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Interview with the Executive Secretary, Mrs Funke Adepoju

She is so passionate about her job as she reels out measures she is putting in place to curb irregularities in her sector and ensure over 20million Lagos residents have safe water to drink both at home and on the road. Talking to Saturday Sun, she exhumes simplicity and down to heart as the energetic boss of the Lagos State Water Regulatory Commission, takes you down the lane on the onerous task before her agency as well as the reforms Governor Babajide Sanwo-Olu and the state Commissioner for Environment and Water Resources, Mr. Tunji Bello have been pushing for through the Commission. The zeal to ensure the right thing is done in the formal and informal water sector is indeed the driving force for Mrs Funke Adepoju.

In this interview , you also get to know about  her  lifestyle and lots more.

Before your appointment as the Executive Secretary of the Lagos State Water Regulatory Commission, what have you been doing? 

I was appointed in October 2019 by Governor Babajide Sanwo-Olu. Before then, I have been in the Public Service, Lagos State Civil Service, where I was a Deputy Director.

Could you tell us what Lagos State Water Regulatory Commission does?

The Lagos State Water Regulatory Commission basically is established by law, the Environment Management Protection Law 2017. It has the function to regulate the production, distribution, abstraction, supply,  use of water, quality of service to ensure that the players in the water sector enjoy financial viability and that the consumer is also protected. Basically, it is from an economic regulation point of view, that the service provider remains in business and that the consumer gets value for the service that they are paying for, and that is, ensuring that they get safe and hygienic water. We have the service providers in the formal sector, and then we have also service providers in the informal sector. The service providers in the formal sector are the Lagos State Water Corporation and the Office of Waste Water.  You can’t have water without waste water, they go hand in hand.  We consider them as formal because they are also agencies of government.  We have the informal players: the beverage companies, the bottling companies, the table water producers, the sachet water producers and anybody that plays in the sector that deals with water or who have water as their basic raw material.  Ours is to ensure that service is delivered, price is right, and there is reliability.

Are there challenges you face doing this?

Yes, there are challenges. The first thing I’m going to call a major challenge is the visibility of the Commission. A lot of people actually don’t know that there’s a regulatory commission. They automatically mistake us for Water Corporation or Water Board. What we are actually trying to do right now is to work on feasibility through advocacy, hoping that through the press, people will know more about what we do.  And, the second one is that those who then understand, because there is also a profit undertone for those that are playing in the informal sector, we are not finding it too easy.  For instance, we have an organization, whose raw material is about 95 percent water, and they don’t pay anything to government. So, we turn the tables round and say for instance, if you have to bring in 10 containers from abroad, as an input into your products, ain’t you going to pay? So, that pitches us against those who profit from water. It’s a kind of monopoly.  Water has that kind of tendency. They take in, they don’t want to give anything back for the development of the water infrastructure that will benefit the large populace whose natural resource they are taking free of charge.

It also takes us to the issue of ground water. Ground water is not an exclusive preserve of anybody. So, if you take a bottling company or a beverage company that takes about 10 million litres a day from ground water, they are depleting the aquifer. And it takes 50 years for it to be replenished and they are not paying anything back to government. That water is not charged. The assumption is that I dig my borehole myself, so why should I pay you? But water is a natural resource. Resources are never free.

It looks like it’s getting complex?

It is not getting complex. Government needs to invest in water. Investment in water is not cheap.  People tend to argue that I dug my borehole why should I pay you for the borehole? But that ground water is not infinite.  Government must continue to plan to ensure that they can have adequate water supply. If you take Lagos for example, if a company takes 10 million litres a day,  I want you to multiply that by 30, multiply it round the year, take an average of 300 days and look at the figure that  is going to give you and it takes it for free, and you find its truck going all over the country, they are not giving it out free, they are selling.

Now, do you have the statistics of the volume of water these companies take?

Yes. We do. We have field inspectors that have been going round. Though we have a lot of challenges but we have to go after them. And what we are saying is very simple. Our principle is that, you have to pay a fair share of what you take back to government to enable government develop water infrastructure and integrated water resources management. It is not a tax. It’s just like land use charge.  It’s just like you buying a plot of land and you want to build on it and somebody says, you need an approved building plan and you say ‘what do you mean, is it not my money I use in buying the land?’ It doesn’t happen like that.  There’s what we call governance and our activities have to be guided by governance as it were. So, on the one hand, we have those who take the resource that is a common resource and use it for their own gain alone and nothing goes back. That means tomorrow, your kid, which is eight years old now will buy a land in Ikeja and a beverage company has finished the water in the well. What they will then get  is polluted, contaminated , it will take  two hours for  100 liters keg to be full and so many other things that we don’t see now. We forget the issue of environmental sustainability.

Because of demand and supply gap, people just dig their borehole, which is fine but it goes beyond that. The government is now interested in who drills for you. My own personal example, and that’s where protecting the interest of the consumers comes in. We used to have a guy that drills borehole for us. The only thing he shows us is just about eight types of sand. (I’m sure we all have  that experience) The last sand is kind of white and that’s the water. There’s no scientific test, there’s no water analysis, as long as the water is not colored it is okay. But it’s not enough. They are not things we could see with the naked eyes. Even if you and I drink bottled water, it’s an assumption that it is safe, there’s so much of unwholesome practice going round. Who checks them? Nobody.

So, government is saying, the driller you must have license to operate in Lagos. Even the ground water is contaminated, the fact that it doesn’t give you any illness today doesn’t mean nothing has happened in your system in the process. It might be something that is kept there and must be triggered by something else in six , seven years down the line and it’s the water you are taking everytime. Sometimes you put filter at home, it’s okay but it’s not something that’s determined by quality.

High impact between public health and drinking water is not something a responsible government can look away from. We are saying, beginning from protecting the consumer, we need to go after people involved in these businesses, we need to set a standard,  we need to have  guidelines. What is the depth of the borehole that has been dug for you. Most of the boreholes, are at very sensitive level, they are very close to surface water,  very close to contamination . For the commercial users, which is what we are focused on right now, we are saying, you must have a permit. We need a data of what is where and what you are taking and for what use?  Some people go to the extent of just putting alum and chlorine and do self-check, it’s a double edged thing. For those that are providing service, we are interested in the quality of service, for those that are consuming, we are interested in the quality of service that they get. We also regulate the price. During the lockdown, sachet water went from N150 to N250 just on their own.  All we need is for people to know that there is a regulatory commission, complaints that come here  are protected. If it’s about public utility they can bring their complaint, we will mediate. You don’t know where some bottled water is coming from. We have people that cannot change. They know what the loopholes are, they know you can’t get them and they take advantage of it. Some just put water in a nylon and they are selling. And some bottled water, have so many names. Some don’t have NAFDAC number, they take a label anywhere.

It’s our duty as a regulatory commission to tell you what is right, to tell you why we are doing this, to tell you that you have the back of government in such cases. Look at the ‘Mairuwa people’. The borehole that are being dug  for them to fetch from, who checked those boreholes? We are looking at situation that such centres would have to subject their water to test. Like COVID-19, we need to emphasise the need for test of water that our people consume in Lagos, we would like to go for enforcement and that will start soon.

For some of these operators, their operations are out of Lagos but their market is in Lagos, how do you regulate such?

What we are going to be doing for these people, we are going to systematic approach to ensure they don’t give Lagosians unsafe water or beverage. We are going to ensure that they must have a kind of permit to sell their products in Lagos because they are consumed by Lagosians and we owe it a duty to Lagosians to ensure that what they are consuming is safe. Once you have the permit, though we cannot go to the State of operations, we might  say submit your water for us to test, you want to come to this state with your product and it’s a regulated product, you must meet Lagos standard. The lives of Lagosians matter. As a responsible government, this administration is committed to ensuring access to water, quality of water, quality of service by providers and willingness to ensure financial viability of investors.

Are you seeing yourself duplicating what NAFDAC is doing?

No, we are not.  NAFDAC is a federal agency, they have rights over food, drug control and regulation. They are enabled by law. Water regulatory commission is also enabled by law and our activities are covered by law, so we are not crossing each other’s territories.  If NAFDAC gives you permit number, certifying you to produce certain food and beverage products, it’s not a problem but we are saying, the products that you want to sell, that you want to bottle, we need to give you a permit to say, that yes it is also good for consumption. So, NAFDAC is a level one and we are level two because it is State, and the laws of the state cover this.

What about the sachet water?

They have a very big association. They know what they are doing. They have been working with the commission. What we need to do further is to ensure that we bring them closer and let them see the reason why they have to do things better for those that are not doing it properly. The areas that we have issues are those that are operating in the military cantonment. But we believe their percentage is not within the majority.  After sometime, we can begin to say that the following products do not have our permit, let the people decide. With the COVID- 19, water is the first line of defence and that’s why we have to pay more attention to the issue of water.

As a Lagos resident,  I buy water either from the store or on the streets and I find out the taste is bad or particles inside, what do I do?

You report to us at the commission and we would take it up. Proper procedure is established for such consumer, we can call for the sample of the product.

What your action plans to achieve the objective of setting up the Commission?

What I would love to see is to gain the confidence of the public in what our activities are and what they are meant to address.  And I’m sure that by the time we gain the confidence of the public, what we stand for, and a lot of impact would be felt more in relation to health target. Basically, when you take in an unclean water, it is deadly. We will be looking at targets in the health sector, we are looking at wellbeing, we are looking at safe water available to people. We are going for enforcement to sanitise the sector.

Again, when you say you are planning to begin enforcements, what does your power allow you do when you are enforcing?

If you look at power establishing the commission, we have a right to shut erring companies down, and we are covered by law. You can be charged penalty if your infraction falls within a penalty. We have an open window for you to do things right, we only come hard on you if you do not take appropriate steps to remedy.

How much of support do you have from government to do all you want to achieve in the water sector?

First, I won’t be here without the support of my governor, Mr Babajide Sanwo-Olu. He believes in what we are doing because he is passionate about the development of Lagos and the general wellbeing of the citizens and residents of the state. As such, he is giving us all the backing to bring results. Again, I have the Commissioner for Environment and Water Resources, Mr Tunji Bello. He is our backbone because of his commitment to the issues of Lagos environment. He’s well experienced in the area because this is not his first time in the ministry. He knows and understands the issues and he’s really guiding us on well.

You have a lot of complex activities in your hands, do you have time at all to rest?

There’s a balance I would say, there’s nothing I can’t handle.

You appear amiable, does it have to do with your growing up?

I don’t know where I got it from. Since you know my dad, the way we were brought up was to be kind. That must be next to nature. It mustn’t have to be money. Just be kind and be accessible. You have to treat people right. That I take very passionately.  I’m just an everyday person. I play it very simple, that was the way I was brought up. My father will sit with people going on the street, ‘is that not Baba Kabiru’?, he’s probably talking to a bricklayer down the street.  ‘I have a task for you.’ That means he wants to give you something and  knew that with the job he’s giving you, you will gain something from it. I was speaking with him on the phone and he said he wants to give someone the car he’s parked there for a while.  He is like that and I think some of us took after him. We might not have as much as he does. The truth of the matter is, treat people right.

Who influences you more, your mum or dad?

Both of them. My mum is very calm, you hardly know she exists. She’s an epitome of simplicity. I don’t know if there’s any other person like her. She leaves everything for you to decide for her. Tell her, mummy, I don’t like this dress you are wearing, she wouldn’t say, I like it like that , and that’s  why I wear it. I don’t know where my father found her.  I think her simple nature has also rubbed off on us. My dad is an incurable optimist. Everything is do-able.  He has this energy that I think I took from . He’s never tired and his brain is continuously on auto run. He will think for you, (if you do this it would be ok )   He will think for himself and I’m like that too. I think I took from both of them and it’s a wonderful combination.

What lessons have you learnt about life?

Don’t come to the table with expectations, so you are not disappointed. Then, be yourself.  There’s a positive energy that  we must continually look for and I think that is one that I have worked on and I think it really worked for me. In every situation, I always look for the softer side. The first thing I do is, what is the worst case scenario. Once I can figure the worst case scenario, I sit down and say ok.  I think, one day at a time, baby’s steps. If you keep at something you will eventually get there. It might not be the way that everybody would, but somehow, you are going to get there. It worked for me, and it’s still working. I’m never agitated, I don’t have expectations, I was in the market when I was called for this position. To put it summarily, I think we should just continuously pray for positive energy. And don’t be put down by distractions. Everybody doesn’t have to like you. Just do what is right, just do what is fair.

Nothing bothers me, if you like, you can have 10 storey building on top of this building,  as long as you have the strength to climb the stairs, I wish you well. I’m not fussed by anything. I love good things, I love hard work, I love good things, I love hard work, I’m a very creative person. I like when I’m given the opportunity to excel, I don’t do half measures.

Your dad, Cardinal James Odunmbaku popularly called Baba Eto is an APC chieftain, would you one day go into politics as well?

Hmm, I think it’s too late in the day. I’m already over 50. So, I don’t think I would be looking forward to any running around. If I have the opportunity to serve, I will serve and I will serve meritoriously but I don’t think I want to do the real thing.

Where is your favorite holiday destination?

You will be shocked. Well, I like a place in Nigeria. Ibom Resort. Very calm, so much nature, very natural environment. If I have my way I will do it every month. Very nice place, I like nature. It’s very calm, very serene. Very nice place, if you now fly their Ibom Air you are touching ground in less than 50 minutes.  If I travel out of the country, it is United States. I don’t go out, unless I have the opportunity to be driven interstate. The last time for my birthday, we went from Atlanta to Florida, 13 and half hours. It was so nice and for me it didn’t really take time before we got to Miami. You know they have good road network.  Apart from that, I would do Ibom, over and over again.

What is your kind of style?

Anything comfortable. I hate being boxed up.