THE BLOG
09/16/2014 04:59 pm ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

Garbage in, Money Out: My Stroll With Bilikiss Adebiyi-Abiola

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When you think of garbage collectors, what comes to mind? Unfortunate poor illiterate men and women who are not certified enough for more 'honourable' jobs right? Yeah. This stroll is for you.

After 13 years in the US; with university degrees, an MBA from MIT, and work experience from Fortune 500 companies, Bilikiss decided to do the unexpected. She returned home to Nigeria to co-found a waste recycling company, Wecyclers, and her vision is enormous. To transform the lives of people with garbage, create jobs, and help build the economy of her beloved motherland, Nigeria, whom she sacrificed a comfortable life abroad for.

What gave her the faith and hope to make such a decision? And how does she plan to make this vision a reality? These are few things we talked about in course of our conversation. Sit back and enjoy. Here's my stroll with Bilikiss;

Ebenezar: It's a pleasure having you on the stroll Mrs Abiola.

Bilikiss: I'm glad to be here, thanks for having me.

Ebenezar: So, I'll like to start from the part of your story that swept me of my feet when I first read about you. You worked at IBM for 5 years, have an MBA from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, BA and MS from US Universities, 13 Years of life in the US. Why did you come back to start a garbage company? It's just mind blowing!!!

Bilikiss: I think being a software engineer gives me the toolkit with which to solve the kind of large-scale problems we are tackling at Wecyclers. Wecyclers came from a class I took while at MIT called Development Ventures. The class focuses on problems faced by people living at the base of the pyramid. I'm fascinated by waste, I've always been an avid recycler concerned with the impact human beings have on the planet. I think my being at Wecyclers was in some way inevitable. Every experience I've had prepared me for the work I'm doing now.

Ebenezar: Wow, "fascinated by waste...", That's really interesting interesting Mrs Abiola. Okay, so what is Wecyclers about?

Bilikiss: Wecyclers gives households a chance to capture value from their waste while providing a reliable supply of materials to the local recycling industry. Wecyclers works in partnership with the Lagos Waste Management Authority (LAWMA) and collects recyclable waste, including plastic bottles, plastic bags, and aluminum cans, at the household level using low-cost bicycle-powered collection vehicles called "wecycles".

The wecycles are designed and manufactured locally and are operated by youth from local communities. The wecycle operators cover specific neighborhood collection routes to collect material from households. At collection, operators weigh each household's materials. The weight of material that each household recycles is entered into our SMS points platform to automatically generate a personalized SMS. Wecyclers rewards households with redeemable points based on the volume and quality of recyclables that they give us.

Ebenezar: Wow, really cool.

Bilikiss: Yeah, once the wecycles collect material from their routes they return to Wecyclers' central processing hub. At the hub, Wecyclers aggregates materials from across all the wecycles to further process and then sell into secondary markets at premium pricing. As households accumulate points over time, they can redeem their points for specific rewards depending on their level of participation. These rewards include basic household items, mobile phone minutes and sponsored prizes making the benefits of recycling tangible.

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Since August 2012, Wecyclers has registered over 5,000 households for our collection service, built 29 operational collection cargo bikes and collected over 300 metric tons of recyclable materials. Wecyclers has developed strategic partnerships with leading companies including the Nigerian Bottling Company, DHL and Coca-Cola.

Ebenezar: Oh my goodness...

Bilikiss: Wecyclers is the recipient of 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. Our work has been highlighted in The Economist, CNN, Al Jazeera, The Punch, BBC, Marie Claire Magazine, New African Woman, The Independent among others.

Ebenezar: Wow, wow, wow. That's all i can just say right now. You're doing a very great job Ma'am. Wow.

Bilikiss: (Hahah) Thank you Ebenezar

Ebenezar: So what do you think about the Waste management system in Nigeria(Africa) compared to the one we have in the west, especially America where you're coming from?

Bilikiss: I think the waste management space in Nigeria is still budding but is very much alive. There are a lot of really passionate people in the Nigerian waste management space working hard, doing amazing things. We have been very fortunate to have a lot of media exposure but I would love to bring attention to the Lagos Waste Management Authority for their leadership as well as the many young people working hard to make a living from waste.

Ebenezar: You're often referred to as a waste economy builder. Do you think developing and under-developed countries around the world can actually build their economy through proper waste disposal and recycling?

Bilikiss: I think my being referred to as a waste economy builder has to do with my desire to help build an economy based on waste. Currently, everything is done informally, there is a lot of information asymmetry, I believe this lack of structure breeds inefficiency within the system. For example, there are several waste pickers working in the dump here in Lagos. They spend hours picking waste but they are at the mercy of buyers. I'm not saying the buyers are bad people, but different buyers can set different prices based on their specific working condition. The waste picker doesn't have access to all the prices from all the buyers so he goes with the best he knows. This also affects us as a formal company. There is no uniformity in pricing. I would love to see us have a Nigerian commodity exchange for waste where everyone has access to current prices and price trends. Information is power, this will enable people plan and will really boost our waste economy.

I definitely think developing countries can build their economies through waste. One of the biggest drivers for the economy is jobs. According to the REI, the US recycling sector employs well over 1.25 million people, I believe that recycling alone can create at least 500,000 jobs in Nigeria.

Ebenezar: Talking about the economy, let's look at the business side of all this. You were featured on CNN's African start up, to talk about how Wecyclers converts waste to wealth to develop rural communities in Nigeria. What's the major challenge you think African Start ups are facing?

Bilikiss: We are the first recycling venture that practices community engagement. We work to build communities in the neighborhoods we operate in by empowering community members with their waste.

The major challenge African start ups face in my opinion is the added difficulty that comes from operating in African countries. African start ups have to battle with human capital issues, bureaucracy, systemic inefficiency among other things. This being said, 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.

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Ebenezar: In what ways can the government come in to help these start ups?

Bilikiss: In my opinion, apart from providing funding, business education and access to low interest loans, government can support start ups by working to create policies that encourage business. For example, there is no policy mandating recycling in Nigeria. If there was, I'm sure there would be several companies in the recycling space because, since people would be forced to recycle, there would be ample business opportunity. I understand that it's a bit premature to mandate recycling but it would be fantastic if government could have start ups sit at the table with them as they draft legislation in order to help build a road-map for the various sectors.

Ebenezar: Are there plans of expanding Wecyclers beyond Lagos?

Bilikiss: Absolutely! We plan to expand to other parts of Nigeria and even to other countries. We will be the foremost recycling company in Nigeria and beyond.

Ebenezar: Okay, Coming back to you, do you see yourself going back to software engineering anytime soon?

Bilikiss: No, I don't think so. I love talking software and I can probably still write very good code, but I don't see myself going back to being a software engineer.

Ebenezar: Finally, many Nigerian and African youths feel their lives are limited except they go abroad, or it's not possible to achieve great success here on the continent. Having experienced both continents, what's your advice to them?

Bilikiss: That's a really hard question, Ebenezar. What do you tell someone that has experienced so many challenges like university strikes, lack of jobs when they are looking for a better life in another country? I think it's very possible to achieve great success here on the continent but I'm going to quote someone who said travel is education. Young people need to be exposed, they need to see how things are done in other countries but they should always know where they come from and do their best to return. I stayed in the US for 13 years and it was a really amazing and educative experience, but I am really, truly glad I came back. I'm a better person for it.

Ebenezar: Thank you so much for making out time to speak with me Mrs Abiola, I wish you all the best with Wecyclers.

Bilikiss: Thanks for having me Ebenezar. All the best.
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For more about @bilikiss, visit wecyclers.com