By Ayodele Olalere
They look unkempt with unclean clothes and walk about curiously with dirty sacks. Inside those sacks are used and discarded materials such as household items, used metals, plastics, worn-out slippers or foot wears, broken plates etc. To search for those materials, they hold in one hand a long thin iron rod curved at the tip. With it, they ruminate through waste bins, garbage and dump-sites, not minding the smelly odour which oozes out. At first sight though, some people misconceive them as mentally challenged individuals; yet, they are undeterred but focused.
With their face always directed downwards while walking and searching for materials to be picked from the ground, they are undaunted by the negative perception the public has about them. They are scavengers and make a living from scavenging. While many youths keep on lamenting and roaming the streets aimlessly looking for non-existent white-collar jobs, these despised Nigerians smile home each day with huge income through the vocation.
It has been revealed that scavenging for metal scraps is a lucrative business venture whose potential remains fully untapped. The venture has provided business opportunities for tertiary institutions unemployed graduates and unskilled youths thereby reducing the high unemployment situation in Nigeria. Unfortunately, many of these graduates who engage in the business do so in disguise because of the stigma attached to it.
For instance, Ade Ogunbowale is a 31 year old Mechanical Engineering graduate, who has become successful in the business of scavenging for metal scraps due to unsuccessful search for job after graduation. He has carved a niche for himself by becoming a scavenger at the Oke-Afa , Isolo, dump site. According to him, there are many people like him (both graduates and non-graduates) who are into the business that puts food on their table and other extended family members.
He says, “I search for and pick up used plastic bottles that litter the streets as well as metals to make a living. Although most people see the job as not dignifying, I feed my family from it”. He added that after picking the materials, he takes them to waste recycling companies who in turn pay him after weighing and categorizing them.
Narrating their mode of operations, Ogunbowale said scavengers search and pick used materials such as glass, paper, metal, plastic, textiles and electronic, among others at various dump sites and along the streets. The materials are them conveyed to collection centers where they are sorted, cleaned and reprocessed into semi-products for manufacturing companies. He says through his scavenging job, he has been able to reduce pollution and clean environment. He lamented that though people look down on him, such attitude has not deterred him from doing the job.
According to a metal scrap operator, Atilade Ajuwon, there was a time people had to pay for throwing away scrap metals. However today, reverse is the case as many people have seen that they can make money from waste materials in their homes.
“Before now, it was mainly immigrants from Niger Republic and Chad with some few Nigerians who were really engaged in the business of scavenging and were paid by those disposing their unused materials. However, many Nigerians are now involved in the business of scavenging and most people no longer pay scavengers to dispose such materials. Rather, nowadays, scavengers have to buy such materials from the owners. It was the Lagos State government’s ban on cart pushing waste collectors that gave rise to the business of scraps,” he said.
Another scavenger, who identified himself as Ifeanyi said he trains his siblings from the money he makes from scavenging for metals. He says, “This business is what I have been doing for a long time and use it to take care of myself and younger ones. It is from it I pay my house rent, school fees and send part of it to my parents in the village. Doing this business is better than stealing. It is not an easy job, but there is money in it. If you are shy or ashamed, you cannot do it. To make money, one needs to be bold and not bothered about people’s perception of you. It is sad that people look down us”. He said in spite of the social stigma, he is encouraged to continue the business since it puts food on his table. “It does not matter what people think about the job you do as long as it is not a criminal one and feeds you and your family, I am OK with it,” he said.
Challenges & profitability
“There is no job without its problems and challenges. Scavengers also face challenges,” said Mr. Muhammed Abdul, a scrap collector and also engaged in recycling of waste materials.
He added: “These challenges include social stigma and other unfriendly attitude as many people see us as those who are mentally unstable. He said it was hunger and insecurity that made him to relocate from the northern part of Nigeria to the south and went into scavenging for survival. When people see us, they always think we are mad people, but we are not. We are only trying to make a living.”
Wale Adeloye, a native of Iseyin, Oyo State of Nigeria, who was once a scavenger, said he was in the business for a couple of years without any savings. Most people looked down on him as a scavenger. He said the girl he had proposed to marry compared him to a pig and refused to marry him. He is however consoled with the knowledge that he also contributed his quota to the well-being of the society. He said scavengers sometimes get injured while picking scraps or get stung by scorpions because some of the metals have laid waste for a long time and consequently harbor dangerous pests.
“In several cases, we step on rust metals or objects that leave lasting injury. Sometimes, we come across snakes in some dump-sites and if care is not taken, one might get bitten. Also, you might visit a street to search for useful materials to pick and people in such street begin to look at you suspiciously as if one is a thief. These and many more are some of the challenges we face,” Adeloye said.
Investigation also reveals that many people, having realized that they could be paid for materials they don’t need, no longer throw them away, but sell them to scavengers. But how profitable is the business? Hear Sobowale: “The metals are measured by weight and each weight has a particular price. We buy from scavengers and we also sell to recycling factories. Some of the prices we receive from factories are as follows: One ton of metal costs between N35,000 to N40, 000; Ten tons or a trailer load of metals, costs N350,000 to N400,000; One ton of aluminum costs N130,000 and ten tons of aluminum goes for N1, 300,000.
From scavenging to waste recycling
The drive by the Federal government at helping small and medium business owners to thrive has resulted in many people now going into scrap recycling business; many more are still investing in it. Scavenging and recycling business has become a profitable venture that has helped to absorb many youths from the streets and has taken to the business.
At Onihale town, a suburb in Sango and Abeokuta Expressway, Ogun State, there are recycling plants which range from locally built machines to fairly used imported ones on a whole stretch of street. One of the factory operators, Tokunbo Sobowale, lamented the absence of mega recycling plants that can accommodate the quantum of waste waiting to be recycled. He opined that waste disposal system has become a Herculean task that requires the effort of everyone so that the health hazard it may cause could be avoided.
According to him, recycling business is profitable because there is high demand for recycled semi-products from manufacturing companies as they are quite cheaper than new ones.
Hear him, “The job of waste recycling is the type that one embarks on with 100 percent certainty of making money, adding that the beauty of it is one does not need to start the business with any capital. Recycling of scrap materials would provide fresh supply of the same materials. For example, used office papers can be converted into producing new ones just as used polythene bags can be converted into making new ones too.
“Since the business of recycling of waste is picking up in the country as a new business venture, it surely offers lots of opportunities. For instance, one benefit of recycling is that it saves resources; also, to recycle waste is to simply reduce air and water pollution in the environment,” he said with a sense of pride.”
While restating the challenges facing the business, he said the process of acquiring a machine, no matter the size, is capital intensive; stressing that locally fabricated machines are cheaper. He further said the influx of many people into the business because of its money spinning attraction has made it a competitive business. This has resulted to difficulty in getting enough scraps for recycling plants.
“Another problem associated with the business is getting the scraps because so many people are now into it thereby making it competitive. Sometimes, we have to go to dump-sites to search for scrap materials to be able to pick viable ones in large quantity. There are some middle men who buy from scavengers and sell to us. Their price is higher since they will have to factor in cost of logistics and other overheard expenses. So we find it cheaper to buy from dump-sites”.
Companies that utilize already recycled materials pick them from us because of stiff competition. In the past, we used to beg them to buy from us, but things are turning out for good at the moment,” he said beaming with smile.
He continued: “To be able to get regular supply of waste materials, you have to recruit young unemployed boys in your area and engage them in scavenging the materials, while you pay them at 30 -70 percentage ratio. You take 30% while they take 70%. This way, they will be in business while you make money off them”.
Scrap materials that are in high demand include scrap machinery from construction companies, electrical materials, aluminum and electrical wires of all types, auto spare parts of all types, ship or aircraft parts as well as beams and rods. Some companies that patronize such materials in large quantity are found in Ogijo, Ikorodu and Sagamu Road, Sango Ota, Ogun State where there are smelting facilities owned by Asians but operated by Nigerians.
To begin a metal recycling business, one must be aware that every scrap buying company has different categories and prices and no two companies negotiate for price the same way. The company weighs the items in pounds and pays after categorization. Companies compete with each other by offering attractive prices in different scrap categories. However, before selling off the materials, there is need to carry out feasibility studies on the price of aluminum, copper wire, steel and other scrap items.
An environmentalist, Michael Simire, agrees that turning waste to wealth is a viable business in other countries. According to him, waste need to be managed effectively and can also be a source of wealth if well handled. A lot of projects have been embarked upon by those countries and have accessed waste to wealth programme under the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNTCCC).
The UNTCCC is an environmental international treaty negotiated at the United Nations Conventions on Environmental and Development known as the Earth Summit. Simire said there is a project in Ikorodu where waste is turned into fertilizer which a company is handling well.
“Our challenge could be how committed we are in handing such ventures. The issue of sincerity is important to be able to handle such projects. The technical know-how is another serious issue to be addressed. We should also be determined to make the project work. Discarded materials can contribute to local revenue, job creation, business expansion and economic growth. The business of recycling generates employment and adds value to the Gross Domestic Product (GDP) of a country that wants to create wealth for its citizens.
Its benefits include but not limited to preventing waste of potentially useful materials, reduces energy usage, reduce air and water pollution, conserves natural resources and prevents habitats destruction. As the business of recycling becomes popular in Nigeria, some individuals and organizations are trying as much as possible to encourage Nigerians to ensure that recyclables waste do not end up on the ground, fields, drainage and canals through indiscriminate disposal, but contribute in generating income so as to add value to people’s lives,” Simire said.