SPECIAL REPORT: The UK has increased its funding to support waste projects in developing countries and charities such as WasteAid are active in this field. On the ground though there is a clear need for good waste service provision and one company with a growing role is Averda.
To find out more directly from a contractor’s point of view about how waste services are being and might best be delivered in a range of developing countries, Steve Eminton talked to Malek Sukkar, chief executive of the international waste management firm Averda. Mr Sukkar outlined the company’s philosophy, activities and also commented on the coronavirus pandemic.
Malek Sukkar has led Averda’s expansion from a single country entity to a multinational company operating in eight countries in the Middle East and Africa. He is a member of the World Economic Forum and PACE, a UN-supported organisation aimed at promoting circular economy initiatives.
Averda describes itself as “the leading end-to-end waste management company in the emerging world, operating in over 40 cities, serving over 12 million citizens and collecting over 10,000 tonnes of waste daily. It has about 15,000 employees and more than 2,800 trucks and vehicles.” Countries it operates in include UAE, Oman, Qatar, Morocco, Gabon, Congo and South Africa.
In his approach to the role of the business and growing it, the emphasis is very much on starting with collection services. “We come from a historical base of collection and cleaning of municipal waste which when we started was our core competence and we have built a lot of capability around that,” explains Mr Sukkar.
“As the business grew over the past 25 years what we’ve seen is a deeper entry into what would be termed as treatment and recycling and eventually going into more difficult wastes, whether they are in medical, hazardous or industrial. Generally what tends to happen is that we start in a country in a municipal contract and we then see a business activity of a given country and we match our business to the best opportunity we have.”
Approach to services
Today he notes that Averda has a “fairly large portfolio of services” to offer and that it “can pick and choose what we do where, hunkering down on market needs. If you look at a country like South Africa which has a very industrialised base, with mining all the way to manufacturing cars, we offer all services including medical waste. And then there are countries with lower industrial capability; in Dubai we would be very strong in the hospitality and recycling of more wastes and it won’t be so industrialised.”
Looking at South Africa, he says that Averda’s activities there are not so much municipal as these services are a localised activity. “We do part of Cape Town, but that’s about it. It is not just about margins, we are keen to make a difference and don’t want to do exactly what everyone does.”
This desire to deliver a high level of service is important, says Mr Sukkar. “We think about the way delivery happens, what are the learnings that we bring. If someone is insistent on what they want but it doesn’t meet our additionality or innovation then its not that exciting as there may be someone who can do it better if they want it that way.”
He explains that the company has a focus especially on logistics and technology.
“We do two things very well. On the logistics side, what we call collection and cleaning, we probably have one of the world’s best digital platforms and what we have is the ability to provide our clients with a live basis of the collection, they can almost see the trucks pulling up to people’s houses. We have invested in this, it is a very good tool. Our basic package, is that we provide that service primarily for the client, our client is the municipality not the resident.
“On the technical side is what we have been doing in the emerging world for a very long time. We understand the waste streams, so what we do is engineer our own solutions to match that. Our materials recovery facility in South Africa has been entirely engineered and built by us to match the type of waste we are getting. Most manufacturing of this type of equipment is taking place in China, the Far East or in America or in Europe – in Africa, and the Middle East and the rest of the developing world that waste is very different.”
The Averda chief executive makes the point that in developing countries there is normally high percentages of food waste, “there will be a lot of slippery slimey stuff and putting it into plant which might be used in America or Germany is not going to work very well.”
The company operates more than MRFs, he says. “On the industrial side, this ranges from the incineration of medical waste or dealing with industrial waste. An example is that we worked with a car manufacturer in South Africa on engineering a small facility to deal with turning some industrial waste into paints.
“We have the capability to build high temperature incinerators for medical waste. In South Africa, we own all our plants and run them, a second model, for example, in Oman, the plants are run by the country and we run them on their behalf. We will not supply without operating, becoming equipment suppliers is not our model.”
(above) a video for children in the Congo used in schools to explain the work of Averda
Overall, he emphasises what he sees is a different perspective taken by the company than is the case in Europe or North America.
“Our journey starts with collection, collections are always taken for granted. Without collections you have nothing, then you go to the next stage which is having a decent landfill. Everybody assumes that there is a landfill but in a lot of places, the waste is being thrown into a valley or anywhere. And once you stabilise that, then you start looking at the next stage which is a very basic materials recovery, things that could be sold to the market should be sold onto the market. Then once you have done that, you could say to the government you are in a position to have a robust, recycling industry which may need some form or subsidy or tax support.”
“I’m very disappointed with development funding agencies because there view is that they will only fund after collections are set up.”
But he is cautious on the ideas of energy from waste plants. “These don’t make money if they’re not running at 80%… if you’re going to have 60-70% food waste, energy from waste plants not made for that. All these technologies require a very good collection system, even for AD you need the right material and there are problems if you put the wrong bacteria in.”
He has some harsh words for global and government funding organisations. “To be honest I’m very disappointed with development funding agencies because there view is that they will only fund after collections are set up. They will fund incineration plants, sorting plants or the landfills which is great and I can understand why, but unless you fund the collection for the first five years or ten years you’re not building excellence into them. In the developing world these collections have been left to localised players who do their best in some cases and their worst in others but often are unable to satisfy a reliable need to collect waste with an efficiency of x, y or z.
“We run quality collections and when you compare that to someone who is missing their bin collection once every two days, that means there is waste which rots on the street, attracts rats and mice and it creates and environmental hazard. To be honest, the cost of a good collection system is really insignificant to the benefits you get such as the development of the country, tourism and better health. We look at the statistics from the World Health Organisation which say for every dollar spent on sanitation you save four dollars on healthcare.”
“You need to fix collection first, it also creates employment, gets people off the streets into a well-organised paying job”
So his advice is clear – “you need to fix collection first, it also creates employment, gets people off the streets into a well-organised paying job.”
The coronavirus pandemic has been seen in the business’ activities. Mr Sukkar says that we are “seeing this with COOVID at the moment, for example with our clients in UAE and the Emirates we were asked if we can get a solution quickly for the PPE that needs to be destroyed, so we said we can supply a small incinerator which will be fully operational.”
In South Africa Averda has had a lot of interaction with the government on COVID, he notes. “We are part of the group there that wrote the new guidelines on how to deal with COVID waste. We have our people in contact with the Department of the Environment. That’s the first level, the second is we collect part of the waste for the Department of Health so we speak with them on a daily basis and we are also contracted by all of the leading hospitals in South Africa. So we’re dealing with this on a granular level in South Africa, and I think they are still very early in the pandemic. I hope that it is not early as I really hope that this is their peak. If it is their peak, it is very small which would be very good. It appears the case so far, much less than Europe.
And, in light of the virus, while he says that Averda couldn’t function without its staff and workforce, he is full of praise for those stepping to help deal with contaminated material. “We are blessed with an amazing set of people, the amazing thing is they see it as beyond doing the job, you couldn’t ask someone to handle COVID waste if they didn’t believe in their purpose. We have never had to ask, I think everyone feels this is part of the mission. We have been very lucky to have that kind of culture and spirit in the company.”