Only about 40% of the waste created in Lagos, Nigeria is actually collected by waste management companies. The other 60% is a breeding ground for many diseases, potential for increased flooding is heightened and the psychological effects of living in an environment with an increasing heap of rubbish is evident especially in low-income communities.
Meet Bilikiss Adebiyi-Abiola, CEO and Co-Founder of Wecyclers , who is changing the face of what used to be an obscure and vague concept of recycling in a country like Nigeria into something tangible, profitable and environmentally effective in cleaning up Lagos one community at a time.
With new reforms to transform waste management and sanitation in system in Nigeria, Bilikiss is here to solve a growing problem for Lagosians by incentivizing recycling directly on their mobile devices.
Bilikiss Adebiyi-Abiola was born in Lagos, Nigeria, into a family of 5. She attended Corona, Ikoyi, for her primary School, and then Supreme Education Foundation for Secondary School after which she proceeded to obtain t a Law degree at the University of Lagos, but ended up staying for just a year before leaving for the US to study Computer Science at Fisk University.
Bilikiss also bags a masters degree from Vanderbilt University and a MBA from Massachesetts Institute of Technology (MIT), Sloan School of Management. During Bilikiss’s second year in MIT, the drive to start a recycling business hit her.
While in school , Bilikiss studied waste as her specialised subject. She thought of a way to collect waste from households by offering them raffle tickets in exchange for their waste products. She discussed it with her family and friends in Nigeria when she was back home for the holidays. The response she got was amazing, and then, she knew she was on to something big, although most Americans didn’t exactly understand her idea at the time.
According to her ” We had been working on the idea for a while but it didn’t really take off. When you’re looking at something, you now start to notice other things, so that helped me see that waste is a problem. I got into MIT Sloan and started learning about people that live at the bottom of the income pyramid (people living on less than $2(N800) a day). While working on a project to help these households in developing countries, I decided to work on waste – focusing on its uses, collection and processing.”
Unlocking Nigeria’s Recycling Potentials
Now convinced by the mild validity she had gotten from her research, she returned to MIT and entered the school’s Ideas Global Challenge with her recycling plan, where she got immense support and encouragement to start up her business. This was after she and her brother had tried to run a scrap metal venture that didn’t go according to plan.
After the project was completed, she conducted additional research focusing on Nigeria and saw the huge potential in the waste recycling sector, especially among the manufacturing plants who are hungry for a cheaper and easily available source of raw materials due to local and foreign demand for end products. “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.”
The Birth of Wecyclers
After her education, she worked as a Software Engineer at IBM, one of the largest companies in the world building social networking software that served thousands of users at Fortune 500 companies. Her work was very important, but she always wanted to do something different. After five years, she quit her job and returned to Nigeria to pursue her dreams. In 2011, she Co-founded a recycling business with her brother, Olawale Adebiyi , and called it ” Wecyclers”.
By this time, Bilikiss Adebiyi-Abiola was already married, and would take a tricycle to do some plastic collections herself during the day in order to understand the business, while her children were away at school.
A Win-Win Game
What her company Wecyclers practically did was to collect recyclable waste items like plastic bottles, aluminum cans and plastic sachets from thousands of low-income households in Lagos, after which the contributors would receive points via SMS, which could then be exchanged for rewards like food products, blenders, bowls, mobile recharge cards, and a whole lot more.
In an interview with CNN, she said: “Every three months they have opportunity to redeem the points for something… So we give them really small gifts that just motivate them and encourage them to recycle.”
They use low-cost custom made cargo tricycles also known as Wecycles, to collect a large portion of the wastes, especially in areas where normal vehicles are unable to ply. Their highly effective structure enabled them collect aluminum cans and plastic bottles, which are then sorted and sold to larger recycling companies.
Reinventing Waste Management
Today , Wecyclers is not just a business doing waste, but is a movement around waste, which has helped over 5,000 Nigerian households, and had at 2015, collected up to 500 tonnes of waste and employed over 80 people.
She has successfully helped low-income communities in Lagos, through her company, earn money by helping to clean up the wastes that pile up on the streets. She hasn’t just also helped reduce unemployment, but has also projected that the waste industry can create up to 500,000 more jobs in the country.
In a state which has a population of over 18 million people and generates up to 10,000 metric tonnes of waste products daily, Bilikiss receives immense support from the Lagos State Waste Management Authority (LAWMA), whom are trying to double the volume of waste recycled in the state from the 18% figure published in 2011.
Wecyclers also has a partnership with Coca-cola and GlaxoSmithkline to collect their wastes and help subsidize their operations, because a bulk of the plastic wastes in the city of Lagos largely comes from these two companies.
As of 2015, Bilikiss has not just participated in various competitions and won, like the $55,000(N22m) Wecyclers won from the Case Foundation Pitch For Lagos, but was looking to raise an investment to the tune of $2,000,000(N800m).
I think being a woman is actually an advantage. I realized this very early in life. There are very few women in the technology field. I’ve benefitted from the fact that I’m usually the only woman in a sea of men. People want to hear more stories of women in tech and they have always encouraged me. I also think by nature, women are very good leaders.
I don’t stop to think of the fact that I am a woman. Of course, there are times when people treat me a certain way because I am a woman and then treat my male colleagues differently .
We are good multi-taskers, we are detail oriented and we rarely give up. I’m happy to be a woman and I would love to see more women step up an seize the many opportunities available, because there are many.
Two main challenges she faced are funding and the wrong perception of people towards waste management.
When she moved back to Nigeria, people were initially apprehensive. They didn’t know what to make of her obsession with waste. However, when they saw how passionate she was about her idea and how she was able to build and motivate her team, they also began to take interest.
Being a social entrepreneur in Nigeria is tough. It’s not easy to raise capital, especially compared to entrepreneurs in other countries. There have even been customers who didn’t support us because they felt we were making a lot of money from the trash we were collecting from them and they expected more expensive rewards than what they got, Billikis stated.
However , organizations, both local and international have been of immense help through grants and sponsorship to help augment the financial needs of the company. In terms of trying to change the perception of the people, they have been able to educate people about recycling. There are outreaches, educational lectures, and other awareness programs about proper waste management, disposal and the financial and environmental benefits of recycling.
Bilikiss Adebiyi-Abiola has since been heralded and spoken largely about in various countries like the United States, Nigeria, The United Kingdom, Germany, and on popular media outlets like The Independent, The Huffington Post, CNN, The Economist, and a whole lot more.
She has also won various awards like the Cartier’s Women Initiative for sub-saharan Africa in the year 2013, The Sustania Award, Seif Awards, and The Tech Awards.
Bilikiss Adebiyi-Abiola is also a memeber of the Employment Trust Fund in Lagos State, Nigeria.
Bilikiss Adebiyi-Abiola, although from an upper middle class family, is an example of a person who takes advantages of opportunities and chases them till she finds fulfilment. She follows her dreams irrespective of whatever anyone has to say, and constantly produces results no matter what setbacks she faces.
According to her , “If you want to become a social entrepreneur, uncover your purpose, match it to a need that exists, and be selfless. Don’t just focus on short-term results. You have to be ready to sell your dream for others to buy into it, and if you don’t really believe it, nobody else will. So, share your passion and share your story. You never know who could be inspired to support you.
Also, a woman must be outspoken, shouldn’t be afraid to be that talkative person in the room. Women are sometimes scared to be assertive and it works against them, they need to be more assertive and always speak up no matter what.