Why West Africa’s biggest battery manufacturing plant lies idle
by ISAAC ANYAOGU
March 12, 2018 | 8:56 am| | | Start Conversation
While a N3bn investment in a battery manufacturing plant idles away in Nnewi, informal recycling which constitute a threat to flora and fauna,flourishes in Lagos, writes ISAAC ANYAOGU.
The machines were cold, adorned with dust particles weaving around the 4,000 square meter factory with the confidence of things that possessed where they lay. The paintings on the buildings look bored and the flowers were the colour of ennui. Even the ambience had the look of funeral sadness and the glum faces of the workers speak of stillborn dreams.
Welcome to Union Autoparts Mfg. Co. Ltd, in Nnewi, Anambra state, south east, Nigeria. Home to West Africa’s biggest battery manufacturing plant, located in a country believed to dispose over 500,000 tons of used lead acid batteries every year but the plant cannot find enough batteries required to breathe life into its forlorn machines.
“It’s really so sad, look at all these machines idling away, it breaks my heart,” says BopaiahKuttappa, the Indian, chief operating officer of the company who took me on a tourof the company’s facilities.
You would have to be misanthropist, the basest kind, not to feel the pain; indeed you would require a heart formed of stone not to ponder about the broken dreams, as you see brawny men, at the peak of their strength, idling away in groups tattling about a week-old English premiership game, when they should be coaxing the machines to hum.
But do not blame them, the critical raw material, used battery required for production is lacking.
Union Autoparts Mfg. Co. Ltd, a member company of The Ibeto Groupwas established in 1987 by 66 year-old,Cletus Ibeto, a Nigerian businessman from the industrial city of Nnewi, who started off importing spare parts.
In March 1988, he stopped direct importation of lead acid automotive battery and plastic motor accessories after completing his factory in Nnewi. By 1995, The Ibeto Group had become one of the largest auto spare parts manufacturing outfits in the country, says his wikepedia page.
The company commenced the manufacture of Lead Acid batteries in 1988and theproduction of Dry Charge Batteries in 2007.
“We are a green fieldcompany engaged in the manufacture of new batteries,processed lead as raw material, supplied from our modern lead recycling plant” says Kuttappa.
The company which currently employs 380 staff, commissioned its 2 units of modernized 10ton each with state of the art technology rotary furnaces and two refinery units, making it the biggest battery recycling capacity in West Africa, in May 2015.
“Our Rotary and refining furnaces are fully equipped with pollution control units and are therefore very environment friendly. We have a monthly capacity of recycling 1800mt of battery cells or 21600mt of battery cells annually which translates to about 2,400,000 units of car batteries,” the company said in a presentation made to the Federal Government, sent to BusinessDay. Kuttappa said this translates to a capacity of 250,000 tonnes annually.
The company fears its huge investment in this project is looking like a loss as used lead acid batteries collected by the competition whocut and bag the plates and export them to other countries is threatening to put them out of business. These exporters buy from primary recyclers who smelt the battery plates into crude lead ingots and export them with serious consequences for the environment and the recyclers.
“This singular act makes it impossible for our recycling plant to have enough materials for production and consequently both the recycling plant and our battery plant are often idle due to lack of lead for production,” says Kuttappa.
Where the batteries go
A 2016 research undertaken by Recycling and Economic Development Initiative of Nigeria (REDDIN), a non-governmental organisation (NGO) with an environmental bent, supported by the Heinrich Boll Stiftung (HBS)Nigeria, a foundation canvassing proper management of ULABs,discovered that approximately 110,300 tons of used lead acid batteries are generated in Nigeria annually.
The figure has since been updated in 2018 to include to over 500,000 tons annually with the inclusion of solar PVs and growth in used car imports, says TerseerUgbo, who leads the NGO, citing research by other institutions.
The bulk of ULABs generated in Nigeria largely come from passenger cars, motorcycles and trucks. The collection system is informal including scavengers, battery retailers and scrap yard operators. Dealers pay between N5-N10,000 each for a used lead acid battery depending on capacity, and move them to Lagos where they are crudely processed for lead inglots and exported to China and India for further recycling.
Major ULABs dealers collect over 1,200 tons annually in their respective regions. In states like, Ogun, Anambra, Imo and Abuja visited during the course of this investigation, I met ThankGodIkenna right in the heat of production in Obosi scrap market (Ugbuka) in Anambra state. He says his store collects about 500 tons of ULABs annually which they drain of acid and the content poured into gutters or into the ground before it is packaged for shipment to Lagos.
Why is Ibeto not getting batteries?
The research done by REDDIN indicated that over 42,000 tons of ULABs are traded in Lagos every year, despite Lagos being referred to as the recycling hub of Nigeria. It seemed absurd that the company would not find enough used batteries to recycle.
“The problem is the collectors prefer to sell the batteries to those who are exporting because they buy from them a little higher than we pay, due to the huge investments we have made in our plants,” explains Kuttappa.
He further said, “We pay workers who maintain the plant, we pay taxes to the government and then the cost of running the plant, so we cannot pay as high as the importers, whose only cost is paying for the batteries and transporting them to Lagos.”
Kuttappasays the company made a presentation last year calling on the ministry of environment to ban the export of battery scraps/ plates and crude lead ingots (scrap metals) and control unorganized, indiscriminate processing of used batteries to protect health, safety and environment. For now it seems like a tall dream.
Loose government regulation
Nigeria is a signatory to the 1992 Basel Convention on the Control of Transboundary movements of hazardous wastes and their disposal. It is an international treaty designed to reduce the movements of hazardous waste, except radioactive waste, between nations, and specifically to prevent transfer of hazardous waste from developed to less developed countries.
This treaty was created as part of a global response to poor management of hazardous waste. In1988, an Italian firm dumped 8,000 barrels of hazardous waste to the small town of Koko, in Delta state, Nigeria in exchange for $100 monthly rent paid to a farmer for use of his farmland. This created global angst and soon prompted deep scrutiny in the management of hazardous waste.
By the terms of this convention, “Nigeria should not be exporting used batteries when there is capacity in the country to recycle in the country,” says Kuttappa.
Beyond the loss of economic value, there is a health implication to the informal recycling process prevalent in Lagos. Lead-acid batteries contain sulphuric acid and large amounts of lead. The acid is extremely corrosive, and a good carrier for soluble lead and lead particulate.
A highly, toxic metal, lead produces a range of adverse health effects particularly in young children, including cardiovascular, neurological and gastrointestinal diseases like anaemia, and mental retardation.
A study by OladeleOsinbajo, a professor of Analytical/Environmental Chemistry at the University of Ibadan, conducted on a discarded battery recycling site in Ibadan found high levels of lead in the slag waste and the surrounding soils.
“This means that the soil and the plants in the immediate environment of the waste are highly polluted with lead. Risk assessment indicated that plants, animals, man, groundwater quality and the general environment are at high risks of lead toxicity,” said Osinbajo in a workshop on ULABs management organised by Heinrich Boll Foundation Nigeria.
Long term exposure can result in cancer, brain and kidney damage in human. Further dangers include hearing impairment and it can affect children’s cognitive development.
To mitigate this problem, the National Environmental Standards and Regulations Enforcement Agency (NESREA), a government agencyenforcing all environmental laws, guidelines and regulations in Nigeria has developed an Extended Producer Responsibility (EPR) framework, which shifts the responsibility for waste management from government to private industry, obliging producers, importers and/or sellers to internalise waste management costs in their product prices and ensure the safe handling of their products.
Recyclers and collectors bear the primary responsibility in the EPR. Recyclers are required to mandatorily subscribe to the concept, ensure safe management of waste, design and implement appropriate EPR programme and administer recovery and recycling programmes, register with the Producer Responsibility Organisation (PRO), renew registration annually and keep proper inventory of products. While significant work has been done on electronic waste, used batteries elude firm regulation.
“The Agency (NESREA) is awaiting the sector players to organise themselves and bring up a plan for EPR implementation and submit to NESREA for review and approval,” says MirandaAmachree, director, Inspection and Enforcement Department of NESREA in a presentation at the HBS workshop on the subject.
Only marginal progress seemed to have been made on this front. Lawrence Anukam, director general of the NESREA in an interview on February 21, in his office in Abuja, said the sector players have now nominated a PRO and his parastatal was ramping up enforcement, calling on states to partner with the organisation.
Anukam also indicated that Nigeria was willing to implement the terms of the Basel Convention that requires that countries should only export components of hazardous materials to other countries only when it does not have the capacity to recycle, while the other country has.
“The key thing is to encourage local content but it becomes a problem when some people will claim they are recycling here, they extract some components the others they dump somewhere. If it is properly established that you can recycle locally, why not we can restrict exports, if you must take it outside, let it those components that you cannot really deal with internally,” says Lawrence Anukam, NESREA DG/CEO.
Lawrence Anukam, NESREA DG/CEO
The REDDIN research cited earlier found that everyyear, an estimated 110,300 tons of used lead acid batteries are generated from the transport sector with each ton sold at N340,000. This translates to a market value of N37.5billon. The cost of transportation of each ton is put at N11,000 and at the rate of 110,300 tones, the estimated cost is put at N1.2billion. When volumes from the solar energy sector are added, it comes to over 250,000 tonnes annually, putting the conservative total value of Nigeria’s ULABs market at over N100billion.
A market this large clearly requires more scrutiny that it is getting. However, an exporter I spoke to said the issues were more nuanced. Charles Asoegwu, the CEO of Lagos-based, Charzom Concept Ltd, one of the biggest exporters of lead inglots processed locally for exports in China and India refuted the claims by Union Autoparts Mfg. Co. Ltd, claiming the actual problem is lack of capacity.
“This is just pure propaganda,” he said. “The company does not have the capacity to recycle the used batteries generated in Nnewi alone let alone the whole Nigeria.”
Asoegwu accused the company of being responsible for sterner regulations by the ministry of environment which now limits the quantity of battery they can export to only 15-20 containers in a year.
“Let me be very frank with you, there is no recycler in Nigeria that has the capacity to do real recycling, we don’t have facilities, we don’t even have power. Everyone is just processing the lead and packaging for exports in India and China where they have facilities to recycle every component of the battery,” Asoegwu said.
The objective for setting up Union Autoparts Mfg. Co. Ltdplant is for the company to assist in local manufacturing of new batteries. Its brand, Union batteries is rarely found in the market.
“Go everywhere, you can’t find the new batteries they claim to produce,” says Asoegwu, “It is possible they are also into export of lead as we are doing.”
However, BopaiahKuttappa in response said most of the claims by the exporter where not true. He maintained that the company was not into any form of export of lead inglots as their rotary furnaces are still functional.
“It is true we do not buy as high as the other people, that is because of the cost of production, we run factories, we pay staff and we are producing batteries, so our cost is higher,” he reiterated.
“But we are creating jobs locally and supporting the local economy,” Kuttappa said.
Union battery brand rarely found in the Nigerian market
From the interview with the NESREA DG/CEO, the government has no plans to ban the exports of used lead acid batteries. Apart from the Lagos state government whose agency, the LASEPA regularly conducts trainings and actively regulates the operators, other states in Nigeria have no serious policy to manage used batteries and other hazardous waste.
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