The waste management sector in Lagos (Nigeria's largest city) has historically been driven by a mix of informal workers (wastepickers and the “scavengers” who buy from them), more formal enterprises contracted by the state in public-private arrangements that collect and transport waste from residences and businesses to dumpsites, and the state government’s Lagos Waste Management Authority (LAWMA). Since the early 2000s, Private Sector Participants (PSPs), local small- and medium-scale companies, began conducting waste collection while informal workers, under the direction of the government, began grouping themselves into more formal organizations. Under the arrangement, PSP operators had access to government-financed schemes that allowed them to take out substantial loans to purchase waste collection equipment, under the condition that they gradually pay back the loans from their business revenue. LAWMA’s responsibilities were to coordinate the PSPs, clean public areas, manage the transfer loading stations, and oversee the state’s 5 dumpsites (Olusosun, Igando, Epe, Badagry and Ikorodu).
Historically, informal waste sector workers have done the majority of recycling in Lagos – long before its importance came to the fore of global environmental consciousness – and conducted waste picking activities at dumpsites under the auspices of their trade associations. Among the most prominent of these associations are the Waste Recycling Association of Nigeria (WRAN), the Scavengers Association of Nigeria (SAN), and the National Association of Scrap and Waste Dealers Employers of Nigeria (NASWDEN). Beginning in 2016, members of these associations were required under the new Ambode-led administration to pay taxes and fees to LAWMA in exchange for accreditation and operating rights. The idea behind the taxation was to guarantee job security and protection for paying members, which was particularly relevant given rumors of the privatized management of government dumpsites. For wastepickers, the income earned from their small-scale recycling businesses has provided food, shelter, education and economic opportunity for generations of their families over the decades. As of early 2017, association executives put the number of individuals working as waste pickers and scrap dealers across dumpsites in the city at over ten thousand (though, as will become evident later, that number is likely to have reduced significantly in light of the spate of job losses brought on by the ongoing restructuring of the sector). Apart from the obvious economic benefit to the families of these workers, their recycling activities have saved the state substantial sums of money by preventing the dumpsites from filling up as quickly as they should have over time.
The Cleaner Lagos Initiative – the new administration’s plan to completely privatize the city’s waste management – was unveiled without public consultation or buy-in from the groups that have historically partnered with it. The government has not been transparent with social groups either: dialogue initiated by with representatives of LAWMA and the Ministry of the Environment (MoE) in early 2017 intended to clarify the details and broader societal implications of the initiative yielded little useful insight. The government’s hands-off approach so far has only further stirred public interest in the specifics of the initiative, and has many informal workers concerned about the plan’s impact on their livelihoods.
Soon after the appointment of a new governor in May of 2015, business as usual in the waste management sector would end. Shortly into his tenure, the new governor sought to implement a new regime while citing the need for the city to mitigate climate change risks arising from existing waste management practices. The issue was given priority by the new administration, and by August 2016, the Cleaner Lagos Initiative (CLI) was established by executive order and backed by a hastily passed Environmental Protection Law which delegates oversight of the waste management sector to the MoE, LAWMA, and the Public Utilities Monitoring and Assurance Unit (PUMAU). The law stipulates that these government departments will be responsible for particular aspects of sector management going forward: MoE plays an advisory and mediating role between the government and other stakeholders; LAWMA licenses and regulates waste collection and disposal activities; and PUMAU is to be responsible for setting up and enforcing a billing regime which allegedly factors in the differing abilities of households and communities across the city to pay.
With the partial exception of LAWMA, none of these government departments are directly involved in the initiative’s implementation. Instead, implementation is being driven by a new wave of private companies contracted by the government to do the job without having gone through the process of a competitive public tender. A few hundred PSPs from the old regime will have been under the new scheme, but their responsibilities and reach (and their incomes) have been significantly reduced. PSP operators are angered not only over the loss of future business, but because many of them now have no means of paying the balance on the loans they took out to purchase waste collection trucks under the previous regime.
The reason given by LAWMA for the radical downsizing of PSP activity is that these enterprises are relatively small and therefore do not have the technical and financial capacity to operate on the scale required to achieve the objectives of the CLI. Thus, the responsibility for city-wide waste collection from residential premises has been transferred to Visionscape, a waste management company with a global presence but no prior experience operating within Nigeria. The few surviving PSPs have been relegated to collecting waste from commercial premises, while LAWMA is in charge of collecting waste from public areas, including streets and highways. These services are paid for by a Public Utility Levy charged to all customers and collected by PUMAU.
The initiative's design has demonstrated some intention of taking the needs of low-income communities into account. Visionscape has kekes (auto rickshaws) and barges pick up waste from hard-to-reach communities; and PUMAU’s new billing regime gives concessions and exemptions to households with low incomes (though there are few details pertaining to how the eligibility of households is determined or how reduced rates are communicated). According to the Environmental Protection Law, these concessions are partly financed by a dedicated Lagos State Environmental Trust Fund set up in conjunction with other components of the CLI. It remains to be seen, however, the degree to which the implementation of these proposals will reflect their intent.
The discrepancies between the plan’s stated goals and reality have already become apparent. In the two years since the announcement of the CLI, citizens have yet to see any manifestation of Visonscape’s presence in their homes and streets, save for a few public bins placed in certain prominent locations by the company. If anything, the situation seems to have deteriorated, with uncollected waste accumulating in neighborhoods around the city and PSP trucks queuing at dumpsites for days to offload the waste they do manage to collect. There are conflicting accounts for why this is happening: while scavengers and waste truck drivers that work on the dumpsites cite a lack of experience on the part of the new management for the backlog in waste collection, LAWMA mostly attributes it to unavoidable seasonal complications caused by annual rains. In any case, it has become clear that some institutional wrangling has been going on: some of the PSP operators under the previous regime decided to boycott waste pickup in protest of their looming ouster from the scene, and it is taking longer than was originally envisaged to work out the kinks in the contract between the government and Visionscape.
While Visionscape’s activities so far seem to have had little to no visible impact on the city’s waste management landscape, the company has discreetly been preparing for future operations. In early 2017, the company completed the refurbishment of a high-tech maintenance depot for its fleet of waste collection vehicles at Ogudu, one of three such depots proposed around the city. The question arose as to how this and other investments were funded before user revenue had even been transferred to the company. Many also wondered how the company’s financial projections could accommodate the losses it has accrued since July 1 of 2018 when it was originally billed to start operations. In what appeared to be a savvy business move, the company issued a government-backed N50 billion (approximately US$ 140 million) “green infrastructure” bond in August 2017 to finance its operations. In any case, the possibility remains that the government, as the guarantor of the bond, will have to step in with state funds in the event that the enterprise turns out to be less profitable for investors than envisaged. If this proves to be the case, it would ironically be a reincarnation of the same problem that LAWMA claimed to face with the PSPs under the old regime: that of having to subsidize private sector operations with public money.
Another dubious aspect of the initiative has been the campaign to employ an army of 27,000 Community Sanitation Workers (CSW) across the state. The language of the CSW scheme was always confusing; media advertisements never explained who the campaign would target, what need it is meant to fill, which communities or groups were meant to benefit from it, and the criteria for recruiting candidates to the advertised positions. The ads mostly promoted the formalized aspects of the scheme: decent wages, benefits, and protections such as insurance and pension guarantees for workers. But this is where the dream ended. In reality, CSW has done little more than expand the existing street sweeper scheme where workers (mostly women) are employed by the state as ‘highway managers’ to clean major streets and highways around the city. The rationale offered by the CLI is that rebranding these individuals as community sanitation workers and offering them better protections will expand the pool of interested applicants beyond women – the assumption being that men were reluctant to sign up to the previous version of the scheme because it did not appeal to them. Significantly, the CSW scheme is expected to be deployed across all the wards in Lagos, rather than in a few major locations as was previously the case. But despite claims of LAWMA’s ongoing recruitment and training, citizens have yet to see substantial evidence of the plan in action.
How does the state’s formalization efforts consider the thousands of informal workers who have historically been dependent on the sector for their livelihoods? These workers have clearly been missing from the new waste management architecture envisioned by the government. Even the CSW component of the CLI can be considered an elitist working-class initiative: positions are only open to those who have undergone some level of secondary education, a requirement which automatically disqualifies many informal workers who show up on the dumpsites with only a pair of hands and a willingness to work.
The impacts of the ongoing upheaval on informal workers are perhaps best reflected in the operation of the city’s dumpsites since their privatization. Despite repeated assurances by LAWMA officials in early 2017 that rumours of an impending private takeover were untrue – management of the dumpsites was abruptly taken over by a cohort of private companies just a few months later. Investigative findings into the state of affairs at the Olusosun dumpsite since the corporate takeover revealed hostilities between Revive and the traditional occupiers of the dumpsite were apparent. Revive staff members were reserved in their offering of information, while the scavengers and truck drivers were eager to engage and have their voices heard. The watepickers at Olusosun clearly feel wronged by the company's privatization effort, which has worked to undermine their once viable livelihood strategy there.
In early 2017, the private company Revive took over the management of Olusosun from LAWMA following a closed-door agreement with the state government. Since the takeover, checks are now conducted on waste trucks and other vehicles leaving the premises, new surveillance cameras are installed; and trucks carrying recyclable plastics and metal must leave the premises via a weighbridge that records the tonnage of the load they bear. The problem with these improvements is that the only beneficiary seems to be Revive. For almost every other group working on the dumpsite – waste pickers, scavengers, waste truck drivers, petty traders – the changes ushered in by the new management has come at a steep cost. The security cameras and checks, for instance, are there to make sure that no one apart from Revive staff and contractors take recyclables out of the premises to sell. Indeed, the entire set up seems designed to divert profits towards Revive: this is definitely the feeling among many waste pickers and scavengers on the site. Prior to the advent of Revive, the valuable recyclables painstakingly retrieved by the waste pickers at the bottom of the value chain hierarchy was sold on to the next tier of workers – “buyers”, or scavengers – who then sold the goods directly to companies that recycled the items into new products. Recycled plastics, for instance, were sold by waste pickers to scavengers at N20 per kilogramme, and the scavengers sold on the plastics to their corporate customers at N30 per kilogramme, making a profit of N10 per kilogramme.
With the coming of Revive, the equation has changed completely. Wastepickers are prohibited from selling to scavengers and must sell their goods directly to Revive, which pays only N10 to the waste pickers per kilogramme of plastic. Moreover, wastepickers no longer get paid their due upfront as was the case when they sold to scavengers; they now have to wait, sometimes for weeks, to get paid from the proceeds Revive makes from selling in bulk to corporate customers. As such, scavengers have been edged out of their former place in the value chain, and Revive now operates a monopoly in place of the vibrant, inclusive marketplace that was once Olusosun. Scavengers can, in theory, sell directly to Revive, but it must be at the rock-bottom prices that the company buys from waste pickers, making it difficult for the scavengers to sell at a margin. The result is that the dumpsite is now bereft of both scavengers and waste pickers: the relatively few scavengers who remain try to eke out a living while holding out hope for positive change in the near future, while waste pickers who cannot bear the harsh working conditions have reportedly left in large numbers to go back to their villages elsewhere in the country.
This dynamic unfortunately aligns with the position that several administrations have held regarding unemployed “foreigners.” Migrant waste pickers are considered an obstacle to the government’s megacity aspirations and are told that they should return to where they came from. Little consideration is provided by the government, which acts to simply relocate (and in some cases aggravate) the problems of underemployment and poverty that had initially caused the high rates of rural-urban migration in the first place. A more constructive approach would involve a comprehensive economic reintegration plan geared towards the general welfare and job security.
Since Revive began its operations, protest has been difficult. Many of the outlets for workers to voice their concerns have been systematically shut down. The Scavengers’ Association of Nigeria (SAN) headquartered on the dumpsite was disbanded, and 12 sitting executives were banned from entering the site and replaced with ones that are more sympathetic to Revive’s agenda. With the rest of the workers compliance is enforced through both formal and informal means: a detention cabin manned by the police is stationed on the premises, and there have been reports of extrajudicial lock-ups of dissenting scavengers and waste picker. Members of the alleged OPC (Oodua People’s Congress), infamous for their violent actions, drive out anyone who does not conform to the new program. All of this has been allegedly arranged by the management of Revive, in a bid to tighten their hold on opportunities for profit from the site.
Interestingly, executives of the Scavengers’ Association that had been ousted from Olusosun by Revive seeked redress on the matter from the state House Committee on the Environment behind closed doors, after attempts to publicly engage the office of the Commissioner fell through. Following the House Committee’s ruling that the scavengers had been treated unfairly and were therefore eligible for compensation, the association executives were awarded damages in the form of a six-month conditional contract to take over management of the Ikorodu dumpsite from LAWMA, according them concessionaire status similar to that held by Revive at Olusosun and West African Engineers at Igando. Renewal of the contract is contingent on the new management – which essentially comprises ten members of the former SAN executive – being able to upgrade the infrastructure on the site appreciably within the six-month probationary period.
The six-month trial period took effect in October 2017, and the scavengers-turned-managers viewed the window as an investment opportunity. However, this seemingly fortuitous opening posed several challenges, the most notable of which being the scale of investment required: the ten-man management team pooled personal resources together to raise the funds needed to upgrade the site, which in any case had only a fraction of the waste-holding capacity present at their former base in Olusosun. Yet another implication of the new arrangement at Ikorodu concerns the scavengers and waste pickers – about 2,700 of them – that are down the ladder from the elite management class. While the small group of executives involved appear to have the financial means to sustain the move from their former bustling space at Olusosun to this remote part of Ikorodu, the latter is simply too far from the centre for most scavengers who had already established their base at Olusosun. The result is that, while the scavengers are free in theory to transfer to the dumpsite now under the management of their erstwhile representatives, many of them find the option impractical. Indeed, this is the sentiment expressed by members of the newly instituted executive at Olusosun: many of them have stayed behind at the site not out of choice, but because they see no viable alternatives on the horizon. At best, the Ikorodu “solution” can be seen as a deal that provides some form of compensation for about a dozen people but manages to exclude nearly 3,000 in the process – hardly the definition of inclusive development.
More troubling than the apparent violations committed by Revive at Olusosun is the response (or lack thereof) of government actors to the precarious position that the waste pickers and scavengers on the site have suddenly found themselves in. When approached regarding drastic reductions in wastepickers incomes under the new regime, LAWMA’s responded that since legal ownership of the dumpsite has been transferred to Revive, the company has every right to dictate the terms under which the informal workers on the site can operate. This arrangement leaves the workers with no legal recourse or protections, even when it is clear that their rights are being trampled upon and their voices being systematically silenced. LAWMA’s sympathies clearly lie with Revive: the authority recognizes that the company is in the business to make a profit and makes certain that its regulatory role does not infringe upon the profit-making potential of the company. At the same time, the authority sees informal workers as parasitic actors who take every opportunity they can get to prey on themselves and the government. It should come as little surprise that these workers have no real place in government’s bold new vision for a cleaner Lagos. As we saw in the Olusosun example, even an arrangement that seemed to accommodate the needs of dispossessed scavengers turned out, upon closer inspection, to be a poorly conceived palliative measure that presents huge challenges for an elite class of scavengers and exacerbates the economic disparity between them and the mass of lower-level scavengers on the site.
The government seems oblivious to the struggle of this majority who have little choice between sticking with harsh conditions on familiar territory and striking out in a new work environment with uncertain prospects. In fact, it is clear that the government only views the organized private sector as the legitimate avenue achieving its vision of a megacity worthy of international acclaim. This view is not just inaccurate and incomplete; it is dangerous for the millions of informal workers who, in the absence of formal employment opportunities, resourcefully eke out a living from the fringes that the government now wants to obliterate. Rather than being edged out, these workers need to be given protections within the framework of the CLI that will enable them to co-exist profitably with formal operators. To this end, the state needs to re-envision itself as a mediator between the formal and informal sectors, enforcing boundaries for the former and enabling participation by the latter.
It has been said that the true test of any government lies in the way it responds to its most vulnerable citizens. There is still an opportunity here for Lagos to demonstrate its commitment to the wellbeing of every last citizen, especially when it is under threat from powerful outside interests. Will the government rise to the challenge?
(This account has been largely informed by the research of Dr. Temilade Sesan - Centre for Petroleum, Energy Economics and Law, University of Ibadan)