Bilikiss Adebiyi-Abiola From Nigeria Helps The Lagos Poor To Generate Cash From Trash

“Waste has a value. Waste is a currency,” says Bilikiss Adebiyi-Abiola, the founder of WeCyclers, a social enterprise that is helping people in Lagos find cash in their trash.

Bilikiss Adebiyi-Abiola grew up in Lagos, Nigeria, a city that has become a stark symbol of the world’s garbage crisis. She saw how the unhygienic living conditions caused diseases like malaria to spread.

She went to the US to study when she was 17, and would come back to Lagos for the holidays. The wide gap in the quality of life in both countries really shook her, and she was inspired to do something for her community.

While studying for her MBA at MIT, she took a class named Development Ventures. The focus of the class was on helping the poorest of people –people who earned less than $2 a day. It was as a project for this class that the idea for WeCyclers emerged. As part of the project, she visited Lagos and ran two “recycling days,” during which she told people that they could receive rewards for recycling. This received an overwhelming response. Encouraged, she decided to expand the idea into a social enterprise – WeCyclers.

It wasn’t easy. “People might think that it’s dirty; it’s not something a woman should do. I saw the opportunity that was there in this field and I also saw the impact it could have on people’s lives. And that is what drove me,” she affirms.

Here is how WeCyclers operates:

  • Specialized tricycles designed and manufactured locally and are operated by youth from local communities, travel across the city collecting waste from households.
  • The WeCycle operators weigh the garbage, and the weight is entered into a SMS points platform to automatically generate a personalized SMS. Each family receives points for each kilogram of garbage.
  • The garbage from all the households is taken to a centralized hub.
  • It is then separated and processed, and sold to recyclers in Nigeria and abroad.
  • The points accumulated by the households are redeemed for rewards like basic household items, mobile phone minutes and sponsored prizes.

WeCyclers has not only shown the people of Lagos the value of recycling, but also has generated employment opportunities for the local youth. Not to mention the other ways in which it is improving lives. “In terms of social impact, it is really making a difference at street level. There is less pollution and less flooding. People say their neighbourhoods are cleaner and their kids seem healthier,” she says.

She acknowledges that there are challenges like human capital issues, bureaucracy and inefficiency. But remains hopeful, saying that “I really believe this is the best time to be an African start up. This is Africa’s time and we as Africans need to seize this opportunity to contribute our quotas to our respective countries.” She plans to expand WeCyclers beyond Lagos, and even Nigeria.

Wecyclers has won multiple awards, including, the Cartier Women’s Initiative Award, Tech Award, Echoing Green Fellowship, MIT D-lab Scale-ups fellowship, MIT IDEAS Venture Grant, Yunus Challenge Prize at the MIT IDEAS Global Challenge Competition, Carroll Wilson Fellowship and is a Sustainia100 company. WeCyclers has also been featured in well renowned publications and news channels like The Economist, CNN, Al Jazeera, The Punch, BBC, Marie Claire Magazine, New African Woman, and The Independent among others.

Lagos, a city of more than 18 million people, reportedly generates 10,000 metric tonnes of garbage a day, and only 40% of it is collected. The garbage problem in Nigeria is a huge health and environmental hazard. Thanks to Bilikiss Adebiyi, and WeCyclers, there seems to some hope for a better future.

The theme of International Women’s Day, 2019, which falls on March 8th, is “Think equal, build smart, innovate for change”. #IWD2019

With women still a minority in science, technology & related innovation, it’s time to shine a spotlight on female innovation champions! Enjoy our Women Innovators Around The World series, where we profile 19 inspiring women innovators, from 19 countries, whose work has a big social impact.

Want to know what other innovations women around the world have pioneered? Read about Masue Katayama and Seiko Adachi here.

Image source: YouTube

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Vijayalakshmi Harish is a book blogger and writer. To paraphrase her librarian, she is a

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