Samer Kamal's driver drops him off at our meeting point — an empty parking lot next to a garbage dump, just off a desert highway — in a custom-painted Smart car.
At first glance, Kamal looks like most other expats who have flocked to the Persian Gulf seeking their fortune. He is overdressed in designer sunglasses and a Dolce & Gabbana belt, and sweating in the 40-degree midsummer heat. While other people have been lured to the United Arab Emirates by dreams of turning profits in investment banking or land deals, Kamal's gold mine is altogether different. It is garbage: the massive, stinking, 40-square-kilometre Al Saj'ah landfill on the edge of Sharjah, a sleepy, conservative emirate adjacent to glitzy Dubai.
"This is where the war begins," says Kamal, the 35-year-old Canadian who is managing director of Bee'ah, a maverick environmental company that recently took control of the Middle East's largest landfill and recycling facility.
Kamal's dream is to introduce universal recycling of household waste to Sharjah, and eventually across the Middle East. It's a daunting task for someone with no prior experience in waste management, and especially difficult in a region where the typical solution for dealing with garbage is to bury it in the desert. Still, in 2007, Kamal set up Bee'ah (the name means "environment" in Arabic) in partnership with the municipality of Sharjah, which made a $41-million capital investment in the company and retains a 50-per-cent stake, with the remainder owned by two private companies — one in Britain and one in Sharjah.
Bee'ah faces some staggering challenges: a culture that is not only notorious for its consumption but also suffers from a dearth of local waste-management experts, to say nothing of the extreme heat that hinders decomposition. It didn't help that the company started operating in 2008 when, as Kamal says, the "bottom fell out of the post-consumer commodity market. But it is on the rise again and, in the coming months, we think it might go right back to where it was in 2006."
While the UAE's stunning growth has included such headline-grabbing developments as man-made islands, sky-busting towers, and miniature "cities" devoted to culture, the Internet and the media, the country also harbours a dirty secret: It is home to one of the highest per-capita carbon footprints in the world. According to a figure referenced by Kamal, if the rest of the world consumed resources at the same rate as the UAE, we would need 13.8 Earths to sustain us. It's a depressing figure, but one that represents a huge opportunity for Kamal. "It sounds cliché, but one man's trash really is another man's treasure."
Kamal's eureka moment came in 2006, while he was visiting his mother in Sharjah. They were cooking dinner together and, when they were cleaning up, Kamal noticed that all of the garbage — food, cans, plastics and bottles — was tossed into the same trash bin. Having grown accustomed to recycling in Canada, he felt a wave of guilt. He also saw a golden opportunity, and began investigating recycling as a way of solving the emirate's excess waste problems.
By coincidence, Sharjah's rulers were just then looking at overhauling the emirate's garbage policies. As Kamal tells it, the Emir, His Highness Dr. Sultan Bin Mohammed Al Qasimi, "looked at the circumstances in Sharjah and said they must change. We must do something more than we're doing now. … There was this point where the ruling family recognized that there's a gap between what they were trying to accomplish as a family-friendly, cultural, educationally driven emirate and its environmental conditions."
Before getting together with Sharjah's ruling family (the meeting was arranged by Kamal's mother), Kamal delivered a written summary of the benefits of recycling. That led to a phone conversation with Sharjah's ruler, followed by meetings with government officials. Eventually, Kamal was invited to meet with the emir, who approved the project. In 2007, Bee'ah was incorporated, with Kamal as managing director. He does not own any shares, but he does sit on the board.
Kamal has proved to be a quick study in the art of waste management. In many ways, however, it's an unlikely career for the University of Toronto graduate, who studied pharmacology and toxicology. His CV lists lower-profile work stints—negotiating contracts at Bell Canada and marketing Internet software for a Toronto dotcom. "Like a lot of people who graduated in the '90s, it took me a while to find my calling," he admits.
Born in Longueil, on the south shore of Montreal, Kamal's parents are of Palestinian descent. His father immigrated to Canada to study engineering at the University of Waterloo, and Kamal's upbringing straddled Canada and the Middle East. When he was six, he moved to Sharjah, where his father worked as an engineer for Arabtec, a large Emirati construction company. Kamal's mother was the founding general manager of the Sharjah Ladies' Club, an exclusive arts and cultural centre. Because of their prominent positions in Sharjah, the Kamals became friendly with the Al Qasimi ruling family.
The Sharjah of Kamal's childhood in the '70s was still a place where alcohol was served, and a vibrant social scene that dwarfed that of Dubai. It is still considered the cultural capital of the UAE, with an international book fair, 17 museums and a number of soaring, beautiful mosques. But in the late '70s, Sharjah began imposing some of the strictest laws in the UAE, including a ban on the sale, possession and consumption of alcohol. Men and women are required by law to dress conservatively; mixing between unmarried men and woman is strictly illegal.
In other ways — particularly when it comes to the business of waste management and the environment — Kamal argues that Sharjah is downright progressive.
Samer Kamal is standing in Bee'ah's nerve centre, a cavernous warehouse surrounded by mountains of household and industrial waste, the inconvenient byproduct of a staggering building boom that has accelerated in lockstep with the swelling population. Bee'ah's 220,000-square-foot, four-storey Material Recovery Facility (MRF) went online earlier this year, transforming raw material collected from 1,500 recycling bins stationed throughout Sharjah into precious bales of post-consumer material. Previously, all of the waste materials, including recyclables, were simply buried.
While Kamal was assembling his management team, 50 recycling bins were installed across the city as part of a co-operative pilot project that Kamal was adamant would be more successful than enforcing compliance in the early stages. "The approach we believe in is to start by giving organizations and individuals the opportunity to act voluntarily ... you'll gain a certain percentage of that community's support right away, and then introduce regulations that will require they act responsibly whether they choose to do so or not."
The strategy proved effective — there are now 1,800 recycling bins dotted around Sharjah's streets. Most are full on a daily basis, and the usage rate is approximately 85 per cent, the same as in Canada. "There are a few things that have been fantastic in the last little while. ... Both the business community and the residential community have begun to understand that there's a challenge we need to face and we need to face it as assertively as we can," Kamal says.
In May, 2009, Bee'ah took control of the Al Saj'ah landfill, which processes up to 39,000 tonnes of waste a day through its recycling facility, including trash from Sharjah's previous landfill, located near the university.
Reinhart Wilkes, who is operations manager at Al Saj'ah, recently visited the largest landfill in the United States, in Puenta Hills, just east of Los Angeles. "I asked them what kind of tonnage they got on a daily basis. At peak times, they said about 13,000 tonnes. I said, 'I have that by lunchtime.' "
Operating at full capacity, the MRF can process 3,200 tonnes a day, through a combination of manual and mechanical sorting. What's left over goes into the landfill. Hundreds of workers, mainly from India and Pakistan, spend their days separating recyclables from garbage as it travels along whirring conveyor belts. The smell is overwhelming, but most of the workers, dressed in coveralls, have grown so accustomed to the stench that they don't bother wearing the white gas masks that are provided. They are paid relatively good wages for the region, about $1,000 a month, and the company provides them with decent accommodation and a trip home every year. "When we went overseas to recruit, we were overwhelmed. People are lining up for these jobs," Kamal says.
Bee'ah sells its post-consumer recyclables, which are machine-packaged into bales, to local buyers, including its owner, and plans to seek buyers further afield as its recycling facility ramps up. In May, the city of Sharjah agreed to purchase rubber crumb produced at Bee'ah's tire recycling facility, where a cryogenic process is used to transform a mountain of eight million tires into powder. It can be used to construct roads or create bouncy surfaces for children's playgrounds.
For Kamal, the business transaction is a simple one: "You give us recyclable material, and we recycle it in a responsible fashion."
Bee'ah boasts $1.47 billion in assets and 600 employees, mostly waste sorters, as well as an international management team from Europe, North America and the Middle East. The company, still running at half capacity, has yet to turn a profit, a fact that leaves Kamal unfazed. "What we've seen with His Highness's decision to launch Bee'ah is really the opposite of ... concerning himself with the economics or logistics. What we're doing here is more complex than that."
Still, Kamal is confident that Bee'ah will be profitable in two years. The challenges, he says, are no different than those faced by Western countries 20 years ago. Revenue currently comes from a combination of sources: fees received from the city of Sharjah to collect the emirate's waste, sweep its streets and manage the landfill, as well as from the sale of post-consumer waste. Bee'ah's biggest cost lies in sorting the waste once it's arrived at the landfill. Still, there's the small matter of convincing residents that they should recycle.
Bee'ah fields two to three calls each day from schools, offices and households that are interested in getting a blue bin, and waste experts in the region still warn of a looming crisis if the UAE and the wider Middle East don't come to terms with the rising tide of waste. "What we are lacking is the political will, financing and technology," said Fareed Bushehri, an officer at the United Nations Environment Programme's regional office for West Africa, when he spoke at the Middle East Waste Summit in Dubai in May.
Frederic Vigier, chief executive at Dubai waste-management company Trashco, argues that recycling programs are difficult to manage. While the UAE government has declared its desire to create and expand recycling, "the thing is to see how to convert intention into action."
Without tough legislation, he says, there is no way to force people to stop dumping. "We know very well that the recycling process costs money."
Jeremy Byatt, Bee'ah's director of environmental responsibility disagrees, saying that if you provide people with the option of recycling, they will. "We have all these chicken-and-egg problems. You cannot ask people to recycle unless you have a place to process it."
With that in mind, Kamal has his sights set on expansion. There are no plans for an IPO, but he hasn't ruled out anything. "There is no reason we couldn't take what we are doing here and move to other places."
This article first appeared in the September, 2010 issue of Your Business magazine.