Story and Photos by Patrick Egwu
At a scrapyard in the southeastern Nigerian city of Onitsha, Bennett Mbah leans on a wooden pole as he stares at some metal packed by the entrance of the yard. He moves forward and gently lifts up a heavy block of aluminum scrap, places it inside a squeaky wheelbarrow, and moves toward his one-room shop along a busy street.
A scrap dealer comes into the shop to buy some aluminum and steel. He starts bargaining with Mbah over the prices. Once they agree on a price, the dealer hands him some naira, the Nigerian currency, and he starts packing his wares into a waiting cart. “Nothing is a waste now in Nigeria,” Mbah says, his left hand on top of his scale. “Everything here is useful.”
Mbah’s business primarily buys and sells nonferrous and ferrous metals. Copper is the most valuable, he says, followed by brass and aluminum. For example, in February, 1 kg of copper sold for N1,500 (US$4.16); brass was between N800 and N1,000 ($2.22 to $2.77), he tells me. The price varies depending on the type and quality of materials he is selling, Mbah says. “For aluminum, there are three types: thick ones usually got from vehicles, the light ones used for roofing houses, and profile aluminum used in making windows. Profile aluminum is more expensive, followed by light aluminum,” he says, pointing to each type of material, with the prices per kilogram N420 ($1.16), N350 ($0.97), and N300 ($0.83), respectively, on that day.
Onitsha, on the banks of the Niger River, is one of the biggest commercial hubs not just in Nigeria but also in the entire West African region. It is a hub for scrap trade, with traders coming from different parts of the country and neighboring countries including Chad, Cameroon, Ghana, Niger, and Benin Republic to do business with local scrap collectors.
“I buy it from the sellers, mostly scavengers who bring different scrap materials to us from dump sites across the city,” Mbah says, counting the money he just received from the buyer. “I weigh [the scrap] on a scale, and depending on the weight and type of material, we know the price and what to pay,” he explains. He also handles scrap plastic, which he buys for N120 to N150 ($0.33 to $0.42) per kilogram.
Sitting in his shop, Mbah tells me market trends and buyer demand largely determine scrap prices. “The sales depend on the market and they [buying companies] fix the prices. Sometimes, they add or remove money from it, and from there we know what to do and how to [adjust] our price tags,” he explains.
About 35 meters from Mbah’s scrapyard is another yard, APOCA, that recycles plastic, rubber, and coated wires, which are shredded or granulated. In the yard, Manager Onyinyechukwu Duru lifts up a stitched bag, places it on his shoulder, and walks it over to a dark warehouse a few steps away. “We produce materials from rubber and plastic used for making the sole of shoes, boots, [and] generator and motorcycle handles,” he says. Inside the yard, which looks like a mini football field, I see 100-kg bags containing the various forms of scrap. In the sweltering mid-day sun, workers pack the plastic, rubber, and wire into empty bags and take them to the granulator, where an operator is waiting. “We have another machine that produces the material, called an injection [molding] machine,” Duru says. “It forms them into the shape they are needed, before we pack them in bags and wait for our buyers.”
Duru started off as an apprentice in 1993 in a small factory that collects and recycles plastic and later started this company, which does the same. “Now I have people who work for me, and I pay them,” he says. About seven people are working in the yard, as Duru observes, during my visit.
The scrap boom
The scrap industry is evolving across the African continent. In Nigeria, it’s fast becoming a booming venture, with traders like Mbah raking in thousands of naira each month. Nigeria’s national steel consumption, estimated at 6.8 million mt annually, is met almost entirely by scrap. There’s little available data on how much scrap Nigeria generates due to poor data management and the lack of records, but experts estimate it totals thousands of metric tons each year.
Industry participants can’t point to the exact year when the Nigerian scrap industry started. It’s certainly much younger than the industry in the United States, China, India, or European countries that have been recycling for more than a century. Some point to the 1980s, while others say it started before Nigeria’s civil war in 1967 and boomed immediately after the war, in 1970. “Scraps and metals are mostly in high demand during times of war,” says Pius Odo, an industry expert. “The business usually booms at this time because you need metals to build, especially planes and ships; guns and bullets, too.”
Leonard Chinawa, who has been running Awason Plastic Nigeria Industries, a plastic and rubber recycling company, for the past 25 years, shares a similar view. “[The] scrap industry started in Nigeria before the war,” Chinawa tells me. “It has been around for about 50 years. Then, a truck full of metals [sold] for N11,000 to N12,000 ($30.47 to $33.24), and a truck contains 400 bags [weighing] 25 kg.”
Prices have soared since then, he says, with a truckload of metals now selling for N1 million ($2,770) or more. “And it scared people away from the market,” he adds. Recyclers now sell metal by the kilogram and the ton. “One kg is N800 ($2.22). One [metric] ton is 1,000 kg, and a full truck carries about [8 to 10] tons. So typically, a full truck of aluminum is worth about
N5 million ($13,850), while that of copper is worth N20 million ($55,400). That is how far the industry has evolved.”
One factor in this exponential growth was the Nigerian Central Bank’s 2015 ban on using foreign exchange to import steel—among other items—in a bid to kick-start non-oil sectors in Nigeria’s hydrocarbon-dependent economy. It also wants to increase mining and steel production’s contribution to the country’s gross domestic product to 7% within a decade, from 0.3% currently. The government is seeking $7 billion of investment to develop its primary metal industries, notably gold and iron mining and smelting, with little progress so far.
In 2017, Nigeria’s Federal Ministry of Solid Minerals announced the country is seeking investment of some $2 billion to revive the Ajaokuta steel mill project, the biggest steel company in West Africa. Begun in 1979 with the support of the Soviet Union, and intended to have an installed capacity of more than 3 million mt per year, it has never been operational. Roughly 2 billion tons of iron ore deposits around the country have yet to be explored. With primary steel production unlikely to displace the scrap industry anytime soon, scrap traders are filling the demand and supply gap at a profit.
Many of the investments in Nigerian scrap recycling businesses are from Indian and Chinese investors taking advantage of the large markets across Nigerian commercial cities, industry participants say. “The scrap metals and beverage cans are formed into ingots and shipped where they are processed with heavy machines and technologies before exported [out of] the country,” says Samson Eke, a researcher at the National Metallurgical Training Institute.
Scrap as a path out of poverty
Since the country slipped into recession in 2016, Nigeria’s unemployment rate has gone up substantially, rising from 18.8% in the third quarter of 2017 to 23.1% in the third quarter of 2018, according to the National Bureau of Statistics. Despite being the largest producer of oil in Africa, Nigeria displaced India as the country with the largest number of people living in extreme poverty in 2018, with an estimated 87 million Nigerians living on less than $1.90 per day, according to findings by the World Poverty Clock in partnership with the Brookings Institution. For some Nigerians, scrap picking and scrap recycling provide a path out of poverty and a source of livelihood.
At a government-managed dump located along a busy highway linking Onitsha to other commercial hubs across the Niger River, I see about 40 young men and women searching through the waste for scrap materials they can sell. They move from one location to another in the city, their bags strapped across their shoulders. Every morning before 7 a.m., Chibuike Eze is there, wearing a hat and goggles to hide his identity. Scavenging is not illegal, but those who do it hide their faces because of the social stigma they face. Some people see them as dirty or mentally ill because of the ragtag clothes they wear.
Eze moves from one heap of waste to another, collecting scrap plastic and beverage cans and putting them inside a big, waterproof bag hanging at his back. “If you come here, you will make money with these things,” he tells me, pointing at a bag full of plastic bottles by his side. “We get plastic very well during festive periods or Christmas. By then, the prices increase because it is in high demand. After that, the prices come down,” he explains. He cites the price per kilogram he can get for aluminum beverage cans, plastic, or nylon, which range from N200 to N500 ($0.55 to $1.39).
When Mbah, 43, left his rice business in 2003 to start his scrap business, he never expected to make a living from it. But the decision has changed his life, he says. For more than 15 years, his small-scale operation has operated successfully. “It solves my needs and pays my bills,” he says. “I make some profits because if I don’t, I would have left the business a long time ago.”
Uche Livinus works six hours a day at the APOCA yard in Onitsha. When he couldn’t find money to continue his plastics recycling business, which focused on seats and plates, he decided to become an “odd-job man”—a worker who separates plastic, rubber, and wire. He earns a daily wage that can range from N1,500 to N2,000 ($4.16 to $5.54) “depending on the number of hours you work for the day,” he says. “The work is very stressful, and the money is not much. I am doing this to provide for my family.”
Livinus’ story is not unique. Thousands of others who struggled with funds to start up a business or enter the formal economy have found a steady source of income in the scrap industry. The workers I spoke with say they are no longer looking for white-collar jobs, which are hard to come by. “This business has been helping me and my family since I finished school,” says Uzoka Obi, who graduated from the university some years ago but, like many qualified young Nigerians, found it hard to secure a job. “I moved from one office to [another] in search of a job, but no luck, until my friend, who was in this business, [invited] me to join in. I have no regrets.”
Two years ago, Damian Nwachukwu left his job at a bread factory and joined the scrap business. The bread factory didn’t always pay him at the end of the month, he says, and even when it did pay, he struggled to meet his needs. “I left because the pay wasn’t good enough,” Nwachukwu says. “I was paid N25,000 ($69.25) at the bread factory [each month], but I make more here. I like it here because I am happy and it accommodates everyone who doesn’t have any job.” (Nigeria’s official minimum wage was N18,000 a month, roughly $50, until April, when the Nigerian Senate passed and President Muhammadu Buhari signed a law raising it to N30,000 a month, or $83.40. To date, only a few Nigerian states have agreed to implement the new minimum wage, however.)
Scrap recycling “has helped in reducing [the] unemployment rate in the country,” says Evaristus Nnamdi, the founder of Foraminifera, a scrap market research company based in Lagos. “It is an area a lot of people are going into,” he says. “I visit [Onitsha] often, and saw that it is a viable business. Many young people have taken it as a source of earning. … The economy is not looking any better after the recession, and this is the only way out for most people,” he adds.
Women are also earning a living with scrap, whether as pickers or as processors. At one of the dump sites in Onitsha, Maryann Udoka, 28, uses a hook to search for plastic, rubber, aluminum, and copper—work she has been doing since 2015, she says. After collecting a large quantity of scrap material and filling her bags, she hires a truck to take it to a recycling facility 10 km away. “Sometimes I make N5,000 ($13.85) or more depending on how many kilograms it is,” Udoka says. “One day, … when I was given my money, I couldn’t believe it. I was shocked.”
Udoka says she is able to pay rent and the tuition fees of her younger siblings, who are in college, with the money she earns from scrap. “I have been making profits since I started coming here,” she says. “But it is a stressful job because you have to wake up early and go to the dump sites so you can collect enough scrap materials when the trash truck arrives. If you come late, others will pick the good ones, and you will be left with nothing.”
Nancy John, 29, is the only woman working at APOCA with 15 male colleagues. Every day for the past eight years, she leaves for work at 8 a.m. and returns home at 6 p.m. Being the only woman at that yard doesn’t bother her, she says, pulling an engine hook to remove a recycled motorcycle handle. “But the work is stressful for us more than the men,” she says. “While working with the machines, you have to be very careful to avoid having injuries. You need to know when to remove your hand and when to put it back.” The shoe soles and motorcycle handles she produces from scrap get shipped to other commercial cities in Nigeria, such as Lagos and Aba, for sale.
In addition to creating wealth, these recycling operations are beneficial to the environment, says Ifezue Uchenna, an engineer at the National Metallurgical Training Institute, who has been focusing his research on the environmental impact of Nigeria’s scrap industry for the past decade. “Before now, you [would] see these materials littered on the street, but it is not like that anymore. The rusting and decomposition of these materials were not healthy for living,” he says. “They cause nuisance to our soil because it takes many years for metals and [other] scrap materials to decay,” he explains. “But collecting and recycling them becomes a source of helping the environment. … Those things that would have constituted environmental challenges are being removed, alongside all the emissions and health hazards they would have caused to public’s health, especially by burning them. So if you check, we now have a cleaner and safer environment because of this,” he says.
Challenges to growth
Despite the environmental and economic benefits of the scrap industry in Nigeria, it faces its share of challenges. The government prohibits the export of scrap metal, despite the small number of scrap recycling and consuming companies in the country, in an effort to promote local manufacturing and sustain the growth of small-scale industries. In 2017, the Nigeria Customs Service intercepted scrap metal worth N100 million ($277,000) packed into eight trucks transporting them to Tin Can Island, Nigeria’s biggest port.
The government claims more than 20 scrap-consuming companies are operating in the country, and exporting scrap robs the country of revenue and employment opportunities. But industry participants say only few of these companies are operational. “We don’t have many factories for the processing of these materials into finished products,” says Samuel Ekeoma, the chairman of the Scrap Dealers Association of Nigeria. And, as with many industries in Nigeria, lack of infrastructure is a binding constraint. “The transportation system for these materials is poor, and government agencies are threatening us with too many levies,” he says. Those levies and other government policies are crippling the industry’s growth and potential, he adds. “Each truck pays between N4,000 to N6,000 ($11.08 to $16.62) before it is allowed to move,” he says, from the scrapyards in Onitsha and other cities to consuming facilities in Lagos that turn the metal into ingots for export. “If you don’t pay, you won’t be allowed to move,” Mbah concurs. “If you encourage local manufacturers, they will excel while boosting the economy. These businesses need a conducive environment to thrive and attract more investors in the country,” says Nnamdi, the market researcher.
Nigeria’s unsteady power supply is another problem. Electricity distribution has been irregular since the privatization of the power sector in 2013. “We don’t have regular supply, and we [still have to] pay electricity bills,” Mbah says. “When there is no power supply, it affects our output.”
People who work in scrapyards also face safety concerns due to weak and poorly enforced national worker safety laws. None of the scrapyards I visited had safety policies, and in one yard employees worked without gloves or boots to protect them from injury. Nwachukwu tells me he purchased his own boots after incurring a serious injury last year and having to spend more than N6,000 ($16.62)—nearly a week’s salary—on medical care.
There is also the social stigma associated with the scrap business, especially for waste pickers. “People look down on us; they call us scavengers when we move around at refuse dump sites to search for scrap. But that’s not the point, the point is the money we make from what we do,” Eze tells me. He adds that “the police harass and intimidate us to give them money because they think we stole the metals.”
Theft is a common problem at some scrapyards, but the Scrap Dealers Association is adopting measures to deal with this, Ekeoma says. “Some people come here in disguise as scrap dealers and end up stealing from us,” he explains. “We have registered with the Corporate Affairs Commission to know our real members. When we catch those thieves, we take them to the police.”
And child labor remains an issue throughout the country. Nigeria’s National Bureau of Statistics, UNICEF, and other organizations reported in February that half of Nigeria’s 79 million children between the ages of 5 and 17 are working, including in hazardous conditions such as hawking wares in the street, begging, and quarrying gravel and granite. At some of the scrapyards and waste dumps I visited, I saw children between ages 10 and 15 gathering and selling scrap metal. The Nigerian federal government passed the Child Rights Act in 2003, and 24 of the 36 Nigerian states have implemented it, with the goal of ending this practice by prohibiting exploitative labor and penalizing offenders.
Despite the industry’s challenges, experts see a bright future for it. Recyclers “have grown from using carts to trucks, from a small space to large-scale processing and recycling companies. This will also change progressively in years to come,” Odo says. Mbah and others say they have found a steady business with room to grow. “I want to expand my small company into a big one,” Mbah tells me, smiling. “I will need to work more and study the market very well for this to happen,” he says.
Patrick Egwu is a freelance writer based in Enugu, Nigeria.
Scrap is a key manufacturing input for Nigeria, Africa’s most populous country, and recycling jobs are lifting people out of poverty despite the industry’s numerous operational challenges.