FIGHTING COASTAL CHALLENGES: An Insight Into Systems Approach for West African Coastal Development


Due to the challenges faced by coastal communities in West Africa as a result of flooding and erosion negatively affecting the ecosystem and livelihoods, The West Africa Coastal Areas (WACA) management program organized Call for Innovation to mitigate these challenges and boost the economy through sustainable and innovative solutions from both international and local experts.

The presentation and award event in November last year brought together top 5 finalists with 3 getting funded by Nordic Development Fund (NDF), the World Bank Group, and Quality Infrastructure Investment (QII) Partnership.

Recently interviewing Tom Wilms, the project manager for Witteveen + Bos who delivered a systematic integrated approach known as SA-POD, “Systems Approach for Port Development”, more insights about the project was shared:

Hi, Tom. It’s a pleasure to have you.

With the Systems Approach for Port Development (SA-POD) funded, what is the current state of the project so far?

We’ve used this approach quite regularly within our company (Witteveen+Bos). As a company, we work in the Netherlands and also abroad. We use this approach in various projects, disciplines, and also in various infrastructures.

We see it useful, and that’s why we also thought it could be helpful for the West African coasts. It is an inclusive approach for stakeholders as well as for all the different systems, to benefit the West African coast.

What are the current challenges?

We are not applying this approach that frequently in the West African region yet. That’s one of the reasons we’re competing for the goal of innovation. So that we can have an opportunity to use this approach.

This approach has also been used in Indonesia, and I think the challenges are similar around the world. People have their own expertise, with that it is difficult to interact with other disciplines. So even engineers have difficulties talking to each other, let alone engineers talking to ecologists or to social experts and then to the government and the local communities.

It is a challenge as people from very different disciplines talk to each other, and all their knowledge is valued equal. I’ve lived and worked for 4 years in Indonesia, and people in governance even if they just had their PhD, it is difficult to say the truth because when your senior or boss has another opinion then that’s the truth.

So that was really difficult in Indonesia. With colleagues in Ghana, it is easier to talk to a local fisherman who has his own local expertise and can share that with an expert from a local university.

You’ve over 10 years experience in Building and Nature projects, what role did you play in the SA-POD?

Within our innovation, I was the project manager, so I was in charge to get all the team members from all the different companies on track, get all their knowledge combined, to align all their expertise to a winning innovation.

So how was it like for you putting things together, managing resources and filtering ideas from different individuals at the same time?

I really get enthusiastic about that. That’s also why we use this approach and why I gave the presentation on the Demo Day, because I think that, that’s the strength. Of course you know a lot yourself but there’s so much you don’t know.

So you need people from an NGO like Wetlands or the knowledge from Harry Barnes from PENAf or the information from contractors from Boskalis. Everybody has their expertise and with that expertise combined you get the best solution so that it will count within our team and for the project we intend to do with the African ports and also other locations in West Africa.

But looking at the fact that you’ve worked in Indonesia and also replicating some of your works in Demak District, how would you compare these regions to Lekki Port, Lagos?

Without first hand information considering that I didn’t work directly with other partners in our consortium at the Lekki Port, I think what is similar to all the different locations is that you need to involve as many stakeholders as possible.

The more you involve the more complex it gets, but it becomes more inclusive and the solution in the end will be better supported. Another more important topic is that, besides the stakeholders you also have various different systems, at the Lekki Port the focus was really on the network system: How the coast behaves?

And in Demak, the focus was on social interactions, the social system as well as the economic system. It is beyond looking at the port authorities but also the people working in the port and living around it like the fishermen. So it’s involving both stakeholders as well as those different systems which is essential to get a better solution.

Tom, If you could picture the future for the coastal communities in Africa what can you say your project can solve?

The utmost goal for me will be that the coastal areas with or without a port is sustainable, so that the people living there will have a good life and also that their children and grandchildren will have a good life. And a good life is of course in good health. Of course we need a good life, but we need it in a good environment and also with enough money.

If you only have the money but no nature, then you don’t have a good life. So it needs to be the mix of people, planet and profit. This is essential. The people need to be good, all of them. Their families need to be good both at where the port is and also in the larger area. And of course people need to eat, so the profit and the economy also need to be good.

Because when all those are good, then we have a sustainable future, and that needs to fit into institutions, laws and regulations. All have to be in balance. If there’s a lot of money but no nature and sick people, it’s not good. And a port that doesn’t provide sufficient money is also not good. So the balance between all three is necessary. And I think it’s possible, so the generation after us will have a good life as well.

Thank you very much for having this interview with me, Tom.


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