Let’s Do It! Nigeria leader eager to solve the waste problem

Nigeria is the most populous country (195 million people) in Africa, a strong regional power with ample resources and stunning landscapes attracting global attention and investment. Yet its high and growing birth rate (more than half the population is under 18) contributes to health problems, made worse by insufficient waste management, especially in its eight […]

Nigeria is the most populous country (195 million people) in Africa, a strong regional power with ample resources and stunning landscapes attracting global attention and investment. Yet its high and growing birth rate (more than half the population is under 18) contributes to health problems, made worse by insufficient waste management, especially in its eight large cities. 

The main causes of of waste pollution are industries, ever-increasing urbanisation, poverty and lack of competent management. As elsewhere, the bad habits of some citizens increase the problem. Illegal waste dumping has polluted drainage facilities, waterways and groundwater. A solution to improve drinking water – pure water sachets – creates more plastic waste.

Olumide Ayodele Coker leads Let’s Do It! Nigeria and is currently the Chapter President for Junior Chamber International, Eko (JCI Eko). The main objective of JCI Eko’s annual project, tagged “Cleanup Lagos”, which has won several international awards, is to raise awareness, increase civic education, and find long-lasting solutions to the waste situation. He has a special concern for the health of his fellow citizens.

How did you get involved with Let’s Do It! World?

I am an active member of JCI and as a part of the long-term plan for my local chapter we decided to find international partners for all our projects. One of the projects is Cleanup Lagos. While I was Executive Vice President for the chapter, I initiated discussion with Let’s Do It!, seeing it as an opportunity to expand our cleanup campaign here in Nigeria.

What kind of trash is the biggest problem in Nigeria and what are the causes?

The trash situation in Nigeria is mostly due to lack of education. Many people believe that it is government’s responsibility to take care of the streets and drainage systems where trash is dumped. The major types of trash are plastic, sachet water (water bags), cans, papers and rubber slippers. Most middle class people depend on sachet water as source of drinkable water within their community. Way too many products are packed in plastic, with no ability to make further use of that generated waste. From my research, due to an inadequate power supply, it is difficult and expensive to set up recycling companies unless the company is ready to generate power itself. Nigeria has only small companies gathering various plastics and cans to grind and export to China’s market.

What does World Cleanup Day mean to you?

I see the campaign to clean up the whole world as a good opportunity to increase the role of waste entrepreneurs and reduce the government’s unnecessary spending on waste management. Recycling initiatives should provide a good basis for government to make and/or amend laws adequate for protecting its citizens from environmental hazards. For instance, if the government manages the environment with a high level of appropriate sorting of trash, then recycles such trash to produce products that can be further used as furniture in schools, roads and parks, the spending in the health sector on diseases will be reduced.

Illegal dumping is a serious matter. At the same time we need to have a broader view. What solutions do you have in mind?

My participation at the LDI leaders’ academy exposed me to how waste can be turned to wealth. I look back at my beloved country and I see how long we have literally been sitting on gold! And if we encourage and promote waste entrepreneurs, we will reduce waste in our environment. The government, from its side, should promote recycling in every possible way at all levels of administration. Imagine the number of plastic chairs, road signs, decorative materials! Unfortunately, all that plastic ends up in our oceans, as landfill and in incinerators.

Currently we have small non-governmental organisations that regularly create awareness campaigns about waste management in Nigeria within their various locations. The government’s major idea of waste management is still burning and landfill. Most citizens dispose of trash in a thoughtless way, believing that someone or the government will take care of it.

Why does keeping your country clean matter to you personally?

I personally take it as a way to fight the root causes of many diseases that have emanated from inappropriate waste management. Meeting so many other country leaders and mentors at my first Let’s Do It! academy in Malaysia made me realise I can bring a change to my country in waste management. The first thing I did was to identify like-minded people who would work with me on the vision of Let’s Do It!. Although it was difficult to find such people, there were some who just believed in my passion and who see its underlying value.

Leadership is learned. How have you developed as a leader, especially as a leader of volunteers?

My career in JCI spanned under more than ten presidents in my local chapter, during which time I coordinated several committees and handled several projects. So, I have realised and learnt that most volunteers, especially in a voluntary organisation, prefer to have some level of independence, but need support with innovative ideas, and protection. When your team members are not with you, you have to move fast to make an impact.

What challenges have you faced while preparing for World Cleanup Day?

The most challenging issues are funding and citizens’ commitment. You need funding at some point to increase the commitment of volunteers and other stakeholders. Some people feel that supporting the campaign will only promote Let’s Do It!. But in partnership with JCI Nigeria we got a grant of $22 000 from ACT Foundation to carry out the objectives of World Cleanup Day.

And still you have one of the most active communities preparing for the world cleanup. What brings you together?

The word “INSPIRE” has been our greatest drive of inviting, sensitizing and collaborating with other environmental NGOs to take part in the great civic action. In few months leading up to the World Cleanup Day we have consistently had meetings with some of those organisations to identify areas of strength, allocate and approve locations where clean-up will take place. We officially recognize them as part of our partners to achieve WCD plan in Nigeria. We also encourage them to meet and get several stakeholders involved, including government agencies, from their various communities.

Name some of those partners who are on the same mission with us towards clean world?

Susty Vibes, JCI Nigeria local chapters, Pick That Trash, AMOW Foundation International, Corrupt Practices Eradication of Nigeria, Africa Cleanup Initiative (ACI), Eco TV, Kids Beach Garden, Nigeria Delta Cleanup, Keep The City Beautiful Society of Nigeria, Government Agencies and many more.

What keeps you going?

The thing that keeps me going is to see the country become free of plastic, with more waste entrepreneurs with appropriate policy formulation and laws. My long-term agenda is to develop a waste management model for the government and solve the waste problem in Nigeria. I am currently working on the model which will in turn improve some basic infrastructure, reduce disease in the community, increase revenue and reduce budget allocation for health; it will also create new jobs as a result of better waste management and recycling. The significant part of the model relies on the cooperation between government and funding for waste entrepreneurs.

You have mentioned in one of your posts that even cleaning can be funny. Could you share some funny or surprising stories?

Although the job itself looks dirty, it is actually fun meeting new people. It is an avenue for the singles to meet and identify potential future partners. So, a funny part was when we were in Malaysia during a cleanup. All we could pick up there were cigarette butts and bottles…but I challenged my academy colleagues to come to Nigeria for a 15-second cleanup and see the difference. We swim in dirt and the only solution for us is to have recycling companies with enabling law. If recycling companies can be protected by government from paying taxes we will have a whole lot of businesses spring up.

Esme Kassak