One Man’s Trash: How garbage could solve Nigeria’s energy crisis

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    Two kids run across the road shouting,
    “Thief! Thief!” as a big rat races away into a nearby hole for
    refuge. The rat was trying to snack on some well ripened banana
    for lunch.

    It has rained here and the drains are
    clogged with waste. The water pools on the road and occupies
    potholes that dot the stretch of the thoroughfare leading to
    Lagos’s famous Ikosi fruit market.

    One of the largest of
    its kind in the Nigerian
    city,

    the market is a
    popular spot for trading fruit and vegetables like pineapples,
    bananas and plantains. But here, like most parts of the
    country, there is rarely a steady power supply

    according to
    the World
    Bank
    ,
    75-million Nigerians don’t have access to
    electricity.

    The light issue is a big
    one here. When there is no light, we have no choice but to
    close early, especially when we are witnessing shorter days and
    longer nights,” says Ajose Abosede, a trader at the
    market.

    Lagos, the largest
    city in Africa, has a population of more
    than

    20-million
    people
    ,
    occupies almost 1,000 square kilometres and generates more
    than

    13,000
    tonnes

    of garbage a day.
    Fifty percent is organic waste, says Lanre Gbajulaye of the
    Lagos State Waste Management
    Authority.

    A huge chunk of that
    waste comes from more than 30 markets — and therein lies
    surprising
    potential.


    Experts

    believe that Lagos
    can be energy-sufficient if it can tap into the latent power of
    its organic garbage, but it’s taking longer than they
    hoped.

    Wasted
    potential

    Disturbed by the increasing menace of
    waste in the city, in 2013 Lagos state government partnered
    with Midori Environmental Solutions (MES), a Lagos-based
    environmental company. The idea was to explore the
    possibilities of converting waste from the Ikosi fruit market
    into electricity.

    At the time, the
    project was meant to be an indicator of the state’s innovative
    drive for solving its major energy crisis. This seemingly
    proactive step
    was

    applauded by local and
    international
    observers
    .
    But, four years later, the project has been seemingly abandoned
    and residents are still struggling to access reliable
    power.

    The project turned out to
    be a fair deal,” says Aniche Phil-Ebosie, former project
    developer at MES, who managed the initiative. “Before we
    started… we noticed that the market generates over five tonnes
    of fruit waste daily. Most of it is rotten or squashed due to
    the bad storage systems and transportation. Of the total waste
    generated, 5% goes to the biogas plant, 45% is carted away by
    the Lagos State Waste Management Authority to landfills, and
    50% goes off-site and [is] composted,” says
    Phil-Ebosie.

    Market women were happy to
    provide waste for the project instead of paying to have it
    collected by the Lagos State Waste Management
    Authority.”

    Phil-Ebosie explains that MES got a
    licence from Africom Technology Transfer, a German company, to
    build a “low-technology” facility. To generate electricity,
    first food leftovers are rinsed and ground into a paste. The
    paste is then fed into a biodigester where bacteria break it
    down and release biogas in the process. Once filtered, the gas
    can be used as fuel for a natural gas-powered generator, which
    produces electricity.

    Watch:

    Video: Aniche Phil-Ebosie, former
    project developer for Midori Environmental Solutions, gives a
    tour of the biogas facility. Credit: Heinrich Boll
    Foundation.

    The facility at the market produced
    enough biogas to provide light for up to 50 stalls and lock-up
    shops. It was especially critical at night and in the early
    hours of the morning when trucks come in to offload fruit
    brought into the market from different parts of the
    country.

    Saliu Adenekan is a banana trader in
    the market. At first, he thought the project was a
    farce.

    As old as I am, I have not
    seen or heard of how waste is used to generate light. I know
    that there must have been a way that people abroad treat and
    use their waste, but I have no idea we can do [the] same here
    in Nigeria, to say nothing of it working in Ikosi,” says
    Adenekan, who claims to be at the bottom of the market’s
    complicated leadership
    structure.

    Adenekan was excited when contractors
    moved in and the facility was finally launched. But Adenekan’s
    excitement vanished about 18 months into the project’s lifespan
    when the government asked the contractor to hand it over. The
    Lagos State Waste Management Authority took over the initiative
    with the idea that it would be replicated in other markets
    across the state.

    That turned out not to be the case.
    Three years on, it is back to square one. The facility has
    stopped working and Ikosi fruit market has returned to its
    former condition: a community of traders, waste and pests
    competing for space in darkness.

    The high stakes of erratic power
    supply

    Nigeria’s three-pronged
    energy infrastructure consists of generation companies,
    distribution companies and the Transmission Company of Nigeria
    (TCN). The country operates on a grid system where electricity
    generated by the power plants is sent into the national grid,
    transmitted by the TCN and delivered to the distribution
    companies.

    But, despite having
    the largest gas reserves in Africa, Nigeria still struggles to
    supply its power plants with adequate gas to generate
    electricity. This situation is worsened by the distribution
    companies’ financial mismanagement, to say nothing
    of

    the frequent
    vandalism

    of gas pipelines in
    the country’s oil-rich Niger Delta by local militants fighting
    for resource
    control.

    On 31 March, 2016, at exactly 12:58,
    Nigeria’s power grid collapsed completely with not a single
    megawatt of electricity generated for three hours. This was
    unprecedented in the country.

    Aliyu Wabba,
    president of
    the

    Nigeria Labour
    Congress
    ,
    says the deplorable state of the country’s power sector has
    stifled Nigeria’s economy. Industries have not been thriving,
    which in turn inhibits employment opportunities for young
    Nigerians.

    The economy continues to
    grow without jobs, bringing benefits to only a few. We demand
    an economy that provides jobs and other benefits,” says
    Wabba.

    Landmark reforms in
    2014 allowed private sector participation in the power sector,
    particularly in power generation and distribution, but there
    remain problems. Wabba believes
    the

    2014
    privatisation drive was a major
    problem

    and needs to be
    revisited.

    Wabba is not the only
    one who shares this view. Renowned economist and two-time
    finance minister Kalu Idika Kalu says
    the

    privatization
    was not
    properly

    achieved, and this
    has made finance in the sector a major
    issue.

    Kalu says certain
    crucial steps do not appear to have been considered, like
    ensuring that investors who bought distribution companies were
    appropriately capitalised, or that they understood the
    technology of the enterprises they were to own. He believes
    Nigeria should have strengthened its governance structure
    before embarking on
    privatisation.


    Experts

    also believe that
    corruption, poor leadership, bad implementation and
    non-adherence to policies by government are major factors
    compounding the problems in the power
    sector.

    Yemi Oke, associate professor of energy
    and electricity law at the University of Lagos, believes the
    problems in the power sector are multidimensional, and largely
    man-made.

    Most of the distribution
    companies are owned by corrupt and wealthy people who thought
    there is free money to be made in the power sector. They
    borrowed money and bought the distribution companies only to
    say that they won’t incur the liabilities of the company,” Oke
    tells me in his office in
    Lagos.

    According to Oke, the
    nation’s


    recent economic
    meltdown

    reveals that the
    private investors were not as technically and financially sound
    as they should have been before taking over the distribution
    companies. And when
    the

    price of oil
    tanked


    and with it the value
    of the naira, Nigeria’s currency — the trouble only
    accumulated.

    But Babatunde Raji
    Fashola, the minister of power, works and housing, has said
    that the


    country will
    not review the 2014
    privatisation

    of the power sector.
    This decision is intended to protect the image of Nigeria in
    the eyes of the international community, and present the
    country as a serious and stable investment
    destination.

    Searching for
    solutions

    As a short-term
    measure towards solving the electricity supply problems, the
    Nigerian government has opted to develop an incremental power
    strategy. With this strategy, observers say, the Nigerian
    government has


    shown
    more
    commitment

    in harnessing power
    from all available sources. This is where ideas like generating
    energy from garbage come
    in.

    The government has
    resolved to generate 20% of its total energy consumption from
    renewable resources by 2030. Nigeria has immense opportunities
    to generate electricity from sources such
    as

    solar, wind and
    biomass
    .
    The emphasis on renewable energy has already started yielding
    results, as the country has started witnessing huge investments
    in the generation of electricity from
    renewables.

    In
    2016,

    $2.5-billion

    was committed to 14
    renewable energy projects by private investors, with the
    intention of adding a combined 1,000 megawatts to the national
    grid. According to Oke, Lagos State can conveniently produce
    this amount of electricity from its huge amount of
    waste.

    Oke says the government must ensure
    that its energy policies are clear if it wants to achieve
    appreciable success as soon as possible. And this is not always
    the case.

    For now, if you generate
    in excess of one megawatt, you have to sell it to the national
    grid even when your rural or local population doesn’t have
    power and there is no guarantee that the power you have
    generated will benefit you at the end,” Oke explained. In other
    words, local consumers suffer at the expense of feeding the
    national grid, and the energy is dispersed into the
    ether.

    If the strategy of generating energy
    from multiple sources is to take shape, the Ikosi market shows
    both the upside and the downside.

    Ajani Ojo is described as the “waste
    converter” by his colleagues who have come to realise the value
    in rubbish. “Waste is money,” Ojo quips as he tours the dormant
    biogas plant in the market. He now makes a living from selling
    plantains and setting up low-technology biogas facilities for
    people. He says he learnt all he knows about converting waste
    to value from MES, the contractor who handled the Ikosi
    project.

    Ojo wants government to resuscitate the
    project. “When the facility was working, waste scattered all
    over the market was reduced, especially around the banana
    section,” he says, pointing to an open field near the
    facility.

    Apart from that, we didn’t
    have to pay the waste collector money to take our waste. We
    gave it up for free to the facility to generate electricity for
    our use.”

    Gbajulaye of the
    Lagos State Waste Management Authority says the current
    governor of Lagos, Akinwunmi Ambode, has started working on
    waste management under
    the

    Cleaner Lagos Initiative
    (CLI)
    .
    As part of the new
    programme, the Lagos State Waste Management Authority will
    contract out waste disposal and become more of a regulator in
    the waste management sector. It’s a big job for a rapidly
    growing city to change the way that waste is collected and
    improve infrastructure such as sanitation. Though the
    initiative is focused on making Lagos the greenest city in
    Africa by 2025, it doesn’t yet include generating power with
    city garbage.

    But for Ojo, it is clear that the
    government should pursue this path wholeheartedly. He believes
    that there is a need for better appreciation and commitment to
    solving two problems using a simple
    technology.

    My eyes are now opened and
    government’s eyes should be wider.”

    DM

    This content was
    produced with the support of
    the

    Access to Energy
    Journalism
    Fellowship

    and

    Discourse
    Media
    .

    Photo:
    A trader sells bananas in
    the Ikosi Fruit Market in Lagos, Nigeria. Photo: Temitope
    Jalekun

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