Mrs. Lola Oresanwo is the Chief Operating Officer of WestAfricaENRG, owner-operator of Nigeria’s first Materials Recovery Facility (MRF) located in Alimosho, Lagos. In this interview with Safety Record Newspaper’s John Ogunsemore and Waheed Akinyemi, she talks about the company’s occupational safety and health and community affairs efforts. Excerpt.
First of all, what is WestAfricaENRG about?
WestAfricaENRG is a landfill diversion company and our aim is to achieve zero-waste landfills in the communities that we work and one of the communities is Alimosho. When you talk about landfill diversion, you are saying: how do you check all the valuable fractions from your waste and take that fraction into the production economy again, thereby creating jobs, reducing greenhouse gas emission, reducing diseases and the problems associated with managing wastes in a community.
Considering the hazardous nature of your work, how do you ensure that your workers are protected to eliminate or reduce the negative impact on their health?
As a matter of fact, we’ve just brought out another regulation specifying the type of safety shoes that staff should wear; that if they don’t wear it, it might have an impact on them. Naturally, people do not really want to listen to you even when you advise them, unless you make it absolutely important. You know that waste (management) is not a thing that everybody likes to get involved with because of the smell and the hazards. So it is important to us as a company to keep our staff safe, and we are probably one of the first few companies that have all of its (female) staff deliver healthy babies safely, despite that they work in the worst of jobs. Some of them work till they drop their babies. We’ve never had any situation where somebody has had a really, really big illness as a result of exposure to waste. We also have a protection plan for our staff. There is a scheme that we are creating for them where they have life insurance, they have medical benefits, and accident-on-the-job benefits just in case anything happens to them on the job. So they are aware that we care about them. We insist on them wearing nose masks on the line; we insist on them wearing protective gear and we try our best to ensure that any staff that is not in the right condition to work is made to go home and rest. Again, if you look at the economic situation in the country where there is so much unemployment, people pretend that they are okay to work even though they are not feeling too well. Our safety officers are there to ensure that they are sent home to rest or to the hospital for medical examination.
Because of the kind of job you do, problems with your host communities are inevitable. How do you ensure that there is a cordial relationship between your company and your host community?
You are right that communities will always say that you have not done this or that. What we try to do is to listen to our communities’ grievances and try to assist if it is within our power to do so. For example, the flooding that happened at Okofili (LASU/Isheri Expressway, Alimosho, Lagos) the other day had nothing to do with us as a company but we saw it as a corporate responsibility to inform the relevant authorities involved, especially the Ministry of Environment. We had to stop operation and release our machines to help them manage the drainage, to make sure that the community has a free flow of water.
Our next door neighbors sometimes come and say they’ve got some drainage issues and we step in immediately. And we try to ensure that we employ from the local community. We don’t really like employing from outside because if we are working in this environment we want this environment to enjoy the maximum benefit from it. Sometimes also, the community comes with (demands for) some assistance for the youths and all that and we try to engage with them to get them. But for me, what is paramount is environment impact of any activity that we’re carrying out from the community, which is why we have provided water for them as well. We’ve also tried to make sure that all our activities are contained within where we are working and we channel our drainages into those areas properly to where we are working.
Which areas have been able to work with the communities to ensure that they benefit directly from your organisation?
Alimosho has one of the highest rates of unemployment in the country. Most of the guys working with us are from this local community. Again, we grow organically as a country, so I do not go outside deliberately to employ people to come and take key positions in the company. We take people from within the company and turn them into supervisors and managers because they have gone through the ranks. We have people in this company that we have looked at their skill and intelligence levels and told them, ‘you can’t stop at the level of being a factory worker’. We make sure that we sponsor their education to have tertiary institution education and hopefully when they finish in their universities, they will be able to come back here to work in one form or the other. And if they don’t, I believe that we’ve done our part in making sure that generations after them have a better life and I think that’s why we are here.
As the Chief Operating Officer of the owner-operator of the first Materials Recovery Facility in Nigeria, where do you see the company in the next five years?
We have already set our footprints across Nigeria; we have contracts with Oyo and Edo states, and we are in talks with Ondo, Kogi, Ogun states. We see ourselves as a landfill diversion company that is touching lives across Nigeria and West Africa. So within the next five years our footprints will finally be in Nigeria in all major cities in Nigeria and some other parts of West Africa as well, having material recovery materials, providing solutions for waste transportation, providing solutions for energy, particularly energy from waste facilities across Nigeria and West Africa. As we have already started the projects, it’s a really good time to be in waste management.