Even though Nigeria’s capital Lagos is well on track to become the third largest economy in Africa, 8.5% of its population is still poor and one-fifth vulnerable to poverty. What exacerbates the problem is  population growth which will add another four million to the already crowded megacity by 2020.

With persistent poverty and population increase, one of Lagos’ most pressing problems is waste management – or rather the lack thereof. Only 40% of the city’s waste is collected and a mere 13% recycled. Particularly in Lagos’ low-income communities, which account for 60% of the city’s residents, issues such as lack of access and expensive collection schemes leave trash piling up in narrow streets.

Yet one woman has made it her goal to change that. A couple of years ago, Lagosian Bilikiss Adebiyi-Abiola decided to return to her home country and change waste management for the better. She founded the social enterprise Wecyclers – a rewards-for-recycling platform that incentivizes people in low-income communities to capture value from recyclable waste. With a fleet of cargo bikes – the so-called “wecycles” – waste is picked up and local residents rewarded points per kilograms, which they can use to buy essential goods such as food.

This system has won praise the world over and in 2014 Bilikiss and her team took home the Sustainia Award for the best sustainable solution. I caught up with Bilikiss to learn about her journey and ask what is next for Wecyclers.

Wecyclers has successfully boosted recycling in Lagos by driving behavioral change through the rewards-for-recycling platform. What inspired you to return to Nigeria to start the company?

I developed the idea behind Wecyclers during a social entrepreneurship course at MIT. I was looking for a business idea that I could implement in Nigeria and would address a pressing social challenge, improve the lives of households at the bottom of the economic pyramid (people living on less than $2 a day), and generate revenue that would sustain the business.

After the project was completed, I conducted additional research focusing on Nigeria and saw the huge potential in the waste recycling sector, especially among the manufacturing plants, which are hungry for a cheaper and easily available source of raw materials due to local and foreign demand for end products. I then decided to move the idea forward and Wecyclers was born.

I realized I was on the right career path because my work, which promotes a healthy environment and helps households create value from their waste, aligns with my passion for building sustainable models for waste collection and reuse. I’m using my background in computer science and technology to solve a critical societal challenge.

What was the main barrier to starting up Wecyclers?

A major challenge is funding. We are a social enterprise, so we are more focused on having a positive impact on communities than generating profit. We are always looking for companies and foundations that are willing to support our efforts.

Another constant challenge has been ensuring the supply of electricity to our hubs, which is essential for processing the recycled materials we collect.

We also have to deal with the negative perception that some people have of working in waste recycling as a dirty job. We are demonstrating that waste can be a source of wealth and that handling it well is good for our communities and the environment.

How many households in Lagos have signed up for Wecyclers’ platform so far? What are the challenges you face when you reach out to people?

At our last assessment, we realized that we have registered over 15,000 households for our collection service across Lagos and diverted over 3,000 metric tons of recyclable materials from landfills into productive reuse. In addition, we have created over 100 jobs and rewarded our subscribers with over €70,000 worth of gifts and cash prizes.

When we started in 2012, the initial response was mixed. People had to embrace a new idea and manage their expectations of what to receive in exchange for their waste. They needed to understand that the quality of the reward they receive depends on how much they recycle. Also, not many people appreciated the environmental impact initially.

However, once they started noticing that their environments were cleaner, they began to appreciate the service more. Things have moved forward steadily since then.

What’s next for Wecyclers? Are you planning to bring Wecyclers beyond Lagos to other parts of Nigeria?

Our plan is to continue expanding our operations and reach to encourage more communities to get involved in recycling. We recently opened a new hub in Ajeromi-Ifelodun Local Government Area.

I would like Wecyclers to operate all across Nigeria and my long-term goal is to be the largest recycling company in Africa.

Author: Joachim Marc Christensen