When the Lagos State government conceived the Cleaner Lagos Initiative, it contracted Visionscape Sanitation Solutions, to implement the plan. This met with an initial resistance from the PSP operators, who were prior to the time working with the Lagos Waste Management Authority (LAWMA) under a public-private partnership scheme. While the face-off between Visionscape and the PSPs lasted, Lagosians groaned as garbage mountains sprang up everywhere. But the ugly picture is changing. In this interview, John Irvine, managing director of Visionscape, get sheds light on this and paints a picture of the future.
The board recently approached the state government to fast track the infrastructure projects and the facilities that are to accommodate the waste generated on daily basis. What has been the outcome so far?
We believe that using innovation is empowerment, it is key to transforming the cities in general. Our infrastructure project has been successful thus far; we are investing in the TLS system to bring our 21 Century service into Lagos. More importantly, Visionscape Sanitation solutions in partnership with the government is pushing forth innovative ideas to make sure that what we implement today is not just for the next five to 10 years but for the next 25 years. We are not saying things won’t change in 25 years but what we are laying the foundation for what will surface over the course of that period. The first phase of the ecopark part of the project which shouldn’t have taken more than four to five months took 10 months because the waste heaped has been indiscriminately discarded, there was no methodology on how to manage ourselves, when we started digging the foundation to start building.
We understand that waste collection operators (WCOs) are to complement the waste collection streams, under your management. How will this be achieved considering that Lagos State has only about seven waste stations compared to USA or other countries?
The answer to your question has two parts. First, the WCOs are not working under our direct management, but they are partners in the Cleaner Lagos Initiative, CLI, but we have the experience in managing projects. Second, it is like people living in a house, but we don’t do the same thing and we don’t have the same social life. So in essence, we are sharing Lagos. The ultimate goal is to deliver the project to the CLI and to give Lagosians what they deserve. We are conceptualizing the waste management process in Lagos. What I mean by that is that we have been tasked to implement a system from the residential end of the waste chain to the disposal end. As part of that brief we have to put technologies and infrastructure in place to divert ways from the eco part because ultimately our goal is to turn the waste into wealth in the ecopart, thereby finally reaffirming wha we are trying to say. We spoke to the government and got permission to fast track the infrastructure projects and shorten the time and use our experience to make the waste management process run smoothly. It is important to state that everybody thinks that the most important part is collecting the waste generated. No, anybody can do that, what rather matters more is what we do to the waste after it has been collected. That is very key and paramount.
In the light of the new development that mandates Visionscape to work with the Lagos State Waste Management Authority (LAWMA) and the PSPs, how has this helped the evacuation processes?
Lagos is getting cleaner. I challenge anybody to tell me otherwise. I will give two examples: I drove through the streets around 4.00am in the morning on a Friday and Saturday along Yaba. There was no garbage on the street and I have solid evidence of the situation when I came here 18 months ago, when there was endless heap of garbage on it. It is getting clean, yes it’s a slow process; Lagos is a mega-city and we understand that the partners under the CLI are working fervently to reduce it. If you look at the picture of things more regularly I will say it is high, about 60-65 per cent. You can set your watch on the time of the daily evacuation. We have formal schedules in place and partnership with the WCOs and chairmen of the local council development areas. They know exactly when we are coming and what we are going to do. I have said this live on TV and in interviews and pleading again that Lagosians should relax and give us time. Surely, they will get the quality services and clean environment they deserve.
What has been your relationship with the LCDA chairmen, and community development associations? Would you say the relationship is helping you achieve your goals?
We have a very active corporate social investment department that works with the communications department. We have held meetings with each CDA chairman, local authority and market leaders, Even myself I have sat with the market women to explain to them that it is part of the business plan to ensure that we relay the message to Lagosians because without relaying the information the fear factor comes in because people don’t understand why these green machines are in the street. We want the LCDAs, and CDAs to understand what we are trying to achieve and more importantly they want to ensure they help as much as possible during this implementation phase.
There is this belief among Lagosians that you are focusing more on highbrow areas and ignoring lower-middle income areas where wastes are generated. How do you respond to that?
We have been here since 2016 but most people don’t realize that we spent nearly a year surveying the whole state. Members of the team walked through every street of this state, from Lagos Island, Victoria Island, Ikoyi to Mushin, Surulere, Ikorodu and everywhere. So we don’t just concentrate on the highbrow areas (low density areas) only. We collect about 10 to 50 tons of waste generated in the high density areas and markets daily. We are active in every area of the footprint of Lagos; the CLI project covers the whole state, not just a selected area.
People have raised issues about the funding of the project and the cost implications. What is your take on this?
Before we came on board, LAWMA was doing a fantastic job. The population of the mega-city has grown in the last five to 10 years and that is a challenge for any government. More importantly waste infrastructure and waste services at the government level are one of the afterthoughts to be reformed into the finance. What LAWMA has done over the last 15 years on budget has been phenomenal. Now about funding, what we are doing is a performance based contract or project. If I don’t perform I don’t get paid. For instance, if I had to collect a million tons of waste in January and I only collected 998 tons, of course I would not get paid for that month because it is performance based. But people don’t understand this. We took over a dilapidated concession site from the government and we are spending millions of dollars of our own money – not state or taxpayers’ money – to put the place in order. Why are we doing this? Simple: to be able to meet the performance-based requirement of the project. We had to invest in these facilities to meet the target obligation of the CLI Project.
What strategies would you adopt to address this belief among Lagosians that your pace is too slow?
Projects like this usually take up to 10 years or longer to fully develop. Okay, let’s use 10 years as benchmark. If I was in any other margin market or mature market we probably won’t be judged because of the heavy investment. Mismanagement of the environment will cause ill health – that is why we understand that people want their waste picked up immediately but that’s impossible. So there is a systematic approach to what we are doing, probably in six months we will then be able to convincingly tell the LCDAs what will happen on Monday, Wednesday and Friday, and able to say between 9 and 12, your garbage will be collected; that is where we will eventually get to – everybody knows that on every last Saturday we are for waste collection but to move away from that we had to bring in a systematic approach not only just to clear the waste but to reduce it and do something about it. For instance, there is a company in Europe that makes a shovel we use from plastic waste. That is what we are trying to do and we should not be perceived as slow; it is a process.
What major challenges have you encountered in Nigeria?
First and foremost I would say it is better to have no infrastructure at all than to have dilapidated infrastructure, because if you don’t have infrastructure at all you can do somewthing rigidly but when you are trying to use the existing infrastructure it’s very hard. One of the biggest challenges I have personally faced as a chief executive is the struggle of how we relay a message to the people of Lagos, to the normal working man who is doing his job and at the end of the day, comes home to realize the garbage is still there, this is why we have our very quick and sharp communication department and we are delivering that message. So, to me that is key. We are on TV and relaying that message to make sure that the message is in the foundation for the future of the state. How do we do that? We invest in infrastructure if I don’t have the best vehicles on the road infrastructure and no environment friendly processes, no recycling center, everybody is wasting their time.
So what infrastructure are you developing to make Lagos a cleaner state?
Let’s start with the Ecopark, which will remain for a long time after I have left the scene. We are putting in place something that would last for 25 to 35 years. It would be a recreation park – that is the basis for the environment-friendly focus. Within that park there will be what we call M and M; there will be a material recovery facility so the idea is all the waste that has eventually been dropped goes through a process and our target is to divert 40 per cent of what comes to the plastic washing facilities, where we will wash the plastic. It’s no longer a waste; we send the plastic bottles to our sister company, turn the plastic into valuable bags. The idea is that today’s garbage carries tomorrow’s wastes. We will have an education centre in the place where children will learn about what we are doing. This will allow them get involved because this is key for the future – to let the children understand that the throw-away practice has to stop and that’s the most important. That is why we spoke about the next generation.