Empowering Lagos’ citizen by helping them achieve full autonomy through waste recycling? This is the crazy idea developed by Bilikiss Adebiyi-Abiola, CEO and co-founder of Wecyclers. In association with the waste management authority of Lagos, Wecyclers enables households that collect recyclable materials, to accumulate redeemable points which can be exchanged for consumer goods. In Paris for three days as part of the COP21, we had the opportunity to meet with the ambitious business woman.
Bilikiss is a pure product of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, better known as MIT, the famous American University with a long tradition of well-known and succesful Nobel Prize laureates. There, she obtained her MBA before working for 5 years as a computer scientist for IBM. A promising career which took a new turn 3 years ago when, following the footsteps of many « repats», the young Lagos-born decided to return home. “After the 2008 financial crisis, people began to realize that there was not that many career opportunities in the West. In the meantime, many economic studies began to tell a different story about Africa and countries such as Nigeria. Africa was then described as a growing economy, and a fertile ground full of opportunities for experienced professionals like me », says the thirty year-old who, moreover, has an idea in mind.
In a country where the crude oil revenue accounts for three quarters of the national budget and nearly 15% of the GDP, Bilikiss decided to think outside the box. “Why not take advantage of what is right under our noses? », she asked. In this case, she’s talking about the amount of waste littering the streets of Lagos ! Each day, the Nigerian metropolis produces 10 000 tonnes of waste, some of which are heaped on the ground and floats around in the open sewers. Only 40% of this waste is collected by the local government services in a city that currently has 18 million inhabitants, and whose population is expected to increase significantly in coming years.
Thus is born Wecyclers. The principle is simple: a fleet of bicycles is equipped to collect the recyclable materials directly from households in the poorest neighborhoods, where the local government trucks do not always get to. Families are encouraged to recycle bottles, plastic bags and aluminum cans, via an incentive program that works through SMS. Thus, for each kilo of recycled materials, the family receives Wecyclers points, which can then be used for the purchase of consumer goods or calling minutes.
A win-win bet if we take into account that, after collecting the various materials, Wecyclers sells them to local recycling companies and thus ensures a constant supply of goods sorted and ready to be recycled. “There is a real growth occurring in Nigeria, but we must ensure that this growth benefits everyone. I really wanted to develop a system in which everyone would benefit from, across all economic categories,” says Bilikiss. “That’s why I love the idea of using waste, because it is a renewable resource. The oil and the other resources will one day dry up, but the waste will always remain available “
Launched 3 years ago, the start-up is now operational in 2 districts of Lagos. A small beginning for the lady entrepreneur whose dream is to see this waste treatment model applied throughout Nigeria and why not in other African countries? “The important thing for me is that people realize that, wow, this plastic is valuable! It’s helpful! This ecosystem that is taking place in Nigeria will make us so much more powerful in terms of environment and sustainable development “.
All was however not easy and the young woman acknowledges that, without the support of her family, she would “probably have threw in the towel!” Another meaningful support in this adventure, is the Lagos State department, which has made available to Wecyclers a plot of land in order to develop its activity.
« Can you imagine ? With the price of land in Lagos? They gave it to us for free because they believed in the potential and the impact that Wecyclers would have” she exclaimed with enthusiasm. “Lagos State did a fantastic job but they need support, new policies, funding too …” she continues. “Developed countries must take responsibility for the damage they have caused to the environment and financially support the development of countries like Nigeria!”
Bilikiss’ work in high density and low income areas of Lagos is part of the process of building a more environmentally and economically stable Nigeria. Her action with Wecyclers has already been awarded many honors including the prestigious Cartier Women’s Initiative Award (award for women entrepreneurs worldwide) in 2013. Last year, Wecyclers won the Sustainia Prize, the most prestigious in the environment world.