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‘Nigeria’s recycling industry is highly competitive but there are opportunities untapped’

Ifedolapo Runsewe is the pioneer managing director of Freetown Waste Management Recycle Limited, an indigenous waste recycling and rubber manufacturing company. In this interview, she discusses her company and the opportunities that are yet to be tapped in the recycling industry.

Nigeria generates more than 42 million tons of solid waste such as scrap tyres, scrap metal, used equipment and household waste. While there is a huge attention focused on recycling plastics, glass and paper recycling, very few concerns are credited to the recycling of waste tyres which are improperly disposed of around the country daily.

Currently, over 10 million waste tyres are discarded annually in Nigeria. These waste tyres have huge negative impacts on health and the environment as they serve as good breeding grounds for cockroaches, houseflies and also create stagnant water which serves as breeding ground for mosquitoes which spread various diseases like cholera, typhoid fever, malaria and yellow fever.

My team and I decided that our most impactful contribution to waste management in Nigeria will be to build competence in used tyre waste management. Based on our research, we were able to build a world-class recycling company to help the country properly manage a significant chunk of this annual waste.

How long have you been in existence and how can you evaluate your business growth so far?

It took over two years from company registration to commence production. We realised prior to registering the company that the success and sustainability of the company relies strongly on proper planning, strategic stakeholder acquisition and a decent understanding of the operating environment seen through the lenses of our proposed operations.

Hence, we ensured that substantial planning work was done prior to commencement of operations. This guaranteed that we identified and embarked on the most efficient path to achieving the company objectives. We currently have over 100 full time staff and over 200 indirect staff agents working with us at our pilot recycling and manufacturing facility in Ibadan.

Our facility in Ibadan is a mini village, encompassing over two hectares which houses over 10 buildings and facilities. We have concluded our processes and standardised our product offerings. We have just commenced full sale of our rubber tiles, mats and products and we are constantly building a network of distributors to enhance our reach to our potential customers.

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In what ways has the COVID-19 pandemic affected the recycling industry?

COVID-19 is a global crisis and challenge on the health, economic and other sectors of human endeavour. The Nigerian Government in response to COVID-19 outbreak put a lot of interventions in place such as international & domestic air travel bans, closure of educational & religious institutions, ban on social and cultural activities, and general restriction of movements.

This culminated in a lockdown (stay at home) order imposed by the Federal Government on States. The impact of the lockdown, industry closures and sudden shifts in product demand was felt in every part of the recycling chain particularly with the introduction of new kinds of wastes such as used face masks and gloves.

Freetown Waste endured a significant setback because of the COVID-19 pandemic and the lockdown order influenced our activities particularly the delays with clearing our equipment from the Nigerian Port. This caused a delay in the commencement of our production and operations.

We were almost concluding transactions with our international partners to purchase our equipment when COVID-19 started.

One of the goals of Sustainable Development Goal 2030 focuses on environmentally sound management of all waste through prevention, reduction, recycling, reuse and reduction of waste. How has Nigeria fared so far to achieve this?

We believe that Nigeria is moving in the right direction. Although the speed is not as fast as what we hoped it would, we are hopeful that this goal would be achieved with the support of the government, the recyclers, households and environmentally conscious businesses.

Who are your target markets and how many clients do you currently serve?

Our target audience are youths (from age 18), parents and corporates – mid and high net worth individuals. Our products can be utilized for home flooring, home gym flooring, home equipment flooring, yoga and gym mats, kitchen mats, anti-slip pads, office flooring, school flooring, event centre flooring, athletic mats, equipment mats, etc.

Our rubber flooring products have some unique features which makes it outstanding such as the safety feature, noise absorbent features and the dampener features. For example, our floor tiles are used in schools and homes where kids are to ensure that they do not get injured when they fall while playing.

Are there a lot of waste management recycling companies in Nigeria?

Waste recycling is a global issue and it is a great development that Nigeria is also stepping into the issues bothering on eradicating waste generally. There are a lot of waste management recycling companies in Nigeria utilizing a large amount of waste and transforming it into reusable products.

This is a good deed for the environment. It is worthy to note that the recycling industry is highly competitive however, there exist such endless opportunities that are yet untapped. There is a need to invest more in proper waste management processes and in the technology that would ensure an effective management of waste, which will inevitably aid the recycling process.

What kind of services do you offer that differentiates you from your competitors in the market?

At Freetown, all our business processes are driven by innovation and efficiency. Our unique innovation in the recycling industry is using waste tyres as a key raw material in the manufacturing process for tiles, mats, door stoppers, speed bumps, anti-shock pads amongst several other products.

In essence, we get rid of the waste by transforming it into a variety of finished goods that can be used in households, offices, and public areas. Most other recyclers simply clean up the waste product only to convert it back to its initial state or a very similar state without any meaningful value addition.

We think differently at Freetown, enabling us to convert the tyres into crumb rubber that can be used to produce a wide variety of goods with fantastic profit margins.

What are the challenges and opportunities you have experienced since you commenced operations in Nigeria? How well have you navigated some of these challenges and turned them into opportunities?

We constantly develop various strategies to overcome every challenge in the recycling industry. Some of our challenges include access to finance as a lot of people are yet to recognise the importance of waste management and recycling as a multi-billion-dollar sector globally.

Also, we struggle with an intermittent supply of electricity. As we move up the manufacturing chain, it gets harder to do what we want to do. Our line of business is capital intensive but we hope that as our productivity increases over the years, our cost efficiency will also improve significantly, helping us to thrive despite the harsh economic environment.

Also, inadequate technical expertise and support for our equipment and technology is a challenge. We are thankful that we have strategic partners such as BASF and some others who have been supporting in some aspects.

The federal government has been supportive through the Federal Ministry of Trade and Investment and their agencies, coming through with some incentives and some inter ministry support.

When you commenced operations, there were certain objectives/goals you set out. Looking back till today, would you say you have met a good number of the goals you set out?

We have achieved quite a lot of objectives we wanted to meet when we set up Freetown. Since our launch in 2020, Freetown Waste has employed over 100 people who help recycle our waste tyres and transform them to rubber mats, tiles, speed bumps and other rubber accessories.

We have also provided job creations for over 200 indirect staff which include tyre suppliers etc. We have also commenced the development of our vocational centre where youth and women can be trained and empowered to utilise our products such as the fibre to make Bean Bags and Household furniture.

We are working with our partners to develop training programmes where our rubber tiles will be infused into furniture products. We are excited that Freetown is able to impact lives and promote a green environment through our services and reducing carbon footprints. So, it has been challenging and we are pleased with the achievement of goals so far, and poised to do more.

What would you suggest that the government can do to support businesses like yours?

We need basic amenities such as power, good road network and infrastructure. They affect the core business operations. Taxes in Nigeria are especially difficult on start-up companies. The Nigerian government can reduce the multiple taxes from start-up businesses especially by giving us a breathing space to more efficiently allocate our resources. Access to finance at significantly reduced rates is very crucial. The Government can support with Access to funding, grants, tax incentives, access to market and publicity for new businesses trying to break into the market.

Where do you see your business in the next five years and what would be your advice for other new businesses like yours starting out?

In the next five years, we hope to build a strong waste tyre recycling network in Nigeria and other parts of the world while creating up to 8,000 employments. We are also working towards getting listed on the London Stock Exchange while ensuring that our eco- friendly products are installed in homes and offices. Our advice for other new businesses would be not to give up, but remain resolute, unflinching and focused.

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