LOTRW in a nutshell: a Nigerian microcosm

The previous LOTRW post took a look at work of the District of Columbia Water and Sewer Authority to modernize DC’s wastewater treatment infrastructure.  Half a world away, a micro-business is addressing a waste-management/recycling challenge in Nigeria. Here’s an article on the subject from The Economist (originally from the February 22, 2014 print edition).  It’s short, and reprinted here in its entirety:

THE roughly 170m Nigerians who inhabit Africa’s most populous country are producing far more waste than their creaking infrastructure can manage. Aminu Omar is one of thousands of unofficial waste-pickers who see this as an opportunity to make some cash. Half-immersed in a large bin outside a smart housing compound in the capital, Abuja, he pulls out beer cans, water bottles and empty jam jars, and stuffs them into his patchwork plastic sack. He then sells his haul for 700 naira ($4). “I take the rubbish, give it to a middleman and he sells it for much more,” he says, leafing through a discarded women’s magazine.

Nigeria’s sprawling megacity, Lagos, with a population of 21m or so, disgorges 10,000 metric tonnes of waste a day. Overburdened municipal governments are reckoned to collect barely 40% of this rubbish. Only 13% of recyclable materials is salvaged from the city’s landfills, according to Wecyclers, a young company keen to promote recycling and reduce waste.

Wecyclers uses a fleet of bicycles to collect recyclables from over 5,000 households in densely populated, poor areas of Lagos neglected by waste-disposal lorries. The company awards points to registered households for the amount of recyclable material they provide, which can then be redeemed in cash or kind—a household item such as an iron, or a telephone credit—at the end of each quarter. Wecyclers makes money by selling the recyclables to bigger companies that melt or process and then sell them on, usually to Asia. “It reduces the number of people on dangerous landfills searching for waste at the mercy of a broker,” says Bilikiss Adebiyi of Wecyclers, who says her company is the first of its kind in Africa. “Some [people] have given us tonnes of waste.”

The Lagos State Waste Management Authority is trying to turn rubbish into energy by harnessing methane gas emitted from rotting waste at Olushosun, the largest landfill in Lagos. When completed in five years’ time, the project is supposed to produce 25MW of electricity. That is a help for a country that produces only 3-4GW per year, a tenth of South Africa’s output for a population triple the size.

In the metropolis of Kaduna, 200km (124 miles) north of Abuja, waste collection is currently free for the 1.5m inhabitants. But the state government is trying to get people to pay a monthly levy to reduce the burden on the authorities and to tempt in the private sector. It wants to award contracts to companies to collect waste from paying customers. Persuading people to pay for rubbish collection will depend on the quality of the service—or on the penalty for not co-operating. As with most Nigerian government contracts, politics and palm-greasing will probably play a part. Still, if more rubbish is collected, people may not complain.

You can learn more about Wecyclers here. As with the DC example, the Nigerian microcosm combines environmental protection with economic growth. It too is scalable, suitable for adaption in any developing country. The link to resilience to hazards is more subtle (and perhaps a bit forced), but from looking at the infrastructure (in this case, nothing more than the cargo bicycles), it’s clearly resilient to both natural hazards and the threat of Boko Haram terrorism savaging Nigeria, especially the northern part of the country.

The point here is a humble one: even in the shadow of the dysfunction that prevails across so many aspects of Nigerian life, bright spots like this one – place-based, grassroots efforts drawing on local leadership and social networking – are sprouting up. And there are hundreds of thousands of such efforts underway worldwide – individually improving local living conditions and in aggregate advancing the outlook for all of us. Most will prove sustaining only on the short term, but that’s because through the power of social networking and learning from experience they’ll be replaced by something even better.

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