Irvine: We’re Undertaking World’s Biggest Waste Management Job in Lagos

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John Irvine is Chief Executive Officer of Visionscape Group, a multinational corporation providing specialised environmental solutions, which is currently in charge of waste management in Lagos State under the state’s Cleaner Lagos Initiative. Though internationally known for its environmental services, ranging from waste management, sanitation, and wastewater treatment for governments and municipalities to recycling, resourcing, and manufacturing, Visionscape is new in Nigeria. Yet it is handling what it calls the world’s largest waste management contract for the Lagos State government. Irvine discusses the contract, involving an integrated waste management system scheduled for full rollout in January, in this interview with Vincent Obia and Kunle Aderinokun. Excerpts:

Your company is new in Nigeria. Can you shed some light on your activities and your vision regarding waste management in Lagos?

 Visionscape is a group of environmental companies. We deliver to the value chain of the waste stream. What I mean by that is, not only do we collect the physical waste, but as part of our core business, we develop that waste. We reuse what we pick up within our contract and we bring that material back. For instance, some of our sister companies in the UK will assist us in bringing some of the recycled plastics back to the business under the CLI umbrella and deliver to the community sanitation workers. We have a range of businesses across the globe with the same underlying message. Wherever we go, we bring what we call a closed-loop philosophy to the business. So whatever we collect in the waste stream, we try and reuse it for our activities globally.

What has been your experience in Lagos State so far?

We are a new face. For so many years, people have been used to the norm, which has been government managing the waste process. We will bring something fresh into the market. But this is not about Visionscape as an individual company; this is not even about Visionscape being part of the CLI. This is about the engagement with the residents within the state. Without their buy in and trust, we will all fail. So the most important part for us as a company and as part of the CLI umbrella is to be sure that Lagosians understand that we are here not only for ourselves as a corporate entity, but we are here to deliver something special to the state.

How do you plan to address the huge waste problem in Lagos?

A contract like this has what we call in the industry an 18-month window. The beginning of the contract is spread to three areas, and between four and six months in each segment. The first six months is mobilisation, and that entails going into the state, investigating, recording, studying, surveying, and collecting all the data. There was no data, unfortunately, here for us. When we speak about data, we mean technical data, like GIS (Geographic Information System) mapping, there was nothing like that. So we have to go and create our own GIS mapping. That takes between four and six months.

The second area is stability. So when we start the contract, which will be officially in January, the six months stability means we start reaching out into areas, wards, LCDAs, and we start delivering service. The third element is what we call the augmentation stage, that is the last segment of the 18 months window, and that is where we enhance the service. That brings to the end the 600 vehicles that will come, the support vehicles, and collecting vehicles. That is the time it takes to deliver a contract like this.

Then you would say, what have you done? We have been cleaning the state for over six months, and we will show you the black spots, we are tackling the illegal dumpsites 24 hours a day, seven days a week. The only thing we are not doing at the moment is the physical day to day collection of what we call the MSW – municipal solid waste – and that is because that happens in phase two, the stability stage.

 From your assessment so far, what is the key problem of waste management in Lagos?

It’s like every other developing city in the world that we’ve worked in. We’ve touched South America, North America, and the Middle East. The biggest problem is communication, talking to the residents to let them understand. The problem is, as a resident in Lagos, I don’t know when the garbage truck is coming. Are they coming today, tomorrow, we don’t know. What we are bringing to the table as part of the CLI is a methodology that would allow the residents within the wards and LCDAs to know exactly when we are coming. And that would be everyday. It may be twice a day. It requires a process and planning.

The crux of the problem is that in Nigeria, as in many developing countries, there is no proper integrated waste management system. That is what we are here to do – communication and education – for people to know there is a lot to do beyond just picking up your waste and that waste doesn’t just go away. We see in Olusosun (refuse dump site), for instance, which used to be at the end of the city, which is now in the middle of the city.  Over the years, we had one attitude towards waste, which is, just get rid of it. But there is a lot of planning that goes into managing it because it is something that you are doing everyday, and what happens when you are not there. There hadn’t been a critical and honest look at what the situation is and the need for an integrated waste management system.

What would this new waste management system cost Lagosians?

Not much has really changed because Lagosians are paying their taxes everyday. It is under the one government umbrella. There is no cost. It is important to note that the Lagos State government is our client. We are not billing the people of Lagos directly. We are here to manage the municipal service that the government is providing to the people.

What precisely are you supposed to do for Lagos residents under this contract?

We are the primary residential waste collector for Lagos State. We will be collecting waste in the over two million households, servicing the 22 million residents, and taking up waste from every household. Part of that brief is a moral and corporate responsibility to aid the residents to reduce their waste and to drive the waste away from the dumpsites. Take Epe landfill, for instance, we are taking ownership of the site. It would be the first engineered corporate landfill in West Africa, mixing culture and systems. In January, we are starting the remediation work. So it’s not just about collecting the waste. It is, how do we manage that waste from the front door of the residents to the final point of destination.

Visionscape prides itself on being a provider of waste to energy solutions. What should Lagosians expect from you in this regard?

Waste to energy is not part of our contract. It is part of what we do as a company, it’s something we would like to do, but there are limitations here. Federal law prohibits you from distributing energy that you generate. The type of waste to energy that we are talking about is enough to change lives and it’s enough to provide millions of homes with energy. But there is a bit of way to go before you get there in Nigeria because of the limitations and bureaucracy that come with distribution of power.

What of waste to wealth?

Recycle education is one of the things that we are big on. It’s very important, not just from the waste to wealth angle, as most people think waste to wealth immediately translates to money. There is profit that you can make from waste and that is one of the things we would be educating people on. But that is not the main point of recycle education. Recycle education is really about sustainability and letting people understand, you cannot go on like this. If you keep on drinking from a new plastic bottle and discarding it everyday, that plastic bottle takes 450 years to degrade. Eventually you are going to run out of space and that is if the chemical from the bottles that is going into the groundwater doesn’t kill us before that. Whichever one happens first. Recycle education is very important. We have a recycle credit programme that is going to be directly tied to incentivising people to recycle.

Furthermore, under the CLI, which we are just a part of, there are companies, including us, that are going to be implementing the environmental projects and those projects involve jobs. For instance, under the CLI, with the cleaning of the streets, there is a recruitment that has been going on all year that happened in Agege and Alausa, recently. It has to do with 27, 500 community sanitation workers who are to do street sweeping and cleaning. That is outside the 6, 000 that are doing the work now. The landfill in Epe, which is about 88 hectares, would need hundreds of workers. There is multiplier effect, as these new jobs come with disposable incomes that were not there before.

That is economic wealth. The most important thing that people forget here is environmental and social wealth. A cleaner environment is a better place to live in. When people speak about environmental wealth, they tend to automatically talk about naira and dollar. But the reality is something more important than dollars and naira. It’s about people’s lives and the children who come after us. You can imagine 15, 20 years’ time, there would be no waste line on the streets. There will be no waste line on the streets in a year’s time. I can guarantee that and you can quote me on that because the processes we are putting in place, the systems that you will see will reinforce my statement. The most important people in this are the Lagpsians. They need transparency and understanding of what we are doing.   

To put it into context, let’s take Miami in the US, which is very coastal, like Lagos is, for instance, waterfront properties in Miami cost millions of dollars. You go there, you want to stay in a hotel, there are nice restaurants, you want to walk along the beach. If we were in a situation where we had a fully integrated waste management system, and our waters were not so polluted, we would be able to take advantage of tourism, for instance. You have tourists in Miami everyday and waterfront hotels that are fully booked. You are paying on average $500 – $600 a night. You can imagine what that would give us by cleaning up the city alone. The bar beach stretch of Ahmadu Bello road in Victoria Island, for instance, imagine all of those waterfront properties that are just abandoned, if we were able to get to the stage of doing environmental remediation, which is one of the things you see them doing with Eko Atlantic and pushing the water back. If we are able to clean up our city to the point where you could turn that stretch of VI into a place where people could visit, those people would be bringing in dollars, pounds, etc.

What is the duration of this waste management contract?

Ten years. We are being monitored, not just by Lagos State, but by the world. This is the largest waste management contract in the world. It is a performance based contract.

How do you intend to achieve your goal of a cleaner Lagos with the very few waste bins you have deployed in the state currently?

You can’t just bring a million bins and throw them out into the streets. Everything is about planning and a phased approach. That’s one of the problems we have in Nigeria, people automatically think that things should happen overnight. If you put a million bins on the streets, how do you plan on picking them?

There are over 620 vehicles coming. If I have the money to get the 620 vehicles and they all come in here tomorrow, how do I deploy 620 vehicles in a day, week, and month? I need to train staff; I need to ensure the vehicles are properly maintained. Lagosians were worried because they heard that things were changing, but they didn’t know what was happening.

 There are concerns that the PSP’s – the former waste management operators – were abruptly stopped by the state government without any stopgap measures to mitigate the problems that would arise from their exit before your full take off. How would you react to this?

PSPs were never stopped from working. There was a recertification that PSPs were asked to come and do under the new environmental law.  There was a law that was to be revamped to bring together everything holistically. On record at the time, there were about 300 PSPs. If there were really 300 PSPs servicing the state, obviously, there wouldn’t have been the problems that were witnessed. The revalidation was required to make sure, for instance, that you who say you have five trucks and collect money for the services every month really have those trucks. I can’t speak for the state, but I can only speak to the facts I knew at the time.

What makes Visionscape different from the previous waste management operators in the state?

We have history. The core waste management team here have an excess of a hundred years’ experience in waste management. Myself 30 years. The second thing, which is perhaps most important, is transparency. We have nothing to hide. And, third, probably the most important one for Lagos residents, we have commitment. We are here to deliver a social, economic project under the CLI and we are here to make it work. We are here to transfer our skills. You may come back here in six months’ time and it would be a Lagosian who would be sitting here, because it’s part of my brief from the board. I have to make sure this contract is being run by residents, for residents, and for the future. This is not about profitability and pushing up the value of the group, this is about really delivering something special. I have been all over the world; this is the largest waste management contract in the world. And you guys think it is the dirtiest city, it is not. I have been to worse places than Lagos. This is not easy, but it is achievable, with ourselves as part of the CLI, the government, and residents working together.

 What is your vision for the next five years?

Our business plan over the next five years is to reduce the amount of waste residents are putting into the illegal waste dumps.  We can’t say a figure as yet. Come back in three months’ time, we would know what we call waste composition, the characterisations, and which wards have which waste stream. I can then make some commitments to you, and say we would do ABC in one or two years. In five years’ time, we would have delivered an outstanding project under the umbrella of CLI.

 How would you evaluate the level of environmental sustainability consciousness among Nigerians?

Sustainability is very much in its infancy stage in Nigeria. We do have environmental education programme where we start from the school, teaching children about recycling, etc. We have a very active schools programme. We have identified schools in every LCDA so that we touch every single ward and make it part of their educational programme. That is besides advocacy.