble on plastic bottles and bags, and children dodge piles of waste while playing beach football.
Many in Dakar think it’s a problem without a solution. But one Senegalese Scout — he joined the Boy Scouts as a child and has long applied the Scouting ethos to work in his life — is proving that it’s possible to turn the tide and has inspired an environmental movement in hundreds of communities across twelve African nations.
It all began with one simple act.
“I started to clean up litter every Sunday morning, water the trees, and plant some flowers” says Abdou Touré, a bespectacled environmental project manager with a contagious smile. “I was born and raised in Dakar, but I could not bear to live in a dirty neighborhood. And I thought, why should I?”
He recalls the bemusement — and, in some cases, derision — of his neighbors when he started sweeping the sandy street in front of his house and collecting litter in 2019, going against what he calls “the throwaway culture” of the nation. “It touched them and maybe even embarrassed them,” Touré says. “I started cleaning in front of a neighbor’s house and she came out screaming, asking why I was cleaning her property.” Touré’s reply was straightforward: “My children grow up here, others in the neighborhood play here. I need to clean up here — it’s my education.” His stubbornness caught on, inspiring others to join his Green Neighborhood Challenge (#Quartier Vert Challenge), a hashtag he created to encourage others to clean up their communities. Now, he says, “everyone participates.”
Armed with just a bin bag and gloves, Touré starts his weekly Sunday ritual alone at 7 a.m. on the roughly 500 yard stretch of road that leads to the neighborhood school. Fifteen minutes later, yawning parents arrive to water plants and sweep. Energetic children help Touré fill his bag. An hour later, the street is a hive of civic activity.
The difference between Touré’s stretch of road and a typical Dakar street is now so profound, he says, that “when people pass through here, they often stop to take a selfie.”
The project has been good for business, according to a local shop owner, Ousmane Diallo: “It attracts clients because it’s pleasant,” Diallo says. “A lot of people come to sit here, have a coffee, and eat something.”
From Touré’s sandy street, Green Neighborhood Challenge has grown to other communities in Dakar, regions across Senegal, and neighborhoods in a dozen other African countries. Touré says his success is all about good communication.
“I use every type of social media out there — Facebook, Instagram, Tik Tok, and Twitter,” Touré says. “That’s how I reach the most people.” His outreach is working. “People see the videos and say, ‘Abdou, I want to do this in my own area, can you help me?’”
His posts about the weekly challenge have also attracted some big names. A string of Senegalese football players, the UK ambassador to Senegal, and politicians have all lent their support to Touré, helping him to amplify the profile of Green Neighborhood Challenge.
Offering an antidote to despair, Touré gives hope and agency to people to bring about change. But he says this must start with taking personal responsibility, rather than waiting for everyone else to act.
He uses the example of group clean-ups: “It’s never been a solution; one day you do a group clean-up, and the next, it’s dirty again.”
Instead of enforcing collective action, Touré’s philosophy is to lead by example and encourage people to build good habits.
“I show them my joy, the pleasure it gives me to live in a clean environment and how it can transform your way of thinking.”
He credits this world view to his lifelong involvement with the Scouts.
At the age of seven, Touré asked parents to let him join his friends at the Scouts, an organization created in 1908 in Britain that began in Senegal in 1930.
The summer camps instilled in him a deep connection to nature, something that is plain to see in his care for flowers and his planting of trees — now up to a count of 3,300 in his neighborhood.
He also says that Scout camp gave him confidence: “When I was small, I was really shy. But by participating in the scouts, I started to sing in public, play games, and joke — I found my voice.”
Beyond self-assurance, the scout education gave him the tools of planning, discipline, and motivation, which together enable him to carry out projects and inspire others to join him.
“The Scouts give you a lot of responsibility early on; they teach you clear working methods,” he says. “It gave me the courage to mobilize my community.”
It’s no wonder he follows in the footsteps of former Scouts such as Martin Luther King Jr, Neil Armstrong, and Barack Obama.
This belief that he can enact change is contagious. You can’t help but catch his enthusiasm when you listen to Touré discuss his projects — rooftop farming, upcycling waste, coaching teens in environmental action.
On Touré’s own rooftop, he shows off his farming experiments — tall vines of tomatoes stretching into the sky from raised beds, and thick hedges of fragrant herbs. “Increasing urbanization has meant cutting down our trees in Dakar,” he says, “but we can create green spaces on terraces to create biodiversity and spaces for birds, bees and butterflies. When people see me on social media growing potatoes, herbs, and salads, they ask me if I can teach them.”
Problems are opportunities, Touré says. He mentors unemployed youth, teaching them how to turn trash into products for sale. One mentee in the Democratic Republic of Congo is even turning wasted car tires into chairs, tables, and tree pots. “He’s a real entrepreneur,” Touré notes.
When it feels as though the solutions to global problems are beyond our reach, Touré shows us that small acts can change the world.