Inside the Cleaner Lagos Initiative:

Waste collection and the management of dumpsites were privatised in Lagos to give way to the “Cleaner Lagos Initiative”. The unexpected move shattered the city’s waste management system which has historically been driven by the informal sector

The waste management sector in Lagos has historically been driven by a fluid mix of “informal” workers such as the scavengers and waste pickers; more formalised enterprises contracted by the state in public-private arrangements to collect waste from residences and businesses around the city and transport it to dumpsites; and the state government working principally through the Lagos Waste Management Authority (LAWMA).

Private Sector Participants(PSPs) were introduced in the early 2000s by the Bola Tinubu administration to take the burden of waste collection off of the government – a task that the latter had not succeeded in managing satisfactorily up until then. Those PSPs were mostly local small- and medium-scale companies comprising erstwhile informal sector actors who were mobilised by the government to regroup into formal entities. Under the arrangement, PSP operators had access to government-financed schemes that allowed them to take out loans – to the tune of millions of naira – for the purchase of waste collection equipment and pay back the cost gradually from the proceeds of their business. LAWMA’s responsibilities were reduced to coordination of the PSPs, cleaning of public areas, management of transfer loading stations, and oversight of the various dumpsites (Olusosun, Igando, Epe, Badagry and Ikorodu) in the state.

The understanding between LAWMA and the informal workers in the sector has always been more tacit: the latter, who have historically been the mainstay of commercial recycling in the city – long before its importance came to the fore of global environmental consciousness – carried on their waste picking activities at the dumpsites largely under the auspices 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). Beginning in 2016, members of these associations were required under the new Ambode-led administration to pay taxes and fees to LAWMA in exchange for accreditation and operating rights. The idea behind the taxation was to guarantee job security and protections for paying members, especially in light of early rumours that the government was in talks with potential investors to privatise management of the dumpsites. Job security is particularly important to these informal workers because the incomes accrued from their small-scale recycling businesses have provided food, shelter, education and economic opportunity for generations of their families over the decades. As of early 2017, association executives put the number of individuals working as waste pickers and scrap dealers across dumpsites in the city at over ten thousand (though, as will become evident later, that number is likely to have reduced significantly in light of the spate of job losses brought on by the ongoing restructuring of the sector). Apart from the obvious economic benefit to the families of these workers, their recycling activities have saved the state substantial sums of money by preventing the dumpsites from filling up as quickly as they should have over the years.

Viewed against this background, the recent unveiling of the Cleaner Lagos Initiative by the new administration – a comprehensive plan to privatise all aspects of waste management in the city – without public consultation or buy in from the groups that have historically partnered with it, is a contravention of democratic principles and development best practice. The government has not been transparent with civil society groups either: dialogue initiated by the latter with representatives of LAWMA and the Ministry of the Environment (MoE) in early 2017 to clarify the details and broader societal implications of the initiative yielded little useful insight. The reticence displayed by the government so far has only served to further pique public interest in the specifics of the initiative, and has necessitated an inquiry into its consequences for the informal workers in the sector in particular.

Unpacking the Cleaner Lagos Initiative

When the new Governor took over in May of 2015, it was business as usual in the waste management sector – but that was not going to be the case for much longer. A short while into his tenure, the governor registered his discontent over the status quo in the sector and sought to institute a new regime, citing the need for the city to mitigate the climate change hazards arising from its current waste management practices as the basis for the proposed changes. The issue was accorded top priority by the new administration, and by August 2016, the Cleaner Lagos Initiative (CLI) was established by executive order, complete with the backing of a hastily passed Environmental Protection Law which delegates oversight of the waste management sector to the MoE, LAWMA, and the Public Utilities Monitoring and Assurance Unit (PUMAU) – the latter of which is yet to be constituted. The law stipulates that these government departments will be responsible for various aspects of sector management going forward: MoE is expected to play an advisory and mediating role between the government and other stakeholders; LAWMA will be in charge of licensing and regulating waste collection and disposal activities; and PUMAU, when it is operational, will be responsible for setting up and enforcing a billing regime which proposes to take into account the differing payment capacities of households and communities across the city.

With the partial exception of LAWMA, none of these government departments will be directly involved in the implementation of the initiative. Rather, implementation will be largely driven by a new wave of private companies that have been contracted by the government to do the job without having gone through the due process of a competitive public tender. A few hundred PSPs from the old regime will be retained under the new scheme, but their responsibilities and reach (and consequently, their incomes) will be vastly curtailed. PSP operators, understandably, are aggrieved – not only over the loss of future business, but also because many of them now have no means of paying the balance on the loans they took out to purchase waste collection trucks under the previous regime.

The justification given by LAWMA for the radical downsizing of PSP activity is that the enterprises are relatively small in size and therefore do not have the technical and financial capacity to operate on the scale required to achieve the objectives of the CLI. Thus, the responsibility for city-wide waste collection from residential premises has been transferred to Visionscape, a waste management company with a global presence but, crucially, no prior experience operating within the Nigerian landscape. The few surviving PSPs will be relegated to collecting waste from commercial premises, while LAWMA will be in charge of collecting waste generated in public areas, including streets and highways. These services will be paid for by a Public Utility Levy charged to all customers and collected centrally by yet to be established PUMAU.

There are indications that the peculiar needs of low-income communities have been taken into account in the design of the initiative: part of the plan is for Visionscape to have kekes (auto rickshaws) and barges pick up waste from hard-to-reach communities; and as alluded to earlier, the proposed billing regime by PUMAU will give concessions and exemptions to households with low incomes (although there are no details yet of how eligible households will be determined or the rates of concession that will be extended to them). According to the Environmental Protection Law, these concessions will be financed at least in part by a dedicated Lagos State Environmental Trust Fund to be set up in conjunction with other components of the CLI. It remains to be seen, however, the degree to which the implementation of these proposals will reflect their intent.

Already, discrepancies between stated goals and reality are becoming apparent. In the year since the announcement of the CLI, citizens have yet to see any manifestation of Visonscape’s presence in their homes and streets, save for a few public bins in certain prominent locations ostensibly placed there by the company. If anything, the situation seems to have deteriorated in the intervening period, with uncollected waste accumulating in neighbourhoods around the city and PSP trucks queuing at dumpsites for days to offload the waste they do manage to collect. As usual, there are conflicting accounts of why this is the case: while scavengers and waste truck drivers working on the dumpsites cite a lack of experience on the part of the new management for the backlog in waste collection, LAWMA attributed the glut mostly to unavoidable seasonal complications that are ushered in by the rains every year. Whatever the merits of each argument, it is clear that there is also a bit of institutional wrangling going on: some of the PSP operators under the previous regime decided to boycott waste pickup in protest of their looming ouster from the scene, and it is taking longer than was originally envisaged to work out the kinks in the contract between the government and Visionscape.

While Visionscape’s activities may have had little or no visible impact so far on the city’s waste management landscape, the company has apparently been gearing up for future operations behind the scenes. Notably, the company recently completed the refurbishment of a high-tech maintenance depot for its fleet of waste collection vehicles at Ogudu, one of three such depots proposed around the city. In the absence of user revenue to the company, the question arises as to how this and other investments are being funded, and how well the company’s financial projections can accommodate the losses it has accrued since July 1 of this year when it was originally billed to start operations. Since PUMAU (whose very operational status is still undetermined) is yet to set the rates for the Public Utility Levy out of which Visionscape and other actors are supposed to be paid, much less begin collection of the levy, user revenue is not likely to be a source of income for the company for some time to come.

In what appeared to be a savvy business move, the company issued a government-backed N50 billion (approximately US$ 140 million) “green infrastructure” bond in August 2017 to finance its operations. (Although national news outlets claim the bond was oversubscribed, there is no way to independently verify this.) In any case, there is the real possibility that the government, as the guarantor of the bond, will have to step in with state funds in the event that the enterprise turns out to be less profitable for investors than envisaged. If this proves to be the case, it would ironically be a reincarnation of the same problem that LAWMA claimed to face with the PSPs under the old regime: that of having to subsidise private sector operations with public money.

Another component of the initiative that appears to be functioning differently than the rhetoric implies is the scheme to employ an army of community sanitation workers (CSW) across the state – 27,000 of them, as publicised via various media channels. The language of the CSW scheme was obfuscating from the start; it was never made clear in the media adverts whom the scheme is targeting, what need it is meant to fill, which communities or groups are meant to benefit from it, and the criteria for recruiting candidates to the advertised positions. The adverts focused mostly on promoting the formalisation aspects of the scheme: decent wages, benefits, and protections such as insurance and pension guarantees for workers. This, however, is where the innovation ends. In reality, the CSW scheme is little more than an expansion of the existing street sweeper scheme where individuals (mostly women) are employed by the state as ‘highway managers’ to clean major streets and highways around the city. The rationale offered by the CLI is that rebranding these individuals as community sanitation workers and offering them better protections will expand the pool of interested applicants beyond women – the assumption being that men were reluctant to sign up to the previous version of the scheme because they did not think it attractive enough. Significantly, the CSW scheme is expected to be deployed across all the wards in Lagos, rather than in a few major locations as was previously the case. Again, however, despite claims by LAWMA that recruitment and training of CSWs is ongoing, citizens are yet to see substantial evidence of the scheme in operation. 

The pertinent question to ask at this point is: where do these formalisation efforts by the state leave the thousands of informal workers who have historically been dependent on the sector for their livelihoods? It is apparent from the foregoing discussion that these workers are conspicuously missing from the new waste management architecture envisioned by the government. Even the CSW component of the CLI has been imagined as a sort of elitist working class initiative: positions are only open to those who have undergone some level of secondary education, a requirement which automatically disqualifies many informal workers who show up on the dumpsites with only a pair of hands and a willingness to work.

The impacts of the ongoing upheaval on informal workers are perhaps best illustrated by the changes that have been precipitated in the operation of the city’s dumpsites following their privatisation. Despite repeated assurances by LAWMA officials in early 2017 that rumours of an impending private takeover were untrue – a position that was supposed to be guaranteed by the newly instituted taxes and fees – management of the dumpsites was abruptly taken over by a cohort of private companies just a few months later. The findings of a recent investigation into the state of affairs at Olusosun shed some light on the future that this corporate takeover portends for the livelihoods and welfare of the ordinary people working in the dumps.

Tipping the scales at Olusosun

In early 2017, Revive, a private company, took over the management of Olusosun from LAWMA following a closed-door agreement with the state government. The takeover has come with some apparent perks: checks are now conducted on waste trucks and other vehicles leaving the premises; new surveillance cameras suggest a heightened sense of security; and trucks carrying recyclable plastics and metal must leave the premises via a weighbridge that records the tonnage of the load they bear, all the better to compute the amount of money that is due to the company from the recyclables.

The issue with these improvements is that the only beneficiary seems to be the big waste company, Revive. For almost every other group working on the dumpsite – waste pickers, scavengers, waste truck drivers, petty traders – the changes ushered in by the new management has come at a steep cost. The security cameras and checks, for instance, are there to make sure that no one apart from Revive staff and contactors takes recyclables out of the premises to sell. Indeed, the entire set up seems designed to divert profits towards Revive: this is definitely the feeling among many waste pickers and scavengers on the site. Prior to the advent of Revive, the valuable recyclables painstakingly retrieved by the waste pickers at the bottom of the value chain hierarchy was sold on to the next tier of workers – “buyers”, or scavengers – who then sold the goods directly to companies that recycled the items into new products. Recycled plastics, for instance, were sold by waste pickers to scavengers at N20 per kilogramme, and the scavengers sold on the plastics to their corporate customers at N30 per kilogramme, making a profit of N10 per kilogramme.

With the coming of Revive, the equation has changed completely. Scavengers no longer have direct access to the waste pickers: the latter have now being prohibited from selling to the former, and the edict is enforced by those omniscient cameras stationed near the exit. Instead, waste pickers must sell their goods directly to Revive, which pays a paltry N10 to the waste pickers per kilogramme of plastic. Moreover, waste pickers no longer get paid their due upfront as was the case when they sold to scavengers; they now have to wait, sometimes for weeks, to get paid from the proceeds Revive makes from selling in bulk to corporate customers. As such, scavengers have been edged out of their former place in the value chain, and Revive now operates a monopoly in place of the vibrant, inclusive marketplace that was once Olusosun. Scavengers can, in theory, sell directly to Revive, but it must be at the rock-bottom prices that the company buys from waste pickers, making it difficult for the scavengers to sell at a margin. The result is that the dumpsite is now bereft of both scavengers and waste pickers: the relatively few scavengers who remain try to eke out a living while holding out hope for positive change in the near future, while waste pickers who cannot bear the harsh working conditions have reportedly left in droves to go back to their villages elsewhere in the country.

Sadly, this dynamic plays into the official position that successive administrations have been known to hold regarding what to do with unemployed “foreigners” they consider extraneous to the government’s megacity aspirations: such people are often brutishly ordered to go back wherever they came from. Now as before, there is little consideration by the government for the reality that it is, in all likelihood, simply relocating (and in some cases aggravating) the problems of underemployment and poverty that brought on high rates of rural-urban migration in the first place. A more constructive approach would involve some sort of reintegration plan jointly coordinated by the affected governments and geared towards easing the transition of citizens from one challenging economic environment to another.

Back in Olusosun, the hostilities between Revive and the traditional occupiers of the dumpsite were apparent in the course of the investigation carried out: while members of Revive staff were reserved in offering information, scavengers and truck drivers were extremely eager to engage and let their voices be heard, something they clearly have not had a lot of opportunity to do.

Protest has been difficult, as the avenues that historically existed for workers to voice their concerns have been systematically shut down since Revive came on board. The Scavengers’ Association of Nigeria (SAN) headquartered on the dumpsite was disbanded, and sitting executives – twelve of them – were banned from entering the site (a new set of executives who are more compliant with Revive’s agenda have since been installed). With the rest of the workers, compliance in this and other matters is enforced through both formal and informal means: a detention cabin manned by the police is now stationed on the premises, and there have been reports of extrajudicial lock-ups of dissenting scavengers and waste pickers; and alleged OPC (Oodua People’s Congress) members, infamous for their violent attacks and reprisals, physically drive out anyone who does not conform to the new programme. All of this has been allegedly arranged by the management of Revive, in a bid to tighten their hold on opportunities for profit from the site.

Seeking a solution for scavengers

In a rather interesting turn of events, the executives of the Scavengers’ Association that had been ousted from Olusosun by Revive went behind the scenes to seek redress on the matter from the state House Committee on the Environment, after attempts to publicly engage the office of the Commissioner fell through. Following a ruling by the House Committee that the scavengers had been treated unfairly and were therefore eligible for compensation, the association executives were awarded damages in the form of a six-month conditional contract to take over management of the Ikorodu dumpsite from LAWMA, according them concessionaire status similar to that held by Revive at Olusosun and West African Engineers at Igando. Renewal of the contract is contingent on the new management – which essentially comprises ten members of the former SAN executive – being able to upgrade the infrastructure on the site appreciably within the six-month probationary period.

The scavengers-turned-managers clearly see the development as an investment opportunity and have signed up for the challenge – the six-month trial period took effect from October 2017. However, this seemingly fortuitous opening poses several challenges to the critical eye. The most notable of these is perhaps the scale of investment required: the ten-man management team is currently pooling personal resources together to raise the funds needed to upgrade the site, which in any case has only a fraction of the waste-holding capacity present at their former base in Olusosun. It is doubtful, however, that the scavengers’ small-scale fundraising efforts will be sufficient in the face of the huge infrastructure deficit that came with the transfer. Unlike in Olusosun, therefore, 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, signalling a degree of precarity to their enterprise from the start.

Apart from making improvements to the infrastructure on site, the new management at Ikorodu also recognise that they need to invest significantly in the construction of access roads. Drivers of waste delivery trucks complain that they find access to the dumpsite cumbersome, located as it is at the end of several miles of rough, untarred terrain branching well off the main Ikorodu Road artery on which the Olusosun dumpsite is located. The new management at Ikorodu cannot afford to lose traffic to the site, as lower volumes of waste overall would in turn mean lower volumes of recyclable material and consequently lower profits for them – hence their resolve to invest private funds in public infrastructure.

Yet another implication of the new arrangement at Ikorodu concerns the scavengers and waste pickers – about 2,700 of them – that are down the ladder from the elite management class. While the small group of executives involved appear to have the financial means to sustain the move from their former bustling space at Olusosun to this remote part of Ikorodu, the latter is simply too far from the centre for most scavengers who had already established their base at Olusosun. The result is that, while the scavengers are free in theory to transfer to the dumpsite now under the management of their erstwhile representatives, many of them find the option impractical in reality. Indeed, this is the sentiment expressed by members of the newly instituted executive at Olusosun: many of them have stayed behind at the site not out of choice, but because they see no viable alternatives on the horizon. At best, therefore, the Ikorodu “solution” can be seen as a deal that provides some form of compensation for about a dozen people but manages to exclude nearly 3,000 in the process – a picture that is hardly the definition of inclusive development.   

Advocating a government for the people

More troubling than the apparent violations committed by Revive at Olusosun is the response (or the lack thereof) of government actors to the precarious position that the waste pickers and scavengers on the site have suddenly found themselves in. On the charge that the latter’s incomes have been drastically slashed under the new regime, LAWMA’s response is that, since legal ownership of the dumpsite has been transferred to Revive, the company has every right to dictate the terms under which the informal workers on the site can operate. This arrangement leaves the workers with no legal recourse or protections, even when it is clear that their rights are being trampled upon and their voices being systematically silenced. LAWMA’s sympathies clearly lie with Revive: the authority recognises that the company is in the business to make a profit and considers it imperative that its regulatory role does not infringe upon the profit-making potential of the company. On the other hand, the authority sees informal workers as parasitic actors who take every opportunity they get to prey on themselves and the government. No wonder, then, that these workers have no space marked out for them in the government’s bold new vision for a cleaner Lagos. As we saw in the Olusosun example, even an arrangement that seemed, on the surface, to accommodate the needs of dispossessed scavengers turned out, on closer scrutiny, to be a poorly conceived palliative measure that presents huge challenges for an elite class of scavengers and exacerbates the economic disparity between them and the mass of lower-level scavengers on the site. The government seems oblivious to the plight of this majority who really have little choice between sticking with harsh conditions on familiar territory and striking out in a new work environment with uncertain prospects.

The curious solution proffered to the problem of disaffected scavengers at Olusosun shows something else: that the government sees the organised private sector as the only legitimate route to achieving its vision of a megacity worthy of international acclaim. This view is not just inaccurate and incomplete; it is, above all, dangerous for the millions of informal workers who, in the absence of formal employment opportunities, resourcefully eke out a living from the fringes that the government now wants to obliterate. Rather than being edged out, these workers need to be given protections within the framework of the CLI that will enable them to co-exist profitably with formal operators. To this end, the state needs to re-envision itself as a mediator between the formal and informal sectors, enforcing boundaries for the former and enabling participation by the latter.

It has been said that the true test of any government lies in the way it responds to its most vulnerable citizens. There is still an opportunity here for Lagos to demonstrate its commitment to the wellbeing of every last citizen, especially when it is under threat from powerful outside interests. Will the government rise to the challenge?