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Waste Not
30-Year-Old Entrepreneur Putting Africa Front and Center in Global Circular Economy

Ray Onovwigun and his startup, Romco Metals, have seized the opportunity to build the capacity and infrastructure Africa needs to become a global player in the recovery and recycling of valuable metals.

Poor waste-management practices, low recycling rates and illegal dumping of toxic materials from overseas shipping containers have plagued the continent of Africa for many years. While these are complex problems that cannot be solved overnight, one man is on a mission to raise greater awareness of the issues while driving positive change on the ground.

Ray Onovwigun, a 30-year-old, London-born entrepreneur of Nigerian descent, runs Romco Metals — a multinational non-ferrous metal recycler with an emerging market focus. The company produces recycled metal ingots for manufacturers, and currently has two plants operating in Nigeria and Ghana. Romco has grown at an impressive rate since Onovwigun founded the business in 2015; it now ships its products all over the world.

“Only 1 percent of the world’s recycled metal comes from the African continent, despite having one-fifth of the world’s population,” Onovwigun told Sustainable Brands™ in a recent interview. “There’s a gap in sustainability at the moment in Africa. We want to grow and fill that gap.”

By recycling valuable metals such as aluminum and copper, including those that have been dumped in African landfills, Onovwigun believes he can serve growing demand from manufacturers for such materials while reducing the need for mining of virgin raw materials within the continent.

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“The emerging markets are the places that are the most exploited in terms of irresponsible mining. The West and others take advantage of this, despite sustainable principles and high waste-diversion rates at home,” he says. “It becomes clear that until we increase recycling rates, the problems caused by mining, the destruction of our ecosystems and the effects these have on global climate change won’t get any better.”

As well as helping to alleviate some of these pressures, recycled metals come with significant decarbonisation benefits. According to Onovwigun, the recycling of aluminum alone uses 95 percent less energy than virgin mining and emits 92 percent less CO2.

“There is a massive shift now towards decarbonisation, right through the manufacturing supply chain,” he says. “End consumers are also becoming more aware as to what products they are using and want to ensure these products are being made in a sustainable way.”

Romco produces recycled aluminum alloys, which are used in all sorts of products including food and beverage containers, automotive parts and medical equipment. Last year, the company diversified into recycling copper and now has plans to expand into other base metals such as lead, zinc and steel.

On a wider level, Romco is also helping to address a key challenge Africa faces in dealing with its waste — a lack of infrastructure. “Infrastructure is a big problem,” Onovwigun says. “There’s also no [landfill] diversion, so it’s about building these networks to help create that — these networks are also part of the infrastructure build that is lacking in the continent.”

By not only building recycling facilities but setting up trade hubs to increase operational efficiencies and embarking on educational outreach programmes, Romco hopes it can play its part in helping to close that infrastructure gap. So far, the company has been successful in raising £10million (GBP) in private finance to help with capital investment, and has now started working in Burkina Faso to build a permanent presence for feedstock sourcing.

“We are trying to integrate our operations so Africa starts to do more business with Africa,” Onovwigun says. “This waste problem is very informal at the moment in Africa, but it is becoming more formal as time goes on. We are just trying to be inclusive and help create the solutions to deal with it.”

Very much a hands-on CEO, Onovwigun feels he has the experience and level-headedness needed to successfully steer his business forward in Africa, where others may have failed.

“Where a lot of multinationals may have come and gone in the past is not understanding the landscape in which they are operating in. Having that on-in-the-ground approach has really helped me in this journey,” he says. “We started from nothing. We started on a small piece of land by my Auntie’s petrol station in Lagos — with a baler from the UK that we used to crush and sort the materials — and we grew it organically from there.”

To date, Romco has recycled more than 21,700 tonnes of aluminum and over 1,000 tonnes of copper. In comparison to virgin ore mining, that represents nearly 67,500 metric tonnes of CO2 savings and almost 138,350 cubic meters of landfill sorted.

Going forward, Onovwigun says his plan is to have seven recycling plants operating across three continents within the next five years: “If we achieve this, we should save over 338,000 tonnes of carbon each year. These are huge savings that we are looking to bring by developing these plants.”

Onovwigun is also shaping Romco to become a scalable model that can be easily replicated in other developing economies such as Tanzania and Gabon — as ultimately, he believes places such as these is where the battle against over-mining and waste will be won.

“The fight is where the biggest sustainability gaps are — and they’re in the emerging markets,” he says.