I can’t give definite time Lagos streets would be rid of dirt –Irvine, Visionscape boss

The Chief Executive Officer, Visionscape, Mr. John Irvine, speaks on the controversies surrounding his contract with the Lagos State Government and the challenges he has so far encountered in ridding the state of garbage in this interview with GBENRO ADEOYE and TUNDE AJAJA

How easy has it been dealing with waste management in a city like Lagos?

Waste management is never easy and Lagos is a big state, given its population. Over the last 10 to 15 years, infrastructure in the waste sector has been left behind, and in every part of the world, waste infrastructure is always the last thing to be developed because education is more important, likewise health care and political reforms. So, it’s been an enormous and difficult task, but we have had to manipulate our business model to operate in the city.

Your company and the Private Sector Participants have had some disagreements but we learnt there is an upcoming arrangement between Visionscape and the PSP operators. What does this new arrangement entail?

At our last board meeting, we decided to fast-track our infrastructure project. To do that, we approached the state and asked if we could sub-contract the collection aspect so we could concentrate on building infrastructure, and the state said yes. We asked for that permission so we could concentrate on fast-tracking the engineered landfill site at Epe, the transfer loading stations, the depots, the waste to energy project and the multipurpose recycling facility. So, we are in the process of reaching out and engaging the Waste Collection Operators (formerly PSPs). We have done the analysis, the proposals and we are just waiting on the state to look into the agreement and make a formal announcement.

People have said they felt you had the capacity to shoulder everything with the way you came, but that things seem to be changing. What prompted that change of plan?

Health and safety. Olusosun dump is gone and it won’t open again. There is a dump in Ikorodu, but the only available engineered landfill is the one at Epe, because other companies are not doing it. So, we decided to fast-track that to ensure that waste being generated today would be looked after and not dumped in illegal blackspots like what has happened in the past. That was the reason for the shift. Our mandate, which is the Cleaner Lagos Initiative, is to deliver door-to-door residential collection and we are doing that. The only difference is that we have embraced the previous operators, so they would now be working for Visionscape as part of the Visionscape family. The WCOs would invoice Visionscape and we would then invoice the state government. So, nothing has really changed. The only difference is that we are reaching out to partners so we can fast-track infrastructure.

But many people believe that you were forced to strike a deal with the former operators for the collection because you didn’t have the capacity to clear the street of garbage. What do you say about that perceived failure?

The question is where do they perceive failure?

It stems from the volume of waste on the street, which stares everybody in the face.

If you do some research on London and New York, a contract of this size takes an excess of two years to mobilise. I mean 24 months. If I win the contract for the West End of London, I’d be given 18 months to mobilise. We signed the contract in April 2017 and for some reasons which I don’t know, the government decided to stop the PSP operators immediately. Usually, what happens is that the existing service provider works along with the new contractor for about six months to a year, but that didn’t happen. That was where the problem started. And previously to that, the state concentrated on the blackspots and illegal dumps. So, that was the perception that made people think it failed. As a waste management professional of 25 years, I should tell you that we are about four months ahead of where we should be. But the perception is that because of the volume of waste and the stopping of the previous collectors, that was what caused the trouble. Even if the WCOs were to leave and the government says we should continue alone, the street would continue to be like that for some time because of that break; the withdrawal of services by the former operators.

There have been insinuations that the government had to stop the services of the WCOs abruptly because you mounted pressure on it and gave bloated promises that you would bring in 600 trucks and other equipment and clear the waste in few weeks?

You show me any editorial where I promised that we were bringing in 600 trucks. I have never said that in any radio, television, newspaper interview or advertorial that we were bringing 600 trucks, because it’s impossible for me to do that today, tomorrow or next month. There is a schedule. That was the perception and that is why I would go back to the original statement that a contract of this magnitude should take minimum of 18 months and maximum of two and a half years. We are talking about waste generated by about 22 million people here. Even New York has about 19 million people. This is a huge market, so nobody has failed; it’s just the perception. People have to understand that for the waste that was here and is still here, there was no infrastructure. There are only three transfer loading stations for the whole state; just three. So, the reviewed mandate is for us to build more TLSs and have technology to enable us to manage the waste swiftly and efficiently, from generation to segregation and disposal. But I’m glad you asked the question, based on research, because now I understand more what people are saying. I’m not on Facebook or LinkedIn anymore; I’ve stopped everything.

Why did you stop?

Because of the abuse from people; I have been trolled on those platforms. I have a 26-year-old daughter in the university and there is a bout of concern when your daughter calls you and points your attention to it and says dad, what is this? I tell her you know what, it’s for a reason. At the end of the day, I have to reach out to the public and I go to the market places occasionally to discuss with people. It’s the only way I understand what is really going on, and when you see me at the trucks, that is not PR or publicity stunt. I want to know what my people are doing out there.

With this proposed arrangement, should the WCOs accept it, if they fail in the waste collection process, who then should the people blame; Visionscape or WCOs?

Ultimately, I’m still delivering the services, and I’m still bringing in trucks. I’m still responsible for the door-to-door residential collection. But, here is the problem, when the WCOs or our own trucks go to pick up the garbage on the streets, 60 per cent of that garbage is commercial waste and you see them at commercial premises and market areas. It’s not because you and I kept them there but the cart pushers are taking them there, alongside the commercial entrepreneurs.

You said this new arrangement won’t stop you from bringing in more trucks. If you want to cede the door-to-door collection of both residential and commercial areas to WCOs for you to focus on infrastructure, why do you still want to partake in collection?

We have a responsibility to ensure the success of the project. If for some reasons, a WCO fails to clear the garbage in an area, say its truck breaks down, I need to have the ability, asset and manpower to intervene and do the job. We will have terms and conditions and part of that is whether their services would be daily, bi-weekly and so on. My commitment is to deliver a door-to-door collection service, so if a WCO fails in that, they would have about six hours to get another vehicle to do that job. If that fails too, I send my truck to do the job, so the waste is collected on that same day. It’s not having two feet in one cup.

Your rift with the WCOs could have been fuelled by allegations by some persons in Visionscape sometime ago that it was truck pushers and some PSP operators that were filling the streets with garbage as an act of sabotage. Is that your position?

I have not seen it physically happen but I have seen videos, and I would give you an example. There was an offender that brought his truck to the front of the depot at Simpson Street and dumped the refuse in front of that gate. We couldn’t have access until we cleared it. Things happen.

The success of this newly proposed arrangement depends largely on the cooperation of the WCOs. Given the enmity of the past until now, have you reached out to them to know if they are willing to embrace the offer?

I have sat in lawyers’ offices with the representatives of WCOs, even as recent as Easter Monday to plan and they were ready to talk. But, there would always be a small group who don’t want to work with us, and that’s fine. If these people don’t want to work with me, there is nothing I can do. But what I’m saying is that our arms are open to embrace everybody. The ultimate goal is not Visionscape and it’s not the WCOs, it’s cleaning the state.

From the signals you have received so far, do you think they are willing to work with you, because Lagosians are tired of seeing filth in the city?

We have seen hundreds of WCOs, and I would meet those in charge of the Memorandum of Understanding to know the exact number of WCOs that are ready to work with us but it’s over 300 WCOs being brought to the table. Now, if only 250 want to sign, there is nothing I can do about others. People were complaining that Visionscape took food off their table, we have given them the opportunity to work with us, but unfortunately, I can only give them the opportunity. If they refuse to work with me, I would go back to the original mandate, which we were contracted to do under the CLI. I’m still buying trucks, but my focus was to move away from collection to putting infrastructure in place. However, I still have the responsibility for both. So, instead of the infrastructure being at the other end of the project, it’s now moved to the beginning of the project, alongside the collection.

What time lag are we looking at for you to get the commitment or otherwise of the WCOs?

If the WCOs resume work in their respective areas, which they said they would, there is no reason why the state can’t be cleaned in a couple of weeks. If these 300 operators are willing to go back to the status quo, as the government said, there is no reason why the state should not be clean. But the problem is and always will be the partnership. If they don’t want to partner with us, I can’t force them, and there is nothing more I can do, unless I go and drive the truck myself, but that won’t be every day of the week. I understand there is frustration, but a small group of the WCOs said we pushed them out of job and we said, okay come and work with us while we concentrate on infrastructure.

With your new proposal, are there some of them who want to work with you?

About 80 per cent of the WCOs want to work because they have the same ambition as I do. I came here for one reason; I believe that as a business we could clean this state. But there is a small minority who don’t like us being here and that is business. When you take over services like that, there will be friction. So, at the end of the day, there is nothing I can do about the small minority of the WCOs who don’t want to work with us. I can’t comment on that and that is up to the government to resolve. We have extended our hands of friendship and given them opportunity because there was a perception that we were taking away their source of livelihood, but not at all. It’s a commercial market. If you have a mobile phone shop and another man opens his on the other side of the street and you say you won’t talk to him. No, it’s not like that. Yours is to try to generate business that would make you outsell him. That is business. Let me take you a step back. The existing WCOs before we came in were trying to deliver a 24th century service with 20th century equipment. The state is maturing and the population is exploding. The days of just putting garbage in the hole in the ground and piling it up are long gone. So, the only difference between me and the PSP operators at that time was that I had a board and funding internationally that could enable me to deliver technology. The PSP operators had the same opportunities as me, maybe on a smaller scale, to invest in new trucks and technology, but they didn’t take it. As a business model in every market we are, like in the Middle East, we reach out and we work with partners. This is evident in all parts of the world. Companies sublet services. So, I’m reaching out to the WCOs. They are not losing their sources of livelihood, we are embracing them and even if I self-deliver on residential, there is the commercial aspect. I tell you this, officially, that there is more revenue in the state on commercial waste than on residential waste. That is a fact. Every industry has what we call different price points. Residential premises and hotels are different from oil and gas. Banks and finance houses are different from commercial premises and industrial premises. This is what has been missing from the WCOs’ analysis of the market, because all we see is the ease of collecting from residents. But I’m telling you as a fact that commercial waste has higher revenue than residential across the world. So, if I’m here for the money, I would walk away from the residential and take the commercial, but we are not here for the revenue.

Why then are you here?

We are here because the waste has to be managed and treated properly and that is what we want to do, from conception to disposal and that’s the hardest of it.

One of the challenges with waste collection in Lagos is that the wastes are not being separated. What is your approach to that?

If you look at Visionscape group, we have a company called WIS, which is an environmental engineering company, so we can turn organic waste into other things and that is why we are fast-tracking it. This sole investment is tens of millions of dollars, up to about 70 million. We have Multipurpose Recycling Facilities and we own plastic companies in the United Kingdom, so the waste generated today comes back to Lagos to assist the CLI project tomorrow. Talk about plastic bottles, I need 15 million black bags a year, so we take the plastic bottles, we send them to our sister companies to recycle them into black bags and we bring the bags back here for the project. There is no charge on that because it’s my responsibility to supply millions of black bags. And what people forget is that I don’t get paid for that. This is a performance-based contract. So, hypothetically, if I declare one million tonnes today and they only verify 990,000 tonnes, I don’t get paid one naira. We put that in the contract, not the state, because we want it to be transparent, auditable and people could see what is happening in the contract. It’s a performance-based contract and how do we monitor that? We use technology, we put weighbridge. When a vehicle climbs the weighbridge, it gets weighed and the data automatically goes to those who would invoice it. If I don’t meet the mark, I’m not getting paid, and that is financial risk, but people forget all of that.

Whether or not the WCOs accept, what time are we looking at for Lagos State to be clean?

The fact is that it won’t make any difference if the small minority don’t want to work with us, because I have the ability to block that gap. I don’t care about litigation, because we are talking about people’s lives here. Some of them are beefing, not about me but about the action of the state government. You want a definite timeline, but I can’t give you a definite timeline because the government would have to make the formal announcement. Once the state does that, there would be a timeline. But I’m telling you that if every WCO goes back to work tomorrow, the state would be clean in a matter of weeks, not months. That’s the fact, but please, let it be noted that with reform comes resistance.

Most Lagosians still complain that they can’t get waste bins, what is the challenge?

We are doing the survey process. There is over half a million collection points, but I have to know which direction we are going before I spend all that money on bins. However, the bins are being rolled out as we speak.

On the infrastructure you want to focus on, what timeline will you give for it to be in place?

A weighbridge and an entry road should take about three to four months to build but here, it would take us 10 months because we have to excavate nearly 25 feet to put the foundation. The way the garbage was indiscriminately dropped at the dump would pose a challenge. So, the first engineered site is being prepared as we speak, but for it to fully operate as a proper engineered landfill with all facilities, would take 18 months to two years, because we have to lay the pipes and electrical cables and the water table is so high. We want to make sure none of the waste goes into the water table. It’s like building a house. The existing facility we have on our 10-year concession agreement is between 75 and 90 per cent ready and that is the truth. What should happen is that segregation should start at the source and there is a very lucrative separation market here; it’s just not regulated. You would have seen the cart pushers taking plastics and separating them. We need to let people know that what we are building is not just for Visionscape or the state for 10 years, it’s for the state in 25 years because what we built is to last 25 years. That is the financial risk involved.

There was an issue about a statement issued by Visionscape and certain statements were attributed to the chairman of the Association of Waste Managers of Nigeria, Mr. Oladipo Egbeyemi, as regards the resolution of pending issues. He has since dissociated himself from the quote attributed to him. Do you stand by what your company said or you are investigating the alleged fabrication?

There were different statements made by certain parties, alluding to me being Lucifer’s son, they said I had taken over the market and there was no job for the local market. Things fly around in situations like this. I have no beef with them and I have asked them to come on television with me so we could have proper discussion, but they want me to sit at a roundtable with their lawyers. For what? Why do I want to pay a lawyer $500 an hour? At the end of the day, there is only one reason why I’m here, let me make it clear again; it’s for a cleaner Lagos. Out of the four of us in the team, three of us have worked together for an excess of nine years. We have over 120 years waste management experience put together. The reason why we were brought here is because we want to deliver something special for Lagos. Some of the WCOs said they had been here for 20 years and I said that is okay. But why have you not implemented a sustainable infrastructure? Forget the issue of money. If the former operators had this plan, why were some illegally dumping garbage in blackspots? We have cleaned over 2,000 illegal blackspots, which is ridiculous in this age.  Why not go to the landfill and why not use the TLS? This is not just a waste issue, this is a health care issue. Let me give another fact. We reached out to over 90 WCOs before this new initiative. I’m talking about three months ago, and everyone of them said they were willing to work with us. But a high percentage of these people won’t even answer our call now.

Do you know why?

Well, you tell me. I had given them a contract and people who are working for me get paid immediately, straight into their bank accounts. So, what else do they want me to do? There is nothing else I can do. Somebody or something is stopping them from working with us. We have tried to reach out to them to ask why, so we could ask what was wrong, but they won’t even answer the call. What can I do? If there is instability or rebellion within the ranks of the WCOs, there is nothing I can do. The only people these people are hurting are the residents, not me. They are only hurting the residents.

There is this belief in some quarters that Lagos seems to be the first and only major contract Visionscape would be handling, in terms of waste management. Is that true?

I have seen the report. We have been in this business for a long time and we have other associations, partnerships and joint ventures in different parts of the world. So, this perception that Lagos is our first contract is wrong. I’m not at liberty to talk about our existing contracts but why would the government ask us to come and do it if this is the only contract we have? Does it make sense? I don’t know where this came from. As part of our reaching out to communities, eventually there would be some town hall meetings. Once the government makes the announcement, then we would reach out and let people ask us questions. You asked me previously about a statement that was said to have been fabricated; do you really think I would be sitting here in front of a multimillion dollar contract with all my businesses edged on one contract?

But some people still feel you came up with this new agreement because you were overwhelmed and unable to deliver on the promise?

Some people are forgetting the core philosophy of the CLI, but nobody is delivering this core message at the moment, given these issues. If the perception is that I’m running back to the WCOs with my cap in hand, if that is what they want to think, then, fine. I’m happy, but trust me, I’m 6ft. 5in, I don’t often walk with my hands resting on my knees. I’m a 53-year-old Scottish businessman and Scotsmen don’t spend money, trust me. There is no emotion in this. If there is any, I’m angry because nobody is delivering this service to the residents. We came here with a mandate to try to clean the city. I said try because nothing is certain in life. But take note of what I said earlier that with reform comes resistance. We have engaged with the Ministry of the Environment and we are trying to sort this out with them, not because we have to. The simple matter and the unfortunate thing, which is what some people are forgetting, is that hundreds of people could have been killed over health crisis from that Olusosun dump because of lack of infrastructure. That is the main reason we are turning our focus to infrastructure. Forget politics, forget about Visionscape, WCOs, we are doing this because the infrastructure has to be done in case another accident happens. And in that case, the state might not be lucky. If people had invested in infrastructure in the last 10 years, Visionscape and I wouldn’t be here. Now, we have a mandate to deliver virtually, aesthetically and efficiently something that will not only clear the streets, but treat the waste so there is no more fire and no more risk to anybody. And thank God it was only property that was destroyed and not people’s lives. They call these people scavengers and that annoys me. They are not scavengers, they are entrepreneurs. They are trying to make a living, just like you and I and people are forgetting that.

Since it’s a 10-year agreement, what benefits would Lagos State derive from this agreement?

Our mandate is not a 10-year project, but what we are putting in place just now would be for 10 to 25 years. Let’s talk about our waste to energy plan. For every gigawatt of energy to be generated, you have to spend about $40m to $50m to build the plant. The truth is that the infrastructure in Lagos wasn’t built to take that electricity and if I do generate it, where will it go? So, what we are doing first is the anaerobic digestion. In the future, this infrastructure has to be in place to allow the state to generate electricity and that is the mandate; clean water, clean waste. I’m not running a waste company; I’m running an environmental utility company, with focus on water, power, liquid waste and solid waste.

What have been your challenges since you started?

Reform, because with reform comes resistance and you can quote me on that. Across the world, change is hard but there is a reason for everything and things take time. We had mobilisation, stabilisation and augmentation stages. I think the big challenge here was the communication; maybe we are partly to be blamed for that. The communication from the conception of the CLI didn’t really let the people know how long it would take until the standard was met and I’ve said before that projects like this take 18 months to two years. That’s the standard for the industry and the minimum period is 18 months, but for whatever reason, like the garbage, people didn’t want to wait any longer and I understand that. If I live in the corner of a street and it’s few metres from a garbage, it would upset me. But like I said earlier, do your research and look at London in the 1980s before new initiatives came, London was just as bad as this. New York, in the late 1970s and 1980s was the same as this. Unfortunately, for some reasons, this market didn’t want to wait for the maturity of the project and that was why we reached out to the WCOs to allow us to fast-track the infrastructure because without infrastructure, we can’t do anything to the waste.

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