This account is based on the article “Inside the Cleaner Lagos Initiative,” by Dr. Temilade Sesan - Centre for Petroleum, Energy Economics and Law, University of Ibadan (Sesan, 2018).
The waste management sector in Lagos has consisted of a mix of informal workers (wastepickers and the “scavengers” who buy from them), for-profit enterprises, and the state government’s Lagos Waste Management Authority (LAWMA). As part of a public-private arrangement, the state government would contract formal businesses to collect and transport waste from residences and businesses to dumpsites. Since the early 2000s, Private Sector Participants (PSPs)—local small- and medium-scale companies—have done a majority of the city’s waste collection while informal workers began grouping themselves into more formal organizations as directed by the government. 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).
Even before the association of recycling with environmental sustainability, informal workers performed the majority of recycling in Lagos, conducting their activities at dumpsites with the backing 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). In 2016, the new Ambode-led administration started requiring members of these associations to pay taxes and fees to LAWMA in exchange for accreditation and operating rights. With rumors of more privatized management at government dumpsites, the idea behind the taxation was guaranteed job security and protections for paying member. For generations, small-scale recycling businesses have provided wastepickers with the income to purchase provide for their families. In early 2017, association executives counted over ten thousand waste pickers and scrap dealers across Lagos’ dumpsites, but this number is likely much lower due to ongoing restructuring and job loss in the sector. Informal waste workers have done more than just provide for their families, their recycling activities have prevented dumpsites from filling up too quickly.
The Cleaner Lagos Initiative – the new administration’s plan to completely privatize the city’s waste management – was unveiled without consulting the public or seeking approval from affiliated groups in the sector. The government has not shared much information with community groups either, and talks with LAWMA representatives and Ministry of the Environment (MoE) in early 2017 meant to explain the social impacts of the program did not elucidate the situation for the public. 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 after taking office, the new governor sought to enforce a new organization of the waste sector under while claiming its merit’s in mitigating the city’s climate risks.. The issue was given priority by the new administration, and by August 2016, the Cleaner Lagos Initiative (CLI) was established through executive order and supported by a rushed Environmental Protection Law that granted oversight of the waste management sector to the MoE, LAWMA, and the Public Utilities Monitoring and Assurance Unit (PUMAU). The law makes these government departments responsible for particular aspects of waste sector management going into the future: MoE advises and mediates relations between the government and other stakeholders; LAWMA licenses and regulates waste collection and disposal activities; and PUMAU institutes a billing system which allegedly factors in the differing abilities of households and communities across the city to pay.
No government departments other than LAWMA have been directly involved with the initiatives implementation. Instead, a new cohort of private companies employed by the government will do it without having gone through the competitive public tender process. 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 business, but because many of them have no way to pay back the loans they had taken out to buy collection trucks under the previous arrangement. LAWMA’s reason for the drastic reduction of PSP operations is that these businesses lack the size as well as well as the technical and financial capacity to perform at the scale needed to meet the objectives of the CLI. Visionscape, an international waste management company with no prior experience in Nigeria, became responsible for collecting residential waste from across the city. The few PSPs that remain now only collect waste from commercial facilities, while LAWMA collects waste from public areas. The public pays for these services through a Public Utility Levy collected by PUMAU.
The initiative's planning has considered the needs of poor communities to some degree. Visionscape has kekes (auto rickshaws) and barges collect waste from communities that are more difficult to reach; and PUMAU’s new billing system will provide some rate relief to poor households, but household eligibility requirements or details on the reduced rates have not been well communicated. Environmental Protection Law states that these concessions are partly funded by a Lagos State Environmental Trust Fund set up in along with other parts of the CLI. However, the public does not yet know the whether this relief can be relied on.
The incongruencies between the plan’s goals and reality are now obvious. In the relatively short time since the CLI’s announcement, Visonscape’s presence in communities has been limited to a few public bin placements in central locations. One could even claim the situation has worsened as uncollected waste accumulates in several neighborhoods and PSP trucks sometimes lining up and waiting for days in order to offload their waste. While LAWMA claims that this waste collection backlog is due to weather complications caused by annual rains, wastepickers and truck drivers argue that these problems are due to the new management’s lack of experience. In any case, it is apparent that some kind of market capture has been going on. Why else would PSP operators from the former government boycott waste pickup in protest of their removal from the field, and why else would it have taken the government and Visionscape so long to smooth out the contract?
While Visionscape’s activities have yet to significantly reconfigure Lagos’ waste management processes, the company is covertly preparing its future. In early 2017, the company refurbished its waste collection vehicle maintenance depot in Ogudu (one of three proposed depots). Some have asked how these investments were funded before the company had collected any user revenue, or how the company’s financial projections could account for losses that had accumulated since the beginning of billed operations in July 1, 2018. In order to finance its operations, the company arranged an issuance of N50 billion (approximately US$ 140 million) through a “green infrastructure” bond in August 2017. If the company doesn’t profit as much as its investors had intended, the government (the guarantor of the bond) could need to intervene with state fund in order to keep operations going. Strangely enough, subsidizing private sector operations with public money would actually be the same situation that LAWMA claims to have confronted with the PSPs under the previous government.
Another dubious aspect of the initiative has been the campaign to employ 27,000 community sanitation workers (CSW) from across the state. The scheme’s language was always confusing, and it was never made clear who the campaign’s target audience was, the needs it was addressing, who it benefits, and the criteria that would be used during the hiring process. The ads mostly emphasized that the initiative would provide formal work (with fair wages, benefits, insurance and pension guarantees) to a greater number of people. But in actuality, the CSW has only expanded the existing street sweeper configuration, except for a now the state has hired a few (mostly women) “highway managers” to clean the city’s streets and highways. Proponents of the CLI think that rebranding these positions with the title “community sanitation worker” and offering more benefits will lead to more a greater number of male applicants. But my question is why does there need to be more men workers in the scheme when women already hold a majority of the sector’s representation? According to LAWMA, the ongoing recruitment and training of CSWs is happening across all of Lagos, but clear signs of this and other aspects of the initiative have yet to be seen.
How does the state’s formalization of waste work consider the thousands of workers who depend on the informal waste sector to sustain their livelihoods? These workers have not been wholly included in the government’s plans. The hiring of CSW’s has not even been an inclusive part of the CLI since the positions require a secondary education, something that most wastepickers could never afford to have.The privatization of dumpsites has had the greatest impact on the city’s wastepickers. Even though LAWMA officials reassured the public that privatization would not happen, private companies were able to assume control of the dumpsite within months. Investigative findings into the conditions at the Olusosun dumpsite foreshadow just what corporate takeover could mean for the future of Lagos’ wastepickers. One should note that scavengers and truck drivers were eager to provide information and shares their stories during the investigation, while Revive staff were significantly more reserved. This makes sense given the unjust antagonism imposed by the company's privatization effort.
Shortly after a private agreement was made with state government officials, Revive (a private company) assumed management of Olusosun from LAWMA in early 2017. Since the takeover, waste trucks and other vehicles are now checked when leaving the premises, new surveillance cameras have been installed, and trucks departing with recyclable plastics and metal must leave the premises via a weighbridge that records the tonnage of their loads. Many wastepickers and scavengers on the dumpsite agree that these changes only work to improve the profitability of Revive’s operations. Before Revive, wastepickers at the bottom of the recycling chain would sell their recyclable to buyers (or scavengers), who would then sell these materials to companies for a modest profit. But now wastepickers are only allowed to sell directly to Revive, which pays them roughly have of what scavengers used to pay. And instead of being paid upfront, wastepickers must now wait until when Revive gets revenues from its corporate customers. Revive monopolizing Olusosun’s recycling marketplace has pushed scavengers from their position in value chain, meaning they (like the wastepickers) must also sell directly to Revive. The scavengers who remain do what they can to support themselves, while more and more wastepickers are returning to their villages in other parts of the country in response to terrible working conditions. This phenomenon seems to unfortunately fit into the narrative pushed by city administrators, who view unemployed “foreigners” (migrant wastepickers) as an obstacle to the city’s efforts to modernize. These officials don’t care about the poor, and the irony is that their actions only shift and intensify conditions of underemployment and poverty that had initially caused rural-urban migration. A more considerate approach might involve a comprehensive reintegration of the urban poor into the economy in a way that promotes livelihood security and the general welfare.
Workers now have fewer and fewer ways to voice their concerns since Revive began its operations, making protest difficult. The dumpsite’s Scavengers’ Association of Nigeria (SAN) was dissolved, and its 12 sitting executives were banned from entering the site and replaced with ones that are more sympathetic to Revive’s agenda. With the remaining workers, compliance is enforced through punishment in the form of detention cabins and extrajudicial lock-ups for disenters. Members of the infamously violent Oodua People’s Congress (OPC) repel all who resist the program. These acts of intimidation are all orchestrated by Revive management in order to maximize profit. After attempting to publicly engage the office of the Commissioner, the ousted Scavengers’ Association executives sought help from the state House Committee on the Environment. The House Committee ruled that the scavengers had been treated unfairly, and compensated the association executives with a conditional six-month contract to manage the Ikorodu dumpsite (instead of LAWMA). But this only puts the executive in the same position as Revive at the Olusosun dumpsite and West African Engineers at the Igando dumpsite. Renewal of the contract relied on the new management’s ability to upgrade the site’s infrastructure within six months from October 2017. This window of opportunity proved challenging for the 10 new managers. The upgrades required an enormous investment, much more than could be attained through fundraising and pooling resources.
Unlike in Olusosun….where LAWMA previously spent considerable sums of money building roads and other infrastructure that Revive now benefits from, the scavenger-managers at Ikorodu have to make heavy investments from a much lower baseline on a much smaller site, signaling a degree of precarity to their enterprise from the start (Sesan, 2018).
While the small group of executives involved seem to have the financial means to accommodate a move from Olusosun to the more remote Ikorodu, the 2,700 scavengers and wastepickers in Olusosun do not have the means to leave their established base. It’s just too costly and impractical for them to do so. The newly appointed executives at Olusosun have also reported that their decision to stay has been borne from necessity. As a result, the situation in Ikorodu only benefits around a dozen people while effectively excluding 3,000 in the process. This is hardly an example of inclusive development.
The government’s failed response to the intensifying precarity of wastepicker and scavenger livelihoods has been just as problematic as Revive’s violations in Olusosun. LAWMA maintains that Revive, as the legal owner of the site, can fully dictate how informal workers use the site as well as how much they can be compensated. Workers have no legal options under this reconfiguration, despite all the ongoing injustice. LAWMA understands that Revive is a for-profit business, and assures that its responsibilities as a regulatory agency do not interfere with the company’s bottom line. The authority views informal workers as parasitic actors, when Revive is actually parasitizing the value generated by the informal waste sector. It should come as little surprise that these workers have no real place in government’s dream for a more modern, clean Lagos.
The government seems indifferent to the struggles of both wastepickers and lower-level scavengers, who must either choose between harsh and low paying conditions in their current situation or greater uncertainty and risk in a new work environment. Why? Because the government assumes that an organized private sector is the only way for the city to ascend to more “advanced” levels of modernity. This incorrect view endangers millions of informal workers who, without formal employment, sustain their livelihoods from a commons that the government and (its corporate partners) now want for itself. These workers deserve the ability to earn a decent living as part of the formal sector, and the state’s role should be to enforce greater restrictions on the formal sector while providing more opportunities for the informal sector to participate.
The city of Lagos can still demonstrate its commitment to the wellbeing of its most vulnerable citizens, who are under threat from powerful outside interests. However, as of now it remains unclear where the government’s allegiances truly lie.