The Business Of Selling Disease

By Samuel Malik, Abuja

Our reporter writes on how, in a bid to make more money, some women in Abuja endanger lives with their business of buying and selling plastic bottles sourced from refuse dumps.

 From Monday to Saturday, Tabitha Jonah (not real name) leaves home before 5.00 am to her place of work around Wuse Market in the Federal Capital Territory, FCT.

The less-than-20-minutes’ drive from Masaka, an outskirt of the nation’s capital, can easily turn to hours because of traffic, and working with the Abuja Environment Protection Board, AEPB, as a street cleaner means she has to be in town early enough to ensure that the streets are clean before offices open for the day.

Thus, she leaves home when her family is still asleep. “Because of the hold up, I have to wake up every day by 3.00 am to begin preparation,” she says, adding, “My children do not know when I leave the house, except my husband.”

Before 6.00 am, she and her colleagues are already in town and by 8.00am, they are almost done with the day’s job, leaving the streets of Abuja well swept. With closing time set at 12.00 pm, they usually have about four hours to spare and it is during this time that some of them have thought of ways of making extra income to complement the N14, 000 a month the AEPB pays them.

“We need to make extra money to supplement what we are paid because if we don’t, it will be difficult to survive,” said Tabitha, whose husband is a welder but does not get jobs often.

Thus, she and some of her colleagues decided to go into the business of collecting and buying empty water and soft drink plastic containers which they gather as they sweep or buy from scavengers and sell to customers, such as kunun Zaki (‘a popular drink consumed throughout Nigeria, mostly in the north and made usually from a grain such as millet or sorghum’) sellers, zobo (Hibiscus sabdariffa) sellers, cooking oil sellers, Fulani women who sell blended cow milk with millet porridge (popularly known in Hausa as Fura da Nono).


When these women started this business, they faced no resistance or harassment but that may be about to change. “Our supervisors now complain and prefer we sit by the roadside till our closing time so that when people see us, they will say we are serious,” Tabitha says.

With bills to pay, particular with  her four children all attending school, Tabitha says the family mostly depends on what she makes because her husband, who is a welder does not always get jobs, cannot take care of the family alone.

“He sometimes goes a month without a job. There is rent to pay, food to put on the table and other expenses to take care of,” she said.

“We do not get plenty containers from our sweeping because before we arrive in the morning, these boys (referring to a scavenger pushing away his truck) have already picked most of them,” one of Tabitha’s colleagues who is also into the business said.

The bulk of the bottles are sourced from filthy locations by the scavengers, locally referred to as Baban Bola (father of refuse) who rummage through dustbins and refuse sites looking for resalable objects which they take to a huge, isolated dumpsite at Mabushi area, close to Ministers’ Hill, a highbrow area at Maitama.


There, they sort them out and set aside the plastic containers for sale to the women, who have to go there to buy, although sometimes they are fortunate to buy from them as the scavengers pass by.

Depending on where their duty posts are, some of the women have to walk more than five kilometres to the dumpsite and back. This distance, coupled with the stress of work, sometimes forces them to rely only on what they pick on the streets or buy from the truck pushers before they go to their dumpsite.

“You know we work most of the time either standing or bending, so it is very tiring to walk to the dumpsite and back, not forgetting that we carry the sacks of containers on our heads and when we arrive we cannot sit to wash them, as sitting will slow us down. Besides, if we bring seats here, it may attract people’s attention and we cannot afford to be sent away from here (entrance to NSITF Plaza where they do the washing). It takes us more than one hour, depending on the quantity one has, to wash,” the oldest of the women said, adding that she could not go to the dumpsite that day because she was too tired.

With rainy season fading, especially in the north, the women are bracing themselves for more work. Rainy season is when they have less sweeping to do because the streets are neater. That cannot be said about dry season.

Tabitha explains: “Ah! We are worried about it (dry season). It is hard for us to finish work before 8.00 am during dry season because that is when trees, flowers and other plants shed their leaves, particularly when wind blows, but what choice do we have?”

The plastics are sold in dozens and the sizes determine the prices. According to one of the women, “A dozen of 150cl is sold to us at N50 while we sell it for N100. We get 75cl and 60cl for N20 and sell for N50 and N40 respectively, and 50cl we sell for N30.”


The more plastics they are able to buy, the more money they can make. Explaining, Tabitha says: “With N600, I can make between N600 and N900 depending on the size of the containers. While dealing in 50cl brings more money, they are hard to come by and even when we get them, customers are not so keen on them.

They prefer 75cl and 60cl but the problem with this is that they haggle a lot, especially is they are buying plenty.”

As she explains, the reporter can hear a customer bargaining with one of the women, insisting she is only prepared to pay N30 for a dozen of 75cl, and after many pleas, the woman reluctantly agrees.

However, hygiene does not seem paramount to the women. Some of these containers are taken from dustbins and carried in dirty trucks with other stinking garbage. At the dumpsite, they are usually either left in the open or put in dirty sacks. Thus is common to see containers stained with oil or other debris.

Even though they wash the containers after buying them, this is not enough. Their focus is more on the body, possibly because most containers come with their covers, with the inside looking clean. However, some come without covers and the women can be seen washing covers, which they picked while sweeping, to attach to such containers. Also, no disinfectant is used during the washing, just water and detergent, which sometimes is used over and over again until it changes colour and stops foaming.


One of the women said they are aware that when customers buy the containers, they take them home for proper washing, and that is one of the reasons why they do not bother too much about washing inside.

“The truck pushers join the containers with other objects, some of which smell, so we need to wash the bodies because people will not be interested if outside is dirty,” she said.

At times, passers-by stop to buy and one tells the that though she does not trust the washing the women do, she is not worried because she rewashes them before use. “Before I use them, I carefully wash them, particularly the inside,” she said.

While they may innocently be trying to make ends meet, experts believe their activities are putting people at great health risk because of the source of the plastic bottles they resell.

Professor Bassey Obong, an environmentalist, says of the refuse dumps: “People drop their wastes in most refuse and some of these things could be hospital materials, (which could include) body parts. The seepages from the accumulated refuse can cause a lot of problems like cholera, malaria, etc.”

A medical doctor at the Jos University Teaching Hospital, JUTH, Luka Satlong said that this kind of business is dangerous.

“The common illnesses transmitted from drinking from such containers include empiric fever (typhoid), cholera, diarrhoea, and food poisoning,” he said.

He explained further: “Bacterial and other microbes – fungi and even viruses – are attracted and it becomes a culture for them to grow and multiply inside these bottles. So, when people inadvertently drink from such containers, they can become infected with empiric fever and it can be deadly. In fact, we had two cases of empiric fever perforation that led to surgeries.

“The basic manifestation of cholera, another common disease, is passing of rice-water stool, which can happen as an epidemic and is so deadly because the person keeps losing a lot of water and electrolytes and this can kill within 24-48 hours if the fluids are not rapidly replaced.

“Diarrhoea – passing stool that is loose or watery more than two-three times a day or more than usual – is also very commonly got from infected bottles and the commonest form of diarrhoea is dysentery, diarrhoea with blood, which may contain blood or mucus.

“Food poisoning can occur too and is very dangerous, with abdominal pain and vomiting being the common symptoms.”

The head of Information and Outreach Programme of Abuja Environmental Protection Board, Joe Ukairo, agrees that though anyone who takes drinks from these containers should try to find out where they are sourced, it remains the responsibility of regulatory agencies to check to ensure that what people consume is hygienic.

“Everybody should be involved. If you are buying kunu from somebody that is using water bottles, definitely you should ask yourself, ‘where did the person get this bottle from?’



    “There are fake bottles in the market for kunu, zobo, etc.,  and I think that the people in charge of manufacturing processes – food and drugs – and other regulatory agencies should look into it (and) see that what enters into the human system is properly regulated.”


    Satlong said that if properly sterilised, the bottles can be safe for use. “To prevent all the diseases we mentioned, they (women) have to sterilise the containers. There are various methods of sterilising, such as autoclaving but some of the containers may not withstand this. Also, it is very expensive and not many people can afford it,” he said.

    The most practical and affordable method of sterilising, he suggested, is to use hot water and chemical agents that act as sterilisers.”

    “They can also use detergent but they must combine it with hot water. In fact, this is the most effective and economical method I will say that most people practise, and the results are good,” he added.


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