A happier life thanks to waste

Chris Simoens
16 July 2019
The Nigerian company Wecyclers offers a job or an additional income to inhabitants of poor neighbourhoods in Lagos by employing them as waste collectors. At the same time this entails a boost for the environment. Founder Bilikiss Adebiyi-Abiola and present CEO Olawale Adebiyi – her brother – were awarded the King Baudouin African Development Prize for their project on 12 June 2019.

Lagos, the biggest city in Nigeria and Africa, has more than 21 million inhabitants. The lucky ones enjoy living in residential neighbourhoods, whereas the majority lives in overcrowded, shabby slums. Tropical heat makes you thirsty, but as the tap water is not reliable, the inhabitants of Lagos drink water and soft drinks from plastic bottles. The city generates about 15,000 tonnes of waste every day.

 

3,000 garbage trucks

Although the local authorities organise waste collection, they can only collect 40% of it. The 3,000 garbage trucks that make their way through the dense traffic mainly serve the wealthiest neighbourhoods, because there is a price to pay for waste collection that the poor cannot afford.

So the poor inhabitants organise their own system by tipping unofficial waste collectors who dispose of the waste in ditches, canals, etc. The official garbage vans dump their waste in one of the enormous landfills or simply in the Atlantic Ocean.

Nevertheless, there are companies in Nigeria that process waste. Most of it is exported to Asia and the United States, and a very small percentage is converted locally into textile fibres. To get their waste, they pay “scavengers”, waste collectors who scour the landfills. But that waste is soiled, which is not ideal.

 

Waste as a business case

The Nigerian Bilikiss Adebiyi-Abiola came up with a solution for this problem. ‘Collecting waste was not exactly my girl's dream’, she laughs, ‘although I was attracted by entrepreneurship’. After obtaining her Master's degree in computer science in the United States, she followed a MBA - a Master's degree in Business Administration - at the famous MIT.

During the development cooperation class, she attended lectures of entrepreneurs who had realised beautiful projects in the South. ‘But none of them was African, that had to change!’, she thought. As she was concerned about the problem of waste and poverty in Africa, she decided to dedicate the business case she had to make for her Master's degree to waste collection. She would pay residents of poor neighbourhoods to collect waste.

Bilikiss Adebiyi-Abiola (left) and her brother Olawale among their staff.
© Nyancho Nwanri Arete

Every start is (very) difficult, but still she received a lot of encouragement. Bilikiss: ‘Not only did MIT give me 1,000 dollars to develop my idea on the spot, but I also received a lot of support from the MIT Entrepreneurship Center. Moreover, the Nigerian government immediately made a location freely available and gave me some money to help me launch the project. Meeting Coca-Cola's marketing head in Nigeria reinforced my conviction: this was a good idea! I even got 1,000 extra dollars.’ A two-year grant from Echoing Green, a social innovation fund, and support from the Tony Elumelu Foundation amounting to 5,000 dollars completed the picture.

To give visibility to her initiative, she handed out flyers and organised an open-air party with music and drinks. ‘Curious passers-by were told that they could make money from waste collection’, says Bilikiss. ‘They didn't have to go far to fill a bag’.

 

From wecycles to tricycles

The ball was set rolling for 'Wecyclers', which was founded in 2012. Initially they moved around using sponsored, self-assembled cargo bikes, the ‘wecycles’. Bilikiss: ‘They had to transport up to 100 kg, which was difficult, so we soon switched to motorised tricycles.’

Today, Wecyclers is a thriving company. ‘We have 120 full-time employees, including 60% women’, says Olawale Adebiyi, CEO since 2016 when his sister Bilikiss joined the Lagos State Parks and Gardens Agency. ‘25 to 30 of our employees use the tricycles. Meanwhile, we also invested in vans and a garbage compacter vehicle. In addition, we already have over 18,000 customers, the freelance collectors.’

 

One of Wecyclers' tricycles with a proud driver
© Nyancho Nwanri Arete

Loyalty points with text messages

For every kilogram of waste, collectors receive a number of loyalty points. For plastic, they get 10 points, and cans bring in double the value. 500 kg of PET plastic is worth 5000 Nigerian nairas, just over 12 euros. Digitisation helps more than a little. Olawale: ‘We have developed our own database that works by text message. We just enter the customer number as well as the details related to the waste that he brought. The system then automatically sends a text message to the person containing the data and the total number of points saved.’

Every 3 months, customers can exchange their loyalty points for mobile phone credit, food or household items such as a stove, a fan, or money. The rewards are financed through a partnership with major brands such as Unilever, DHL, Coca Cola and GlaxoSmithKline. Together with a local NGO, Wecyclers is currently working on a system where you can transfer money directly to the school of the customers’ children.

‘18,000 households can earn extra money through waste collection’, says Olawale. ‘Some even turn it into a fully-fledged job’. After all, good collectors can earn 100 dollars or more in 3 months, whereas most Nigerians have to survive on less than 2 dollars per day.

 

Good collectors can earn 100 dollars or more in 3 months, whereas most Nigerians have to survive on less than 2 dollars per day.

An employee of Wecyclers collects plastic waste from a customer.
© Nyancho Nwanri Arete

In the meantime, Wecyclers also installed Kiosk collection points, partly with the support of Unilever. Olawale: ’These are intended for the better off who do not want to throw plastic bottles. They do not need to be paid.’

The great added value of Wecyclers is obviously that they provide clean and sorted rubbish to the waste processing companies. Employees remove, among others, the covers and caps from the plastic bottles and put green, brown or transparent plastic in separate bags.

 

5,000 tonnes of waste

So far, Wecyclers has managed to collect 5,000 tonnes of waste, accounting for 100,000 dollars in remittances. Considering that Lagos generates 15,000 tonnes of waste every day, this is of course a tiny drop in the ocean, but Wecyclers has undoubtedly set something in motion. For example, a group of people has become aware that waste definitely has a value. The government is gradually working on a more structural approach to the waste problem. And other companies started doing the same. ‘Competition is not a problem’, says Bilikiss, ‘the market is large enough.’

One question remains: shouldn't Nigeria aim for less plastic use, for example by providing quality tap water? ‘This issue is not a concern at all’, says Olawale. ‘The top priorities today are combating poverty and creating jobs. Moreover, plastic is almost the only material available. For example, glass is expensive and dangerous because it breaks.’

‘Let us not bury our heads into the sand’, he adds. ‘Nobody is concerned about the environment in Nigeria. That is why we have made a habit of recycling. Especially if we can encourage the children - and they are enthusiastic - then we can have a real impact. Recycling becomes part of their lives.’

 

Nobody is concerned about the environment in Nigeria. That is why we have made a habit of recycling. Especially if we can encourage the children - and they are enthusiastic - then we can have a real impact.

Olawale Adebiyi, ceo Wecyclers

King Baudouin Prize

Thanks to the ‘King Baudouin African Development Prize', Wecyclers has 200,000 euros in its hands. ‘One of the aims is to create a pleasant working environment for our employees by purchasing all kinds of materials such as laptops’, says Olawale. ‘We also want to continue building a strong team. With a well-functioning team and a solid formula in Lagos, we feel more confident to expand’, Bilikiss adds.

There is no lack of ambitions. By 2023, Wecyclers aims to involve 500,000 households. The company also wants to apply its strategy in other Nigerian cities and in neighbouring countries. ‘In the long run, we want to use the profits from waste collection to build a factory in Lagos that can transform plastic waste into new bottles’, says Olawale. ‘This way, our profits go back to our staff and our country. We do not aim for private profits, but for real fair trade in a circular economy.’

 

King Baudouin African Development Prize

 

Every two years, the King Baudouin African Development Prize recognises the work of African individuals or organisations who make an extraordinary contribution to Africa's development. It also draws the attention of the general public to the many inspiring stories of hope, effort and success in the field of development in Africa. The prize is awarded by the King Baudouin Foundation in the presence of HM King Philippe and HM Queen Mathilde.

 

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