This photo sets the scene. It is taken in Shomolu, a low-income neighbourhood in Lagos, notorious for its violence, its bands of workless youths, and for spontaneous protests at the egregious behaviour of the political class and the runaway inflation that eats up people’s attempts to survive. Resilience has its limits. The man in the photo is Murtalah, an experienced vulcanizer in his seventies, who mends tyres by the side of the road. He brings end-of-life tyres back to life and sets them in motion again. The barrier behind him shields the site of his former shop. Only recently the city authorities came and demolished it to make way for a market, which would accommodate the women who sell plantain on the roadside. The photo captures the struggle between plantain and tyres for space on a roadside full of commercial opportunities. Murtalah says, ‘I feel helpless. I don’t like it, but what can I do?’
Without Murtalah’s work, the plantains and everything else people need could not be distributed around the city. Cities work on constant circulation and in a megacity of 24 million people (an unofficial estimate) and 452 square miles and counting, Lagos is all about the road and the relentless traffic that keeps the city working. For the poor especially, who must take every opportunity the city affords on the fly, moving around is how they manage to piece a viable life together for themselves. Murtalah’s contribution to the city is invaluable, and yet the value of his work goes unrecognised and unrewarded. A research project led by David Garbin and colleagues at the Universities of Lagos, York, Toronto and Leeds, funded by the British Academy’s Global Challenges Research Fund Urban Infrastructures of Well-Being Programme[i] is exploring the roadside work and unacknowledged contributions of vulcanizers and the waste pickers who provide them with discarded tyres, as well as the politics of value associated with waste tyre re-use and upcycling. The research hopes to improve the visibility of these vital workers and their contribution to city life in Lagos, as well as discover how the city deals with its solid waste as a whole.
Combining the expertise of engineers and social scientists alongside the stunning visual work of the Nigerian artist, filmmaker, and photographer Andrew Esiebo, this team of researchers has made some important discoveries. They have traced the journey of end-of-life tyres through the city, discovering three kinds of tyres, each generating its own value chain. The first are imported already used from European countries, refurbished, and sold by vulcanizers. The second are imported new, now mostly from China, as the big tyre manufacturers like Michelin have moved out of Nigeria, the country’s uncertainties providing too many challenges to their business. When these tyres are worn out or damaged and discarded, waste pickers bring them to vulcanisers, who restore them to new life on the roads. The third are condemned tyres which find any number of new uses. They might serve as goalposts, as children’s swings, or be made into art objects. They can also be stripped down into recyclable components: carbon black, metals (tyres contain steel) and black oil; all of which have value in reuse. Vulcanizers say that ‘in Nigeria a tyre never dies.’ Waste tyres, it seems, can live many further lives through recycling and upcycling. This points in some promising directions for providing new understandings of how value chains operate.
Vulcanizing is technically part of the city’s informal economy, and yet the research team found it to be highly organised and structured, suggesting that certain formalities shape this informal sector of the economy. Vulcanizers have established roadside pitches, although they are vulnerable to being moved on by police. They have a training structure and serve seven- to ten-year apprenticeships before becoming journeymen, and later the master vulcanizer who runs the pitch. It is overwhelmingly a male profession, although there are a few women. It is also dangerous when tyres blow and cause serious injury or even death. Many vulcanizers belong to the Lagos State Vulcanizer’s Association (LSVA), another formal structure organising their so-called informal work.
The researchers hope that this new understanding of the world of vulcanizers and waste pickers can be used to prompt city authorities to formulate policy recommendations that improve their working and living conditions, as well recognise the real value of their work as tyres move up the value chain. What these policies might be was the subject of a workshop I attended recently at the University of Lagos. At this workshop, waste pickers, vulcanizers, researchers and professors discussed how their work might be properly formalised, unionised, and recognised for the vital part of the urban economy it is. The part that keeps it moving along millions of pathways forging everyday life for those who live there.
[i] David Garbin (University of Kent), with Taibat Lawanson, Babatunde Bolasodun, Akeem Akinwale (University of Lagos), Gareth Millington (University of York), Simon Coleman (University of Toronto) and Xavier Moyet (University of Leeds).
Caroline Knowles is the Director of the British Academy’s Global Challenges Research Fund (GCRF) Urban Infrastructures of Well-Being Programme and a Global Professorial Fellow at Queen Mary, University of London. An urban Sociologist with research experience in a number of cities, she is the author of many books and papers, most recently, Flip-Flop: A Journey through Globalisation’s Backroads, published by Pluto Press (2014 & 2015) www.flipfloptrail.com and Serious Money: Walking Plutocratic London, published by Penguin (2022) https://seriousmoneybook.com