Turning Waste to Wealth: The Untapped Potential of Ilorin Dumpsites

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One of the dumpsites

By Olapade Sawyer

Many parts of Ilorin, the Kwara State Capital, are gradually being turned into junkyards by scavengers. What confronted this reporter at many of the places visited was a breathtaking view of heaps of disposable household objects that had turned into garbage. Many of them had been described as illegal dumpsites or scrapyards because they were not approved by the government. Some are moist and had filamentous green algae growing on them, posing enviromental and health hazards. A close contact could trigger a wave of nausea.

A waste buyer

One may be tempted to ask this question: Do these disposable household materials still have value after they have been used and discarded in dumpsites where scavengers go to collect them? Well, this is where this popular phrase -“One man’s meat is another man’s poison” rings true for Alhaja Balikisu Ajibade and others like her. For her, these used and discarded objects bring food to her table. While they are foods to her, they are disposable waste materials to many households. This explains the reason why the 46-year- old scrap trader’s face is familiar at the Oko compound at Popo-Igbonna area, one of the heartbeats of Ilorin in Ilorin West Local Government Area of Kwara State.

Daily, she visits the area for scraps which Hausa boys often scavenge at dumpsites around town. When this reporter caught up with her on a Thursday morning at Popo-Igbonna, she was weighing tons of these discarded materials packaged in sacks on the scale. She said that was the third time that morning she would be at Popo-Igbonna to evacuate the objects for onward transition to Baboko where Hausa traders and others were already waiting for her to buy them after she might have sorted them out.

That morning, she had bought scraps that weighed about 560 kilograms and worth about N63,000. The same thing applies to 51-year -old Mrs. Olarewaju Ibidun Idowu, whose residence is at Lao area of Ilorin. On Wednesday, October 5, when this reporter saw her with Abdulahi Mohammed at the Oko compound at Popo-Igbonna weighing scraps loaded in sacks, she was absorbed in the activities, drenched in her sweat. That Wednesday afternoon, she had bought 400 kilograms of scrap materials worth N32,000.

“I buy used and discarded plastics from Abdulahi Mohammed and sell them to the Hausas who also resell them to the companies,” she said.

This, of course, is the same experience with 38-year – old Mrs. Iyabode Solomon, who lives at Sawmill area of Ilorin. She was equally seen on a Friday with Ibrahim Mohammad at the Oko compound at Popo-Igbonna weighing scraps, packed in sacks and put on the scale. That morning she had bought scraps that weighed close to 350 kilograms valued at about N20,000.

The above speaks volume of how households or industrial wastes have become sources of livelihoods to some people. To these people called scavengers, these in dumpsites are hot cake. They are sold to industries in Lagos, Ibadan and Abeokuta for recycling. To scavengers, no disposable household or industrial item is a waste even after they might have been used while their unneeded parts are thrown away as garbage. It is this garbage they scavenge and sell to companies which recycle them into useful products.

With most of these scavengers, the African proverb that wealth lies on the dunghills or in the garbage resonates. They believe that money that comes from filth or dirt does not smell. Therefore in the face of growing unemployment, many have converted collection of refuse or waste materials into sources of livelihoods.

Another dumpsit

This has therefore led to indiscriminate siting of dumpsites or scrapyards in different parts of Ilorin metropolis. These however have been described as illegal dumpsites because they are not government approved sites. The ones approved by goverment are the Okoolowo and Eiyenkorin dumpsites. No scavenger can just go there to scavenge unless registered with the Kwara State Enviromental Protection Agency (KWEPA) and approved by the agency to operate according to laid down rules and regulations on waste management. The two dumpsites or scrapyards in Okoolowo and Eiyenkorin replaced the Gbagele dumpsites or junkyards after Ganmo which had been shut down. Gbagele was supposed to develop into a modern integrated waste management facility with a recycling plant technology and others and was supposed to operate for 35 years. But alas, that was not achieved before it was shut down. Since then, the handling and management of solid waste materials in Ilorin metropolis have been challenging.

”If the relevant authorities concerned have allowed Gbagele dumpsites project to thrive, the waste management experiences in Ilorin metropolis would have been different”, a stakeholder in waste management who did not want his name to be mentioned said.

Young boys packing wast in a bag

However, the influx of the Hausa scavengers into the business has turned different parts of the state capital into dumpsites with these scavengers indiscriminately doing this with reckless abandon. Amongst places turned into dumpsites are Oko compound at Popo- Igbonna which has become a Mecca of sort for the Hausas who see it as home.

There are three routes to Oko compound. The two from the backyard through the Afa ewe and Agbarere and the third one, a narrow path, off Popo-Igbona Street. The three routes directly usher in visitors into an open space or an arena in front of the compound. This arena, which is an environmental eyesore with waste materials, emits stench that fouls the air. The objects that littered the place when this reporter visited include discarded footwears; milk cans; beer bottles; soda cans; metals; damaged electric fans, refrigerators, television and computers; copper wires; water sachets and bottles; and plastics of various types. Every day of the week, the arena which is under the control of the Hausa scrap merchants in front of the compound, is a beehive of activities.

During a visit to the place, it was a beehive of activities. Hausa boys were seen pushing wheel barrows forth and back under the hot sun. If the Oko compound’ s scavengers’ s arena is described as a sweatshop, it is not an understatement to describe it so as it is indeed one.

The Hausa boys work under different masters. For example, 28-year-old Sanusi Usman works under 45-year-old Ibrahim Mohammad, who also works under Alhaji Usama. Unlike others who go out scavenging the dump sites for discarded objects and come back to sell them to the Hausa owners of the scrap yards and be paid, Sanusi Usman and other 29 boys are often given money by their master, Alhaji Usama to go out and buy these materials after which they will sell and share the proceeds from according to the bargaining agreement.

Sanusi Usman is from Sokoto State and has been under Alhaji Usama for the past 5 years. He and other boys buy radio, motor and iron scraps. They buy a kilogram of aluminum at N200 while a kilogram of cooper wire is sold to them at N700. They however buy iron and rod per kilogram at N30.

Ibrahim Mohammed told this reporter that they sell the materials to companies, especially Asian companies that recycle them into new products in Lagos. These were often loaded to Lagos by trailers. The materials included compression iron, accidented vehicles, iron bed, block iron, rod and metal scraps, damaged computers and refrigerators amongst others.

This is also true for Alhaji Adamu Salisu, from Sokoto State, who has been in Ilorin since 1973. The 63 years old scavenger also sell scraps to companies in Lagos. These include plastic, aluminum, rubber, iron, steel, metal and cans of beer, milk, malt, and other beverages. For 50-year-old Abdulahi Mohammed from Kano State, scavenging is a source of livelihood that has consistently guaranteed his income for the past 25 years since he has been living in Ilorin, the state capital. He has 10 boys that scavenge daily for metal which he sells to those who turn it to cooking pots. His boys also scavenge for window louvres and beer cans amongst others.

one of the scavengers standing by a scale

Forty-three year old Abdulfatai Akanji is from the Abutu Compound at Popo-Igbonna. He was one of the few Yoruba boys seen at the Popo- Igbonna dumpsite, working as scavengers. He informed this reporter that as dirty and as hazardous as scavenging seems to be, it rescues him from the jaws of hunger and starvation on a daily basis. ”If its puts three square meals on my table everyday, why should I be bothered about whether it is a dirty job or not. This work has saved many boys in the neighborhood, who would have otherwise been bad boys, from trouble”, he said.

He said that almost every where in Ilorin metropolis hosts one waste dumpsite or the other stressing that it is a trade that is growing at an alarming rate due to population increase and the growing consumption of consumables with disposable parts.

Other parts of Ilorin that host dumpsites include Sani Okin, Odota, Coca cola etc. These have however been described as illegal dumpsites because they are not approved sites for refuse dump and collection by government. The approved ones are Okoolowo and Eiyenkorin refuse dumpsites.

Many of the scavengers however are ignorant of the hazards involved in scavenging. They are vulnerable to various hazardous elements because of their daily exposure to waste materials at the dumpsites. They are often not protected with gloves and protective uniforms, booths and other safety materials while handling waste materials when they are on duty. Investigation even revealed that they are not often vaccinated against bacteria and viruses they may come in contact with in their line of duty.

Many of them have reportedly been infected with Hepatitis B virus. This is according to Dr. Henry Sawyer, Dean, School of Environmental Science and Allied Health, Kwara State University (KWASU), Malete, who in an exclusive interview, said studies he conducted with his students on the vulnerability of scavengers in Ilorin to viruses revealed that many of them have been infected with Hepatitis B virus.

He disclosed that the prevalent rate of the virus in the Ilorin metropolis amongst the scavengers had increased in the last three years from 4 per cent to 13 per cent, and skyrocketed to 17 per cent. He warned that this was alarming, and called for strong, firm and necessary regulations to be applied by the relevant regulatory agencies.

The scavengers were reported to be completely ignorant of the safety necessary and required for their operations. These views of Dr. Sawyer were corroborated by Yusuf Olawaju Raufu, a PhD student of Environmental Science and Allied Health, KWASU who conducted two researches on Hepatitis B virus among the scavengers in Ilorin metropolis recently. ”We discovered that within a span of three years, there had been increase of about 4 per cent prevalence of Hepatitis B. This was suddenly increased to 13 per cent, from there to 17 per cent prevalent rate. This indicates the level of occurrence and prevalence of the virus among the scavengers”, he said during an interview.

Speaking further, he said, ”In Ilorin metropolis, there is no segregation of medical wastes from other wastes. Different types of wastes are mixed and dumped together. Therefore those scavengers scavenge for wastes without discrimination and they are not even protected and vaccinated. Thus they are vulnerable to viruses. There is lack of understanding among the scavengers about effect of wastes on their health in particular and that of the residents of Ilorin”.

Many scavengers the reporter asked whether they were aware of the dangers inherent in their close contact with dumpsites unprotected, displayed ignorance of the effect of wastes on their health. As far as many of them were concerned, scavenging is a source of livelihood that keeps body and soul and so far as it constantly guarantees daily food, other matters are secondary.

These were the views of Abdulfatah Akanji and Adamu Salisu, both of whom said since they don’t often fall sick, they don’t believe they have any virus. They were of the opinion that if not for scavenging, they would have been without any source of livelihood. Abdulfatah Akanji specifically said scavenging enables him to feed his wife and his four children and even be of assistance to members of the extended family.

These views on the prospects of employment provided by scavenging expressed above by Akanji and Salisu were corroborated by Yusuf Olarewaju Raufu, a PhD student of Environmental science and Allied Health at KWASU, who himself is a scavenger. He told this reporter that a scavenger’s average income monthly is more than #60,000.

some of the scavengers resting under a tent

”Scavenging is a good business, though a dirty one. It provides employment for those to whom the dignity of labour means a lot. Some scavengers earn more than those who earn monthly salaries. For example, a kilo of beer cans or any can for that matter is N250 while a ton is N250,000. Gone were those days when you throw cans of Milk, Bournvita, Milo, Malt and Coke away and still meet them. Within seconds, scavengers have picked them. They sell quickly and in the process, wastes are gradually being reduced while natural resources are conserved. This, of course, also protects the environment. All this indicates that nature knows how to take care of itself.”

The question observers like Dr. Sawyer keep asking is why recycling plants do not exist in Kwara State to take advantage of wastes in Ilorin metropolis, attributable to growing population, thereby leading to employment generation by converting wastes to wealth?

That is exactly what the Gbagele dumpsite after Ganmo was originally meant for, according to Dr Sawyer. But Gbagele did not have a recycling facility which include material recovery site among others. Therefore, the Gbagele dumpsite was not properly planned and well managed. If it had been so, it would have been a good source of revenue for government, according to Dr. Sawyer.

”The problem is if community does not have an integrated waste management system with all facilities installed to turn it to a wealth creating machine, we will keep on having this problem. The facilities required in an integrated waste management system include a material recovery facility where wastes are sorted out upfront with recyclable materials taxed for revenue purpose, a conveyor belt mill where wastes will be separated into different categories, then recycling plant. But the Gbagele dumpsite didn’t have all these facilities. Investigation revealed that it was meant to operate for 35 years but it didn’t even operate for 10 years before it was shutdown. It was however relocated to Eiyenkorin which also does not have all the required facilities.

Dr. Sawyer and others tasked the Kwara State government to take advantage of the growing refuse dumpsites in Ilorin metropolis to invest in waste management, observing that operation of waste management has advanced and become a big business and therefore a good source of revenue for government. To put a functional, efficient and well managed waste management industry in Kwara that will generate employment and income for individuals who engage in it, they advised government to privatise or commercialise it by investing in it and charge fees on them.