Wecyclers: Creating Wealth from Waste
Bilikiss Adebiyi, the visionary behind and creator of Wecyclers, believes in waste, and its ability to transform the lives of low-income families in Nigeria and beyond. The idea behind Wecyclers arose while she was a student at the Massachusetts Institute Of Technology (MIT) in Cambridge, U.S. Various guest speakers would attend a class of hers at MIT to discuss issues facing the poor. In that moment, it dawned upon Bilikiss that no Black speakers came to her class to speak on matters of unemployment and poverty, etc.; and as uncomfortable as it was to swallow, it made her wonder why ‘we’re not solving our own problems.’ Bilikiss wanted to take a crack at it in her country of origin, Nigeria. Fast-forward to today – Bilikiss is a recipient of the Cartier Women’s Initiative Award ’13, and Wecyclers is increasingly gaining global recognition (Tech Awards, CNN, The Africa Report, The Economist, BBC)
Bilikiss has worked at IBM as a software engineer, holds an MBA and an MA in Computer Science. Her academic and career trajectory was seemingly leading her down another path. So why waste? In this interview, Bilikiss explains the importance of waste, the urban waste crisis in Nigeria, and how perceptions surrounding waste and the environment are slowly transforming in the communities that Wecyclers services – in her own words.
What is Wecyclers?
Wecyclers is a social enterprise designed to help people in low-income communities capture value from their waste. When we started the idea, it was a solution that was focused at a problem faced by people located at the base of the pyramid, people earning less than 2 dollars a day. We wanted to tackle a problem faced by these people because when we went into their communities, they had a lot of waste and so many things happen as a chain reaction from having a dirty community. When you have a dirty community, you have blocked drainage, which leads to mosquitoes and flooding when it rains. We felt that taking away that part of the equation, the waste, would help people and empower them, and it would also educate them about waste and the value of recycling.
How exactly does Wecylers work?
Wecyclers works in partnership with the Lagos State Government. We sit down with government officials and they give us a community to work with; right now we’re working in Lagos, but are looking to expand into other communities. We set up a hub and have a bunch of wecycles – a low-cost cargo tricycle (see image below) – stationed at our hubs and our employees have a set of people that they service each week. People register to the service and there’s a predetermined day that the wecyclers go to their home with the wecycles to collect their plastic water bottles, sachets and cans. The household has already been told that they need to separate their recyclable waste. At the point of collection, the wecyclers weigh the waste, and then record it. They go to the next house and so on until the wecycles are full. The wecycles are then returned to the hub, the waste gets sorted out and then we sell it. Those homes we collected the waste from get an SMS saying that we collected so and so kilograms of waste from them and this is how many points they have accumulated. Every quarter they are given an opportunity to redeem prizes, for instance, household items and electronics, etc.
We incentivize people to give us their waste and by creating incentives, we’re teaching people proper behaviour. Now we’re seeing a movement that’s creating a collective awareness that we need to create for everyone in Nigeria and developing countries, there is so much importance in waste.
How have perceptions about recycling and the environment changed in the communities you service?
In the beginning, a typical customer didn’t understand why waste was so important. And then they would see us coming every week and see all of the waste that was being accumulated and sold. When you come to one of our sites, you see mountains of plastic and waste, and people cannot believe that they were living amongst so much waste. This is when it hits them. Some other people say that their gutters and streets are cleaner. Although the people who have woken up are still the minority, the early adopters are the ones who push the trend and are teaching people about the importance of cleanliness.
As someone who has lived, schooled and worked outside Nigeria for a substantial period of time, what advice do you have for Nigerians living in Diaspora who would like to, but are apprehensive about returning to Nigeria?
This is where you come from, these are your people. We have to do something and wake up. This is our time to step up. We can do something within our own little sphere of influence. Try to get involved. Look at people building companies; there’s a tide, a renaissance, and this is the time for smart and well-connected people to come and build start ups and solve the problems we’re facing. Every problem is an opportunity, from the infrastructure to the education and health system. This is an opportunity for you to come in and you’ll be surprised by the support you have, you can plug into places likes CcHUB and communities that will help you build up your idea.
What’s next for Wecyclers?
We have to keep growing. This isn’t a hobby. We’re building an industry, a movement. I want this to be the next Dangote, the next huge conglomerate built around waste and conservation. I think we can do it and I think you’ll see more and more of us innovating and building this company up.
Learn more about Wecylers on CNN African Start Up:
About: Tracy Ayodele
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