INTERVIEW: Visionscape totally committed to the Cleaner Lagos Initiative – CEO, John Irvine

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Visionscape Sanitation Solutions, VSS, is the waste management division of the Visionscape Group. The company contracted by Lagos State Government to manage residential waste, provide solutions the State waste management infrastructure, and build Nigeria’s first engineered landfill.

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In this interview with DAILY POST’s Wale Odunsi, Mr. John Irvine, the Chief Executive Officer, gives an insight to VSS’s drive for success. He also discusses the challenges in the pursuit of a cleaner Lagos, Nigeria’s commercial hub and a mega city of over 22 million people.

Who are Visionscape Sanitation Solutions and what does the company stands for?

John Irvine: Visionscape Sanitation Solutions is a trading arm of the Visionscape Group, which is ultimately an environmental utility group. What do I mean by that… Here in Lagos, and our other markets, I operate the solid waste division of the business. But we have the experience and companies to handle wastewater treatment, recycling, drainage and waste-to-energy.

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For a State as big as Lagos, one expected that recycling of plastics and some other reusable waste would be a major thing by now, have you started recycling?

John Irvine: Let me tell you a good fact: there is a big misconception. There is a very mature recycling market here in Lagos, it’s just underneath the radar. There are a lot of companies who have invested in recycling especially plastic recycling.

Yes, we have recycling division within the Group, but here specifically in Lagos, the mandate originally was to bring in, under the CLI, sustainable waste management process from the solid waste generated from the residential population of Lagos. The plan always has and always will be that eventually, through the course of our journey of the CLI, we will start recycling these products in volume for the State.

We are not recycling at the moment, but it will be done in volume when we develop the Epe Eco Park and Landfill. But our mandate at the moment is to cohesively introduce and stabilize a door-to-door residential solid waste collection under the CLI banner.

Ongoing Waste Disposal at the Visionscape Epe Eco Park and Landfill

You mentioned the CLI (Cleaner Lagos Initiative), tell us about it, the participating parties and what Visionscape Sanitation Solutions’ role is?

John Irvine: The CLI is in three tiers. We have what we call the enforcement tier which has the Lagos State Government, the Ministry of Environment and the Sanitation Corps. Their job primarily is to ensure that companies who are working under the CLI banner, which we are one of many, adhere to the aspirations and the project details which we were given.

The second tier is Visionscape Sanitation Solutions. Our brief, as I said earlier, is the waste management infrastructure for Lagos State and the management of solid waste generated from the residential population of Lagos with some other PSP (Private Sector Participants) companies responsible for the commercial waste, air, water, drainage.

The third tier is probably what I will call most important layer: the residents – people like you and I who live in the State. The residents themselves, we need them to take ownership, we need them to understand their role. They need to ensure that they dispose of their waste properly, that they report litter blackspots and illegal dumpsites, and most importantly that they cohesively communicate upwards to the companies, to the enforcement, and to the State government.

What is your response to the accusation that Visionscape Sanitation Solutions have come to displace the PSPs?

John Irvine: So how long do you think we have been here? 18 months? 2 years?… We have been here nearly 5 years. We were very fortunate, we applied for an international tender that the State issued. It was a public tender that anybody could apply. We went up against several international companies, and we were very fortunate that we were awarded the contract, the project under the CLI.

My job to the Lagos State Government, under the CLI, was to create a sustainable, verifiable, transparent waste management processing for the collection of solid waste from the residents, from their houses.

Never ever did anyone, whether I or the State government, say they were taking over from the PSP. That was never the case. The PSP you speak about sir, had the same opportunity as I did three and half years ago when we went for the tender.

So, the misconception that we parachuted 18 months ago and that we are going take everybody out is wrong. There was a viable, progressive and justified process for any application of this project.

How can you assure the people that VSS have the skills, experience to manage waste in Lagos and how does VSS contribute to local content, capacity and knowledge transfer?

John Irvine: We are here for the long-term. The project we are managing at this moment and time is for 10 years under the CLI. Let me make this clear for your readers: what we are doing now is not for the next ten years or twenty years, this is for the next generation and the generation after.

The processes, technologies and systems we are putting in place, especially Epe Eco Park and Landfill, is the backbone of the solid waste residential project for the CLI. There will be a fully engineered landfill.

We will then build the multipurpose recycling facility, with a materials recovery facility and a tyre recycling facility, we will have an anaerobic digestion plant, and more. And even if you drive pass the Epe now, you will see the millions of dollars investment we’ve put in. We have put 3.6km of fencing, still ongoing. We’re building access roads across the 88-hector space, we’ve started to do what we call remediation, to allow us to build all these facilities.

Let me give you a figure here: we’ve done over a million man-hours in the first two phases. Here is the secret: these million man-hours were done by Lagosian companies with Lagosian workers and Lagosian technologies. I never brought a company from UK or Europe, I use local indigenous companies because that’s the basis of this business.

Visionscape Sanitation Solutions Monitoring & Intervention Unit Undergoing Midnight Operations, Commercial Road, Apapa

Tell us about your partnership with the Waste Collection Operators?

John Irvine: Let me tell you what happened there: The State government decided that they want to readdress and reclassify all the old PSPs, including myself. So, we were asked, along with the old PSPs, to bring our vehicles to a place where the government came to check the vehicles and have a reclassification of the services that the PSPs and myself could deliver.

For some reason, I don’t know why, a lot of PSPs didn’t turn up. The ones that did turn up, were rebranded and reclassified by the state government as WCOs. These WCOs then, because of the change their scope and the horrific fire at the Ojota dumpsite, were embraced by us to assist in delivering the solid waste project at the residential level and that was how the partnership came.

What have been the major challenges in a state like Lagos?

John Irvine: The challenge always is population. Every emerging market, mature market, you have repeated government activities, education, transport, health care welfare, always the environment is on the lower half of the table. The budget controls that governments have globally always affect the environment.

So, the challenge is the population which is growing daily and the lack of investment previously, and the infrastructure and the processes in place. Lagos is no different world than USA, New York for instance. In the late 70’s, New York city was nearly bankrupt and what is the first thing they do? They terminated half the sanitation workers, police men and fire men and what happened? Garbage on the streets.

Then we back track to early 80’s in London, under the conservative government of Margaret Thatcher. The same again; what happened there is exactly what happened here. There was no effective handover, there was a lack of communication between the Lagos State Government and the existing PSPs, because they all thought they were losing their jobs.

What have you done in terms of job creation?

John Irvine: The perception is that I brought all my best friends here to work. Here is the fact: At the moment, we have about 350-360 employees and growing daily. Eventually, we’ll hit thousands during the course of the project. I have only 14 expats working in the business which is less than 4%. So, the misconception of ‘this is an international company and it is run by the internationals’ is wrong.

Yes, we are part of an international company, but Visionscape Sanitation Solutions, Lagos, is a Lagosian company, with Lagosian people, with Lagosian management and gender diversity. My heads of department, 72% are females; out of my drivers, 9% are females. Now you ask me:  how does that contribute to people on the streets?

We pay above average wages. It’s a fact, everybody knows that. So, when our employees get their salary, they have some disposable income. They then spend some of the money in a shop in the market place, the shop keeper then has to buy more products, the distribution then has to bring in more products and what happens, the government gets tax. So, we are adding to the GDP and people forget about that. We don’t just pick up garbage, we are also contributing to the State and that’s something special.

Tell us about your sensitization efforts. Are you reaching out to and educating those who dump waste indiscriminately?

John Irvine: There should have been an overlap. A project like this takes 18 months and is done in three stages. Mobilization, where you start to put things together. Then Stabilization, you stabilze the service and achieve your ambition, your KPIs. The third stage is Augmentation, where you surpass your responsibilities of the project. But that never happened.

What should have happened is the existing PSP system should have kept working on the first of January this year and over the course of six, nine months, we work on top and gradually the PSP would have pulled away and would have left us looking after the residential solid waste.

Also, we hold townhall meetings, we have a very high-level CSR project, VEEP – Visionscape Environmental Education Programme. We have been going into schools, into universities.

I myself have been to schools and talked to students and try to explain to them what the future holds and what best practices are because no matter how hard we try, there are 23 million people in Lagos, we can’t educate them all so we start with the most influential because these kids are coming up, these are the next culture, these are the next bread winners, these are the next drivers of the State, so the programme starts there.

Then we go to the landfill miners, we teach them about health care, about the dangers of what they are doing we, give them PPE, we give them safety gloves, we give them hats, shoes, mask. We train them about the hazards of their job.

But the most important thing we have done so far is the townhall meetings. We go straight down to the ward levels, we speak to people on the ground, we go to the markets because I want to understand what pressure the women in the market face trying to discard their garbage at the end of the day.

We go to the LGA and LCDA chairmen meetings and we reach out to people to let them understand that we are not just here for 18 months; we are building, something amazing.

What you will see over the course of the next couple of years is a true sustainable waste management programme backed by technology, investment and more importantly commitment from the employees of this company. I’ve got ex-MOE (Ministry of Environment) workers, I’ve got ex-LAWMA workers, so we have people who understand Lagos, we understand the streets, we understand the culture, we understand what needs to be done, but we need to bring the residents on board to understand what we are trying to achieve and then life changes.

Visionscape Sanitation Solutions Cleared Up Sites Across Lagos State

Have you publicised your phone numbers so that people who don’t see your truck can contact the company?

John Irvine: Yes, we have a website that people go to, visionscape-sanitation.com; we have a helpline – 0800 VS WASTE or 08008792783, when residents are unhappy about their neighbourhood waste collection, when they see an illegal dumpsite or individuals dropping waste, they have to call us. Every week, the CLI have a meeting and we share this information among ourselves and try to resolve them.

We have over 150 WCOs company working with us. These WCOs have an excess of 300 trucks; I myself have an additional 200 vehicles under the CLI project. That’s 500 vehicles, but this a huge state of 23 million people. There’s more WCOs joining us, there’s more Visionscape trucks coming but we need the residents to be ready to assist us.

Have you considered offering free waste bin for motorists as part of your corporate social responsibility?

John Irvine: Eventually, that is what will happen. Once we have this infrastructure in place, we will go to the next stage of development where we collect the waste at source and recycle it. Meaning that you and I may have 3 or 4 bins in our compound, or from of our apartments for different type of waste – paper, plastic, general waste – that’s the next stage of evolution.

But before we can do that, we have to install discipline and coherence in the State. We have to educate people because if I put all these bins out tomorrow, it will just be all over the place and you expect compliance and that takes time. But yes, the ultimate goal is to turn this project into the mature market we spoke about.

Why should Lagosians continue to trust Visionscape Sanitation Solutions?

John Irvine: This is a journey of faith. What I mean by that is: we won’t disappear this year or next year. Rome was never built in a day as they say, but with reform comes resistance. What we are doing now is not for the next 7, 8,9,10 years, it is for the next 2-3 generations. Even if I wasn’t here and the status quo was continued the way it was going, where is the waste going to go? There is no enough land to keep dumping garbage.

I admire the government not just because they are my client and I work under the CLI, they have the foresight and the initiative to do something better. We can’t keep dumping waste in the environment, something had to be done.

My message to the readers is: This is a two-way interaction, they need to trust me to deliver my part of the CLI, but I need to trust them to come on board and handle their waste disposal properly. That as they go to work in the morning, don’t just dump the waste, keep it at home because that’s why we engaged the WCOs. They do the backbone of the collection of the business, and our monitoring and intervention (M&I) team clean up the State.

Last year, between the 1st of July and the end of December, we recorded over 5,000 illegal dumpsites and we started cleaning up. Our M&I team, since the 1st of January this year and August have cleaned up nearly 20,000 sites, consisting of illegal dumpsites and litter blackspots from underserved areas.

The problem is some of these sites come back again and again. So, the M&I team is a really important part of the CLI because they don’t just to locate blackspots, they also underpin the WCOs activities on residential waste collection.