The crowd at the gate of Fabrimetal, an Angolan manufacturer of steel reinforcing bars (rebars), starts gathering early.
Dozens of motorbikes loaded with discarded pieces of iron, steel, copper, aluminium, zinc, magnesium and other metals begin arriving at the Viana Industrial Park outside the capital city of Luanda at the crack of dawn to take their place in line. Every minute counts – the sooner they arrive, the quicker they can unload, meaning they may even have time to return the same day with another load.
On a good day, kupapatas, as the motorbikes are known, can complete two trips and take home Kz8,000 ($48). Gone are the days when they could make three. As the number of people collecting and selling scrap has increased, the queue at Fabrimetal’s gate has grown dramatically – and the income per person in it has shrunk.
Luís Diogo, Fabrimetal’s commercial director, gives this development a positive spin, saying that more families are gaining from “the conversion of waste into a certified quality product”. His company currently meets 40% of Angola’s domestic needs, estimated at between 16,000 and 18,000 tonnes per month. Until 2014, when the fall in oil prices caused a crisis that hurt the construction sector, that figure was 25,000 tonnes.
Now Fabrimetal is expanding its factory and installing a fourth smelting furnace, which should double the plant’s monthly production capacity to 15,000 tonnes. In 2010, when the factory opened, its 120 workers produced 2,500 tonnes of steel rebar for the building trade and public infrastructure. Today its has 563 workers; they will be joined by another 150 once the $5m expansion project is completed.
“We have come a long way,” said Diogo. “Five years ago, nobody paid any attention to scrap except those in the export business.” Representatives from Fabrimetal and Angola’s two other steel companies began crisscrossing the country, asking people if they had scrap to sell.
They practically went door-to-door, planting the seeds of micro-businesses that proliferated like mushrooms once people realised that they could sell waste to be recycled. In 2016, the Ministry of Industry banned the export of scrap to avoid jeopardising the “development and functioning of the Angolan steel industry”, whose scrap consumption is estimated to be 600,000 tonnes per year. Steel imports, meanwhile, fell from 73,771 tonnes in 2015 to 31,627 tons in 2016.
In addition to creating jobs, the steel industry is helping to clean up the country. And it’s not just scrap metal but also war detritus. Until about five years ago, there were still tanks lying by the roadside, recalling the country’s three-decade- long civil war.
“There used to be just half a dozen of us collecting metal, now there are scores of us,” said Alcino António, a 32-year-old who was one of the first micro-entrepreneurs to see scrap collection as a way to make a living. He began by renting a car to transport the collected material, but his earnings did not cover his expenses. A friend then joined him. “He bought the bike and I drive it,” he explained. They share the profits. “It’s not much,” he said, but it’s enough to feed his family and put both of his children through school.
António does not know how much he will make each month, but whatever he takes home is used immediately. The money doesn’t go far in a family that depends on precarious work such as this, and in a country where the informal economy still accounts for so many jobs. Things have been especially difficult since the economic crisis hit in 2014. “We work so that our children can go to school and so there is food on the table,” said André Carlos Fátima, 32. The unemployed father of seven has been collecting scrap for only one week, so he doesn’t yet know if he has made the right choice. For now, he thinks he has: “At least I’m not at home doing nothing or going around stealing.”
On the day of our report, he received Kz4,000 for part of the carcass of a car he had dismantled using axes and saws. He relies on his strength and skill as well as luck – which is not always on his side. Accidents are frequent, confirmed Auxílio Barnabé, 27, who has been travelling through several townships to collect scrap for more than a year. “I go wherever I need to be,” he said as he waited to get on Fabrimetal’s scales. On each trip to the factory, his bike is weighed when he arrives and again once it has been unloaded. He is paid based on the difference.
After passing through the weighing station, Barnabé collected his money and headed home. Tomorrow he will return, taking his place in the long line that forms at Fabrimetal’s gate in the early hours of the morning.