By Kruah Thompson with New Narratives
SONIWEIN, Liberia–After 26 years living as a refugee in Ghana, returning home in 2017 was daunting for Mary Nelson and her family. With adult children to support, Nelson did not know how she would make money to survive. But a chance meeting with a visiting German man changed her life.
“This white man showed up and told me he wanted to take my picture and post it on his social media pages,” said Nelson. “He promised he’d buy waste materials from me one day.”
The man who Nelson knows only as “Regny”, connected her to Abundant Rain, a company that has been one of the leaders in recycling plastic waste in Liberia. Donors have been working hard to encourage a recycling business in Liberia, especially Monrovia and Paynesville have become overwhelmed by a waste management crisis. Mountains of trash, much of it plastic, are polluting waterways and blocking drainage causing major health issues for residents, and prompted EU Ambassador Laurent Delahousse to call Monrovia “disgusting” and “the dirtiest city of the many places I have visited in my work in Africa,” in 2021.
Experts say recycling of plastic is essential to dealing with the massive problem that plastic waste has become around the world. In addition to the waste management problems it also leaches chemicals into soils and waterways. In the oceans plastics are choking and poisoning sea life. According to the World Bank 800 tons of waste is produced by Monrovia households alone every day. Collection of that waste is only part of the solution. Finding places to dispose of it has been a challenge. Experts say recycling as much as possible for reuse will be essential to dealing with the problem.
In Ghana, 840,000 tons of plastic waste are produced annually—9.5% of which are collected for recycling—more than 2,000 waste pickers are involved in cleaning beaches etc, benefitting companies and the government. Recycling waste could be part of the solutions to Liberia’s sanitation problems, according to a joint 2007 report by the United Nations Environment Programme Post-Conflict and the Environmental Protection Agency.
Abundant Rain saw an opportunity and branched into recyclables in 2018 when it began producing “JENGU” bricks (a bricks made by crushing glass and rubber bottles) and paving stones from plastic waste. And that’s where Mary Nelson came in. The company needed people to collect plastic waste and Nelson found them.
She created a company called Solution Avenue in 2020. Abundant rain trained Nelson’s workers and provided some financial assistance to get her business going. It’s been a fruitful relationship on both sides according to Lemuel Benson, Project Manager for Abundant Rain.
“Through her (Nelson’s) help, we are on the final stage of the project and ready to test our first brick,” said Benson. Empowerment of low income women has been a benefit. “Also, we are thinking about expanding this project to the various community in Montserrado to empower other women like Mary.”
Getting things started was not easy according to Nelson. “I had to battle with community residents’ complaints about pollution and most of my friends bullied me for getting involved in the business,” she said. But now the business is stable and she has given employment to disadvantaged youth in the community people are onboard. “The community now benefits from the waste we collect.”
The business has some way to go.
“On a good day, I make close to $LD5000 in profits, but on a bad day, my profits are around L$2500,” said Nelson. “But, at the end of everyday sale, I must pay the 70 boys $LD600 each, and for the unstable ones (those who reluctantly report to work), I give them $LD200 daily, as they bring in more business.”
But Nelson’s plans are big. “My goal is to reduce the spread of plastic waste in Liberia. And I am also hopeful to grow my company into a national brand that can employ more at-risk youths.”
James K. Mulbah, founder, and CEO of Green Cities Liberia.
James Mulbah, founder and Chief Executive Officer of Green Cities Liberia, is another Liberian building a business in recycling. Established in 2014, Mulbah’s company has grown, to twenty-four employees. They’ve also attracted support in grants from the Swedish and German governments, Climate-KIT, and the Africa Enterprise Challenge Fund.
Mulbah’s company produces organic fertilizer, plastic cups, and gasoline from plastic waste.
“Plastic, organic and electronic waste is a major problem for countries across the continent and causes health and environmental problems,” said Mulbah. “Our solution is to collect and recycle this waste into usable products such as geometric sets for learners, rubber latex cups for rubber farmers and for making toilets b”
But like Nelson, he too is facing challenges to fully operate.
“As a waste company operating in Liberia, we also want to do more to help the governments reduce and recycle the huge piles of waste in the country, but do not have the relevant equipment to do so.”
Mulbah called on the Liberian government to directly fund the operations of local waste management companies.
Experts have said there is a lack of awareness among the general public about the importance of recycling. This means that many people do not see the value in recycling, and there is a low demand for recycled materials. Without a demand for recycled materials, recycling businesses struggle to make a profit and sustain themselves. There are also few incentives or subsidies available for businesses that want to invest in recycling. This means that businesses must bear the full cost of setting up and running recycling operations, which can be expensive and financially challenging.
“We have built the capacity of our workers for close to five years both locally and internationally, but with all the knowledge, we cannot increase productivity with limited resources,” said Mulbah. “If government intervenes in the process to regulate and provide more aid for this local institution, this can create more jobs for more Liberians.”
He claimed that with such support, they can reduce waste in Liberia by 60% and boost the recycling business on the overall.
“The potential of waste recycling in the country is very huge.”
Bobby Whitfield, CEO WASH Commission.
Mulbah’s call is buttressed by Bobby Whitfield, Chief Executive Officer of the Water, Sanitation and Hygiene (WASH), Commission.
“We need adequate legislation for plastic management in government regulation to boost funding opportunities for business startups by the private sector,” said Whitfield at a clean-up exercise in the Soniwein Community in Monrovia last year.
But in an in an exclusive interview Commissioner Whitfield said that while the government has shown strong political leadership by establishing the WASH Commission in 2020, funding has not been forthcoming, and he is struggling to understand why.
“By the time the funds reach the WASH (Water, Sanitation, and Hygiene) Commission, they are already restricted, which makes prioritizing the Commission a serious challenge.”
Whitfield conceded the funds available to government are limited and President Weah has identified roads, education, and health as priorities. He estimates the Commission needs yearly investment of $US160 million. Donors are contributing $US30 million and government is contributing $US42 million leaving a shortfall of nearly $US88 MILLION, but the draft National budget for the 2024 Fical year show the opposite.
“Without adequate funding and support, the Commission will continue to face significant challenges,” Whitfield said.
Alloycious David, Environmentalist & Land Rights Advocate of the Environmental Protection Agency, agreed with Whitfield. While the EPA has provided some training and loans through partnerships with the UNDP and international NGO he said more government support is needed.
“Transforming plastic into finished product can have a positive impact on the economy or the country as a whole by first protecting the environment and by avoiding litter,” said David in an email. David believes such support will “provide jobs for our people, provide products such as pavement bricks, roofing tile, diesel fuel as well as other products.”
This story was a collaboration with New Narratives as part of the Investigating Liberia Project. Funding was provided by the US Embassy in Liberia. The door had no say in the story’s content.