By YUSUF MOHAMMED
They say education is the key to success in life. Well, Billkiss Adebiyi-Abiola, founder of Wecyclers has literally proved that right. What was once a school project has become a revolution in waste management in Africa’s most populous city, Lagos.
Wecyclers is a for-profit social enterprise that promotes environmental sustainability, socioeconomic development, and community health by providing convenient recycling services in densely populated urban neighbourhoods.
Due to a population of over 20 million, life in Lagos can present a number of urban challenges, especially for people living in slums. While Lagos is popular for beautiful houses and luxurious lifestyle, beneath the surface, there are many sanctuaries of poverty and want in the mega city. In fact some of these slums are very close to the posh environments.
Ilaje community in Bariga and Jakande on the Island are examples of slums in the midst of urbanization. Plastics bottles and takeaway packs are littered around the streets of Lagos, especially the rural areas.
Another problem in such communities is that they can’t afford to pay for the services of the Lagos Waste Management Agency (LAWMA). Often times they gather their dirt including the plastics and burn. This is another health hazard.
Adebiyi-Abiola, born and raised in Lagos is gradually changing the face of Lagos. Many people have been noticing that there is less dirt on the streets. For those who are not aware of the efforts of Wecyclers founded by Adebiyi in 2012, all credit is given to the Lagos State government for its new look. Not knowing that Adebiyi-Abiola’s company plays a huge role in keeping Lagos clean.
She conceived this idea when she moved to the United States to further her education. She had business in mind when she was moving to the U.S because she was studying for a Master of Business Administration at Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT). But Wecyclers was not on the card.
While she was in the U.S, she frequently returned to Nigeria to see her family during holidays. She said, “Going home, I noticed such a stark contrast in quality of life. I was really awoken by this.”
During her second year as Masters Student at MIT, she was studying waste as her specialist subject.
Her initial idea was to increase the quantity of waste she could collect from households by offering them raffle tickets in exchange. When she discussed this in Nigeria on a vacation she was surprised at the enthusiasm that was offered for her ideas. Waste is a particular nuisance in in Lagos.
Adebiyi took the idea back to MIT where she was able to gather support by entering her idea in competitions. Adebiyi’s husband had always been based in Nigeria so there was a good reason for her to return to Lagos, after her 2012 graduation.
Whilst her children were at school she commuted each day to establish her new recycling business that she called Wecyclers. When the business started Adebiyi would take out a tricycle to do collections to find out more about her new business.
What started out as a student project is now Wecyclers, changing lives for the better. It is a social enterprise that works with low-income households to tackle the city’s protracted waste problems. According to her, “When we began in 2012 only 40% of the city’s waste was collected and only a mere 13% was recycled.”
How it works is that residents sign up to the service and separate their plastic items for a weekly collection by the Weclyclers team, who move around town on a fleet of cargo-bikes.
In turn, these households who give out recyclable items receive their reward in cash or kind. They may get household items or money.
This incentive for keeping their environment clean has motivated other residents. A lady in Yaba who they call Mama Risikat said, “The first time I saw them was in 2015. They came to pack some plastics from my neighbours place and I saw them paying her some money. The following week, they shared exercise books and writing materials for her children in exchange for these plastics. I had to ask questions. As soon as I found out, I became a part of it.”
Anytime I see plastic bottles, I think of them.”
These waste items are sold to recycling plants which shred it to make new items such as tissue paper, nylon, plastic furniture, mattress and pillow stuffing.
“Waste is currently a big problem for people living in poor conditions, but I want to turn it into a solution,” Bilikiss says.
“It’s literally money just lying in the streets”: she estimates that metal and plastic waste in Lagos is worth around $700mn. By deploying a fleet of low-cost, environmentally friendly bikes into the narrow streets and alleys of the city’s slum neighbourhoods, Wecyclers can reach the rubbish that the municipal waste collectors are unable to get to.
Since launching seven years ago, Wecyclers has employed over 80 Lagosians, from cargo-bike collectors to waste sorters, who have cleared over 525 tons of waste from the streets and connected over 6,500 households to the service.
“Now, we’ve noticed that we’ve stopped actively reaching out to households to register people as more and more are coming directly to us. They want to be part of the movement,” Bilikiss says. “People see their friends getting rewards for clearing up, and they want the same thing. The incentive is there and people are really keen to do it.”
At the time of filing this report, efforts to reach the founder of Wecyclers, Mrs Bilkiss Adebiyi-Abiola failed.
BusinessHallmark however, was able to reach Ms. Bolalanle Olowu, Head of Business Development of the company. Speaking of the progress of the company, she said, “There has been massive improvement since it was founded in 2012. Our subscriber base has grown. We now have about 20,000 subscribers.”
She also stated that “Mrs Bilkis Adebiyi is no longer the CEO of Weclyclers. We have a new CEO. His name is Olawole Adebiyi.”