By Oge Okafor
Chief Ernest Etumnu Onyenze is a versatile businessman/entrepreneur and founder of Envirocycles Limited, a company designed to drive innovation in waste recycling.
In this interview, he talks about the innovation involved in recycling business and how waste recycling could be exciting, the challenges he faced when he started and the prospects of recycling business in Nigeria.
What’s Envirocycles Limited all about?
Envirocycles is a solid waste management company that is engaged in recovery, recycling and re-use waste system operation.
It’s designed to drive innovation in waste recycling by collecting waste and recycling it into re-usables. These re-usables could be in the form of semi raw materials or convertible into finished goods.
What kind of waste are we talking about and how does it work?
Basically all solid wastes are recyclable especially the non-degradable waste such as polyethylene terephthalate, PET bottles or what is generally called Ragolis bottles. Modern day recycling has to do with recovery, recycling and reuse. First, you’ve got to lay out a recovery plan for waste. This you do by creating a supply chain network with which to recover it. The recovery centres where PET bottles are collected cleaned up and tied into bales for easy transfer and transportation because you can’t just carry them loose. If they are carried loose into the truck, you’ll end up picking nothing because it doesn’t have weight. They are collected in bales of 25kg or 30kg, which gives them an economic value in terms of cost. These centres are located in places like Lekki, Ikotun, Badagry expressway, all over Lagos and scavengers are made use of and armed with specific instruction on what kind of waste to pick and they get paid.
Ours is recycling for export, as these things are required abroad. We have an export contract to be able to convert wastes into flakes (PET flakes) and ship them as raw material for companies that are into fibres. They are converted to reusables as raw material for the production of fibre and fibre-related products like spare parts such as dashboards and as fibre in the textile industry. Shirts which are made of fibres as can be seen when the Brazilian team wore jerseys made of PET fibre during a particular World Cup. Waste recycling is actually driving the science of turning waste into some other uses and we need the science and technology/equipment to be able to convert waste.
Given your experience, would you say it’s a good business venture?
If you say so yes but nobody cares. The government is not bothered and is not giving it a special attention or support that it requires to make it a job-creating sector. I want to tell you that there are lots of jobs that can be created from your normal waste but nobody is thinking towards that direction. It’s believed to be a dirty venture. We can help government create jobs by siting these small factories in all the capital cities. We can create like 300 jobs per plant.
How would you do that?
From the supply chain at every stopgap, there are lots of vocational jobs to be created out of it. From recovery/collecting the waste, that job is for the scavengers who could be trained and paid to bring the waste to the factory by the transport supply chain. There’s also professional work in the factory, where people could be trained to be able manage the processes. So, it’s an innovation that will require new technicians, engineers and electricians who will learn how to drive the processes.
So, how long has Envirocycles Limited existed?
The company was incorporated in 2008 and started business in 2010. Then we acquired the machines/equipment in 2012. I conceived the idea in 2008 and have also gone into finding out what can be done with other forms of solid waste like tyres, batteries, paper, plastics etc. Every waste is not actually a waste; it can be turned into other reusables if we can get the science and technology right.
But why did it take so long to acquire the machine after the company was incorporated?
We had understanding with Lagos Waste Management Authority (LAWMA). I had sold the idea to LAWMA that the best thing to do is to put our waste into reusables. That if it can be done abroad; it can also be done here. They agreed and asked me to come up with what I could do. I told them that we can get the machine while they give us the land but LAWMA, when the equipment came, couldn’t keep their own part of the agreement, which is giving us the land and enabling facility. They prefer to partner with foreigners.
Meanwhile, it’s a lot of money to bring in the equipment and that’s why it’s taking us a whole long time to do so. It’s not actually a one-man or company thing, the business is a social service. I am a social entrepreneur trying to help the environment; clean up the environment, provide employment and help in taking care of nature. If all the waste is going into our dumpsites, it’s going to be too heavy and they are not degradable, so they constitute a whole lot of problem. Our drainages are blocked because of PET bottles, plastics and nylon that are dumped there and when it rains the whole place gets flooded with a lot of people losing their houses and livelihood.
Then there is the effect of climate change, because the much we can do here is to burn some of the waste. When they are burnt, it sends its own messages up by discharging all manner of gases to the atmosphere and that also has a way of coming back to us and we pay for whatever we do. As social entrepreneurs, we need the government to take part of the responsibility and then those who are manufacturing/producing the products will also take responsibility for recovering the post consumption packaging materials that are disposed on the streets. These are the symbiotic relationships that we have seen in foreign countries whereby the producers of cans and bottles collaborate with social entrepreneurs in setting up a system that will be able to recover what is discharged after consumption of contents and to recover them properly and recycle them. Recycling is actually a scientific means of terminating the existence of waste. The process will generate employment bringing in a new set of workers and engineers. So, these are the things we want to see in Nigeria.
Almost every nation of the world enforces the Producers’ Responsibilities Act and beverage companies in Nigeria cannot ignore this act for too long.
Is that the reason why you decided to set up the business?
The reason is mainly to bring the world’s best practices to Nigeria using the challenge as a means of wealth and job creation; I like being challenged by things that aren’t normal. I want to find out a way of correcting them. And it is driven out of passion; because you need to be passionate to be able to drive any social or green venture.
Is it profitable?
Profit is secondary but the desire to see what is done overseas happen here is paramount. Again, what goes around comes around; whatever we dispose to our environment has a way of fighting the inhabitants of the environment. Green and clean environment is a driving force and not profit.
Don’t you need money to buy equipment and drive the process?
Basically, in the entire process, wealth, jobs and money are being created but this time around from your waste. That is the more reason why we solicit a tripartite relationship.
What were your initial challenges?
The initial challenges were for government and those in government to understand where you are coming from and where you are going. It’s a difficult thing to ask people in government to come and partner with you because they don’t understand how you can be going into such a venture when people are making money through contracts and supplies.
My first letter to LAWMA dates back to 2004 stating the way to go but nobody understood or could touch it until when they started getting Chinese people to tell them that it is possible to terminate your waste through recycling. Again, there’s this attitude of not taking Nigerian entrepreneur serious until a white man or somebody from abroad no matter whom he is intervenes but as long as his colour is not the same as yours, you will begin to listen to him. Entrepreneurs in Nigeria are not being given a fair shake-nobody wants to hear them out but anybody, no matter what the background as long as he is white-skinned, will get the government and the bank’s attention.
Nigerian problems and challenges can be sorted by Nigerians if given the required encouragement. Another challenge is power to drive whatever you are bringing in. Everything is doable; everything that has been done in the US, Europe and China can be done here but the challenge is that you don’t have enough electricity to drive it. In Sweden, I visited an integrated recycling group in 2006. The mechanism is such that any solid waste that is dropped inside the receiving chamber is separated and reduced into flakes and collected at the delivery end as a raw material to be sold to companies that use same raw materials to produce finish goods. When I asked the owner about coming to Nigeria to set up the same system, he said he has heard about Nigeria and surplus solid waste and scraps but there is no electricity to drive this kind of system. Energy and power is everything.
There is another innovative concept that is on the drawing board. It will be called the recycling city and it will require 50 hectares of land, from which 33 hectares will be for solar turbine system that will drive the factory and be able to generate 10 megawatts of electricity so that factory can work 24/7. The city comprises of waste tyres recycling plant, a nitrogen and fertilizer plant. We are looking for a government that will come and invest in it because the city will come with an annual export value of $US 100 million. We are looking at 10, 000 direct jobs for workers and they are also planning to sell excess electricity to any power line that wants to buy but it takes investment friendly government that sees beyond his nose to be able to get involved.