Scavenging to Live

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Iron and steel scavenging is a job with a variety of hazards. But many still depend on it to survive, writes Ugo Aliogo

What would make a man leave certainty for uncertainty? Why should a man engage in a venture that will endanger his life? Okoro Michael was a confectionery vendor in a community secondary school in Delta State. He was very enterprising as a trader and cultivated a good savings culture.

From the meager profit he made daily, he was able to save enough money to support his aging parents and also for personal upkeep. But, as he grew bigger in the trade, his spirit grew weary. He was eager to change to a new business. Something different from what he was doing.

In late 2000, there was a huge demand for used metals and aluminum materials by steel manufacturing industries in Nigeria. This new trade caught Michael’s attention. He abandoned his business to start buying metals for resell. Though he made a fortune from the business, one fateful day, while cutting an aluminum sheet, he sustained a deep cut. Being a miser, Michael treated himself in a nearby pharmaceutical store, rather than paying for proper treatment at a hospital. Three days later, he died.

Michael’s story is one in many. His life is a story not just with a sad end, but one with bitter life lessons to learn from.

Today, scrap iron and steel recycling has become a common practice among youths in the country. They have taken to this ugly practice due to the prevailing economic conditions in the country. Many of them don’t consider the health hazards they expose themselves to when they come in contact with the dump sites they usually visit to acquire these scraps.

Ahmadu Ashiru, an iron and steel scavenger in Lagos, who has been in the business for 25 years, searches for scraps of iron daily on a double shift. At his dump site, they are 25 in number and have up to 10 trucks. For each truckload, he realises N3,500. “There is no much money in the business and it is injurious to health,” Ashiru said. “Truly, if I find another business with a better option, I will leave this one, he added.”

Another problem with the work is Police harassment. Ashiru said Police visit their dump sites, on an average, three times every week, demanding for money and arresting them if money is not provided. Ashiru’s brother, Hassan, was recently nabbed by the authorities and is now cooling his feet in Kirikiri. “It was because they caught him buying government owned aluminium materials,” Ashiru said. “We have raised the required N120,000 that they requested for, but they have refused to release him. They said ‘after two years.’”

Isa Usman is another iron and steel scavenger. For him, the trade holds very little prospect despite his seven years involvement in it. On some days they are able to gather irons, while other days they gather nothing. Like his compatriot, Ashiru, the little money he makes is enough for upkeep and meet other daily needs.
Usman has had several encounters with the Police and Kick Against Indiscipline (KAI) officials. But these setbacks are not enough to distract him from the continuous search for daily living in a society where the economic realities are biting hard on the poor.

There are many iron and steel dump sites around Lagos State. They are usually loaded in trucks from the site to the steel industries in the state. The major dealers who run the dump sites, deal directly with the steel companies in most cases. Sometimes, they use middlemen.

When THISDAY visited one of the dump sites in Idi-Araba, Surulere Local Government Area, Lagos State, the owner, who pleaded anonymity, said they send out their boys and give them N5,000 to buy the irons and steel from established customers, “They visit roadside vehicle mechanics to gather it,” he said. “As a result of the relationship they have built with their customers, most of these boys have regular customers who keep the materials for them.”

“We don’t buy government owned aluminium materials. We only patronise constructions companies, industries, and roadside mechanics. We have the contacts of these companies, so when they want to sell off certain irons and steel such as vehicle engines they call us.

Then we go, negotiate with them and buy it. We dismantle them and supply to interested steel companies. We also buy from individuals who have condemned irons, zinc and pots.”
He also explained that the challenges in the business outweigh the profits they realise. “After gathering the materials, I will have to pay the lorry that will convey it to the companies and also individuals that will load the goods into the lorry.

“Some of the companies we supply are in Lagos, some are not. There are some in Ikorodu and there is another one in Mile 2. These steel materials are used for local production of iron rods. The profit is very minimal. When our workers sustain injuries here, we take them to hospital and ensure that they are properly treated. Rather than give them half haphazard treatment in a pharmaceutical store.

“We also face challenges from members of KAI. They say that it is illegal to push trucks in the streets of Lagos. It’s a major challenge we are facing in the business. They arrest our boys most times and warned them not to push trucks after they have regained freedom. But we cannot stop the business because it is our only source of survival. I have been in the business for more than 17 years now. I have achieved a lot within those years.

“Before, we made a lot of profit because we were few in the business and getting the materials was easier. Now, we have a lot of people involved in the business. So we rely on the contacts we have to supply us with iron and steel materials. In the business, if you are financially buoyant, you can sell directly to the company. While if you are not, you can go through an agent to sell to a company.”