As an environmentally conscious Nigerian, Ifedolapo Runsewe has always been interested in waste management and recycling in the country and around the world. While several recycling companies have focused on plastics, glass and paper recycling, very few companies were paying any attention to the millions of vehicle tyres that were improperly disposed of around the country.
Realising that over 10 million tyres are discarded annually, she decided that her most impactful contribution to waste management in Nigeria would be to build competence in used tyre waste management and develop a world-class recycling company to help the country properly manage a significant chunk of this annual waste.
After spending the last six years learning about tyre waste management, Runsewe collaborated with some of the best minds in business to launch Freetown Waste Management Recycle Limited. Hear her: “We like to think of “Freetown Waste” as clearing the city of waste in a systematic and sustainable manner.”
Today, the outfit employs over 100 people full-time who recycle over 150,000 waste tyres annually, transforming to rubber mats, tiles, speed bumps and other rubber accessories. They also employ over 150 people indirectly who work as agents in aggregating tyres.
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You were a successful banker who also worked in a telecommunications company. What motivated you to join this male-dominated vocation?
I was fortunate to have enjoyed a successful career in banking and telecommunications for over a decade where I honed my skills in sales, customer service and operations management. Throughout my banking career, I was intentional about improving my business acumen which I knew would prepare me for the next stage of my career.
I have always wanted to be an active partaker in the Go-Green revolution happening around the world in the face of global warming. I was motivated to pursue a career in recycling after learning that it can take up to 80 years for tyres to naturally decompose and Nigeria was improperly disposing of over 10 million tyres annually.
I wasn’t consciously thinking about whether the recycling industry was male or female-dominated when I ventured into it, I was simply interested in playing my part in the Go-Green revolution and making a difference in the world. I am a woman who believes in doing the best always regardless of the circumstance. I am grateful to be part of a team providing environmental solutions to the world at the time we need it the most.
I would like to think that an increase in the percentage of women taking jobs that were formerly dominated by men demonstrates that women no longer shy away from pursuing careers or disrupting industries along the lines of their passion. It is not about competing with men but ensuring that women are opportune to contribute to society with our full potentials.
How has your work experience prepared you for this task?
I have been very fortunate to have worked in one of the largest telecommunications companies in Africa and one of the largest banks in the country during my telco and banking careers which taught me a lot about building the right organisational structure, recruiting the best talents and delegating responsibility intelligently.
I saw first-hand the importance of customer experience in ensuring customer loyalty and growing sales. I also improved my skills in operations management and strategic leadership while working as an operations manager and branch manager for several years.
I remain open to continue my learning on how to be a better person, a better manager and a better leader to get the best out of my team and help Freetown Waste reach its full potential.
More than 1.5 million people are directly impacted through recycling. Can you throw more light on this?
The Ibadan metropolis boasts a population of around six million people and about 360,000 households own at least one vehicle based on data extracted from the National Bureau of Statistics.
The average household in Ibadan has about five people which means that up to 1.8 million people could be negatively impacted by improper disposal of the waste tyres in their immediate environment.
We assume that four out of five homes in Ibadan are better able to dispose their tyres in a cleaner and more rewarding structure with us, meaning we are directly helping up to 1.5 million people in 360,000 homes enjoy a cleaner, fresher environment with the recycling work that we do.
How were you able to advance innovation and what are you doing differently considering the proliferation of waste recycling firms in Nigeria?
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, enabling us to convert the tyres into crumb rubber that can be used to produce a wide variety of goods with fantastic profit margins.
Is safety at work important to you? Tell us about the safety measures put in place by your organisation?
Safety of all personnel (direct or indirect) is of utmost priority. We are committed to ensuring the safety of every personnel that steps foot into the premises. Our staff are regularly trained on the best Health, Safety and Environment (HSE) measures at the factory.
We also carry out fire drills and other critical safety trainings at the factory to prepare all staff for any unforeseen eventualities at the factory. All staff and visitors are issued protective gears upon entry into the business premises and signages are put at strategic locations to provide safety protocol advisory to all individuals in our factories.
The factory and lives of all our staff are fully insured and we are committed to continue to invest in the wellness and safety of all our employees. We have also put in place, policies, signages and sterilisation tools to ensure that our staff and visitors are equipped to be protected from Covid 19.
You are planning to open new factories in Lagos and Ogun states. What can you tell us about this and the choice of the two states?
This decision is an important part of the implementation of our five-year strategic plan to expand across all South-western states in Nigeria and solve the issues of tyre pollution in the South-West region before venturing into other parts of the country.
We chose Lagos and Ogun because they are among the most industrialised states in the country and face significantly higher vehicle related pollution than any other state in the country. Today, there are over two million vehicles moving around the Oyo-Ogun-Lagos State axis producing waste of around 160,000 used tyres monthly.
By solving this environmental challenge in the South-West, we believe it will be an excellent starting point for more environmental successes we hope to achieve around the country in future.
We are excited about the successes we are recording in our flagship location in Oyo State and we cannot wait to roll out this same environmental solution to the rest of the country over the next decade.
What are the major challenges you are contending with as an investor and player in this sector?
We have always sought innovative strategies to overcome every obstacle we have faced in this industry. However, some challenges that have remained persistent include epileptic electricity supply and high cost of funds which have proved very difficult to surmount.
Relying on privately generated power is very expensive over the long run and obtaining funds for a capital-intensive business-like tyre recycling at double digit rates has left much to be desired in our day-to-day cost efficiency drive.
We also had a challenge with technological know-how in Nigeria as we are the first doing what we are doing on this scale.
We are quite privileged to have partnered with some strategic players such as BASF which provided some technical support in some aspects. The Government has been supportive through the Federal Ministry of Trade and Investment and its agencies who provided some critical support when needed.
Solid waste management is the most pressing environmental challenge faced by urban and rural areas of Nigeria. With a population exceeding 200 million and one of the largest producers of solid waste in Africa; despite a host of policies and regulations, solid waste management in the country is assuming alarming proportions with each passing day. What can be done?
Households and businesses need to be more intentional about waste management and recycling. The more conscious we are about the health and environmental challenges that we cause through improper waste management, the more we expect that people will start to make better choices about how they are managing their waste products.
Therefore, proper waste management and recycling awareness schemes must be arranged to educate the populace regularly. We also encourage other entrepreneurs to join us on this recycling journey to clean up Nigeria. The more recyclers we have, the cleaner the environment we are creating for our families and our children.