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Jostling for Lagos refuse: Waste collectors, govt in ‘cold war

Wale Kolawole was happy to hear about the proposed reform in the management of wastes in Lagos State but his gaily mood was soon dampened when he realised the planned changes could cost him his job of over eight years.

His initial thought was that the reform would make his job easier, but it is his only means of livelihood that is being threatened instead.

At 59 years of age, Kolawole is wise enough to understand life’s fleeting nature and how hard it would be to come by a new job. And with five additional mouths to feed, Kolawole also understands that losing his job at a time when the country is arguably going through its worst patch would leave him with nothing short of torture.

As a driver in one of the 350 waste management companies, popularly called Private Sector Participation operators, Kolawole’s job is to collect wastes from residential homes with a waste compactor truck and dump them at one of Lagos’ dump sites – Olusosun dump site in Ojota.

It sounds straightforward but the reality is far from it.

Kolawole’s turnaround time often runs into three days and in the last couple of years, it has got worse because of the poor state of infrastructure at the dump site.  Now, sometimes, it takes days for Kolawole to go through the process of waste collection and dumping at the dump site, which translates to seemingly endless waits for many of his domestic clients.

So recently when the state government announced that it was engaging foreign investors to bring N86bn into waste management in the state, Kolawole’s joy knew no bounds, until he heard that the newcomers would be taking the PSP operators’ job in return.

“Sometimes, I spend about three days at Olusosun dump site just to dump refuse, especially when the bulldozer there is bad. Since the roads are bad and slippery, we often need the bulldozer to push our trucks, which is a tedious process that takes time and damages the vehicles,” he said with a note of frustration.

“But when I heard about the planned reforms, I thought it meant that the dump sites would finally be fixed until I heard my employer say it meant selling off most of his assets and dismissing about 80 per cent of his staff.”

Kolawole and his colleagues, who could be sacked anytime soon, are not the only ones apprehensive about the planned reform in the sector. Operators in the business are also afraid as their source of livelihood faces its biggest test yet in about 20 years.

To prove their seriousness, the operators had this week, approached a state high court to stop the government from displacing them or replacing them with new operators in a suit filed on their behalf by Mr. Ebun-Olu Adegboruwa.

The issues

The state government had said it would be partnering with foreign companies, which would bring investment of about N86bn in the state’s domestic waste management over a period of five years. Part of the reform is to provide modern sanitary landfill sites in five locations in the state to replace the dumpsites.

As against the open dump sites that are the norm for waste disposal in the state, sanitary landfills are engineered and controlled sites in which delivered wastes are spread and compacted in layers a few feet thick. Here, wastes are covered with a layer of earth and then compacted.

One of the critical advantages a landfill has over a dump site is that it has a pipe that collects leachate (contaminated waste water) for treatment, preventing it from mixing with groundwater.

Ultimately with the reform, PSP operators, who have been in charge of collection and transportation of domestic wastes in Lagos State for many years, will leave the scene for the new foreign players.

Last September, a delegation from one of the players believed to have already been engaged by the state government, was in Lagos, where it paid a courtesy visit to the state Ministry of  the Environment and expressed its desire to provide landfill services to the state.

Incidentally, the state Commissioner for the Environment, Dr. Babatunde Adejare, had in November 2016, given the impression that the current waste management process in the state was ineffective and needed to be improved “in line with international best practices”.

The commissioner had also confirmed that government was “making plans for the PSP operators to go commercial and make way for world renowned waste managers to take over domestic waste management” with the introduction of about 600 compactors to cover the state.

Investigation has, however, revealed that there is another technical partner involved.

The company has announced winning “10 year residential and general collections waste contract for the city of Lagos, Nigeria.”

Findings also showed that all the companies have already been guaranteed return on their investments by the state government with a proposed legislation that will mandate residents to pay a yet to be introduced tax, called public utility levy, even before picking up any domestic waste.

Looming crisis

In the meantime, a crisis is looming in the sector with an imminent collision between the state government and 350 operators, who consider the situation as a threat to their means of livelihood.

For instance, it was learnt that taking the exclusive right to domestic waste collection away from PSP operators and limiting them to commercial wastes, translates to reducing their activities by 80 per cent as commercial activities structures are estimated to be only about 20 per cent of the number of structures in the state.

Therefore, with an estimated 7,023 commercial buildings in the state, each of the 350 PSP operators will be reduced to servicing an average of 20 customers.

An operator, who simply identified himself as Ola, lamented the situation, saying, “The reform means that the state government is saying that all 350 of us should fight for commercial clients, which only represent 20 per cent of our activities.”

Giving an example, Ola said there could be 20 houses on a street and barely one restaurant.

He said, “Clearly, there is not enough work to go round for the 350 operators. And besides, it is the PSP operators that have been collecting commercial wastes before now, only that the bills that are being paid by the clients are shared between the operators and the government on a ratio of 60 to 40- we take 60 per cent while the government takes the remaining 40 per cent. Even on that, government has been defaulting.”

It was learnt that since September 2015, LAWMA has been defaulting on paying the agreed 60 per cent to PSP operators as it has been making arbitrary deductions from it.

For instance, investigation showed that in September 2015, 23 per cent was deducted from the amount due to them, meaning that each PSP operator only got 37 per cent of their entitlement.

Furthermore, in October 2015, there was 25.25 per cent deduction; November 2015, 27.04 per cent; December 2015, nil; January 2016, 21.43 per cent; February 2016, 21 per cent; March 2016, nil; April 2016, six per cent; May 2016, four per cent; June 2016, five per cent; July 2016, 14.3 per cent; August 2016, 6.95 per cent; and September 2016, 22.1 per cent.

According to some of the operators, who spoke with newsmen, government should be blamed for any inefficiency recently being experienced by domestic clients in an otherwise smooth system.

One of the operators, who only identified himself as Ade, explained that the Lagos State Waste Management Authority had engaged PSP operators to provide waste management service for commercial clients with an agreed sharing formula of 60-40 between the operators and LAWMA.

During a meeting with our correspondent in his office, Ade said, “Normally, the commercial clients belong to LAWMA while the domestic clients are for PSP operators. LAWMA engaged us to provide services for its own clients and that we will get 60 per cent of the money. At first, we protested because we wondered why LAWMA should take as much as 40 per cent when we are the ones that will provide the service, fuel and maintain the trucks.

“But we were told that the 40 per cent would be used to manage the dump sites and that LAWMA would be responsible for the commercial clients that fail to pay.

“Currently, we are being owed our dues for October, November, December 2016 and now January 2017 that has just ended. Its claim is that some commercial clients have not been paying. But isn’t that the reason why it is charging 40 per cent for a service we are carrying out? The government is charging 40 per cent because it would handle enforcement since it has the laws and the power to enforce them. Second, the clients are not ours. Why should operators be paying for government’s inefficiency?

“Also we said give us the list of the clients not paying you, we are the ones going to their offices to provide service, maybe we can also help you recover the money. It is yet to provide us with the list so that we can help recover the money so that we can get paid.”

When our correspondent joined Kolawole on a trip to Olusosun dump site recently, his truck was number 42 in the queue.  However, according to Kolawale, it was a good day as the queue had not extended beyond the dump site to the main road.

“The situation is worse during the rainy season when the roads are much more terrible,” he said convincingly.

Even though, the rainy season had passed, our correspondent observed the difficulty the truck drivers face at the dump site in dumping refuse in a wide pit and retreating. The wastes had filled the road, creating a slippery surface difficult for compactors to maneouvre alone.

Normally, a bulldozer is on standby at the dump site to push wastes further in and aid waste compactor trucks to dump their wastes and retreat from the site; but oftentimes, it causes damage to compactors in the process.

Explaining their plight, a PSP operator at Olusosun dump site said, “When a bulldozer pushes the vehicles, it causes dents on them. Sometimes, it punctures the tyres. So a typical operator changes a tyre every month because of the damage caused to waste compactor trucks at the dump site and nobody pays us for such damage.”

It was indeed learnt that the monthly budget for the maintenance of dump sites in Lagos has been recently reduced by one-third to N100m.

Although, findings showed that the planned reform by the state government was meant to start by January 1, 2017, it had yet to start as the new foreign players had not started work as of the time of filing this report.

Also, as of the time of filing this report, it was unclear if the foreign waste management companies expected in the system would use the dump sites in their current state as a landfill is constructed and operated over a number of years.

Threat to livelihood and business

Alimi Ogundeji is afraid he might already be suffering from hypertension. Ogundeji has six waste compactor trucks and has been running a waste management company in Lagos for about 10 years, but since the start of the year, he has been having a headache, chest pain and shortness of breath.

Ogundeji was contemplating seeing a doctor after one of his neighbours identified the condition as some of the symptoms of hypertension.

“Recently, all I have been thinking about is my financial obligation to my bank,” he said.

“Government had encouraged us to invest heavily in the business and that it was a business we could even bequeath to our children. And because of that, we were encouraged to have garages to pack our trucks and build offices. You can imagine having an office, an administrative area and a garage that can take between five to seven trucks, and so on. I did this by obtaining a loan from the bank and with the proposed reform, how will I pay back the bank?

“Before any bank will give you loan to build a garage and buy trucks, it would have looked at your income and considered your ability to pay back. But that has been reduced to 20 per cent now, how do I pay back? My livelihood is being threatened; it also means heavy downsizing. So I will have to reduce my staff strength and trucks. I have six trucks and about 40 workers, so that will be reduced to about two trucks and five workers.”

Another operator, who identified himself as Adeomi, said the chances of recouping his N48m investment in the waste management business had been reduced to “almost nil”.

“When I invested about N48m in this, the expectation was that I would get my return on investment over a period of years. But if now, my income is about N2m monthly and government is saying all I am now entitled to is 20 per cent of that amount, how does that help me as an investor?

In an official statement, the umbrella body of PSP operators in Lagos, Association of Waste Managers of Nigeria, asked why the state government suddenly concluded that its members had not been working.

Consultant to AWAM, Mr. Olalekan Owojori of Welbeck Consulting Limited, noted that Lagos and LAWMA had received several recognitions of their efforts in keeping the metropolis clean including a 2008 JSI/MMIS/USAID award to LAWMA for “Excellence Contribution to Health Care Waste Management in Lagos State” and a 2010 award by the Federal Ministry of Commerce and Industry to the same agency as the “Most Enterprising Governmental Agency”.

“If the (PSP) operators had not been working, will LAWMA have got these awards?” Owojori asked.

Owojori said the PSP operators currently engage about 25,000 Nigerians, directly and indirectly, which is exactly the same number of jobs the state government is promising to provide in the sector with its reform.

Explaining the genesis of the impending turning point in the sector, Owojori said the state governor, Akinwunmi Ambode, called the executive committee of AWAM to a meeting on September 7, 2016, “to inform them that his government would outsource domestic waste management to foreign investors, move all 350 operators to commercial waste management, and provide enabling laws and powers to these companies so that they can recoup their investment.”

A month before the meeting, specifically on Thursday, August 11, 2016, Lagos Ministry of the Environment had placed an advert in The PUNCH Newspaper inviting proposals for “private sector investment in solid waste management” in the state.

AWAM described the advert as discriminatory against local players in the industry as none of its members had up to 100 employees and could satisfy some of the other stated requirements within 15 days.

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