Empowering communities through recycling: an Interview with Bilikiss Adebiyi-Abiola, the recycling queen of Africa (Episode 8)

You can read the transcript of the interview below or here

Image from @realwecyclers

Transcript 

Edusounds: Today, I am interviewing Mrs. Bilikiss Adebiyi-Abiola, the CEO and co-founder of Wecyclers. She founded Wecyclers with Jonathan Kola and Alexandra Fallon. She is passionate about significantly impacting people’s lives in Nigeria through waste recycling. She is a graduate of MIT Sloan business school in the US. She gained significant amount of experience in waste reprocessingShe has MBA from MIT in 2012 and MSc in computer science from Vanderbilt University, and she has worked with some of the fortune 500 companies in the US and she used to be a software engineer before she moved into recycling.

EduSounds: Hi

Bilikiss: Hi, Thanks for having me.

EduSounds: Its nice meeting you. Can you talk a bit more on you getting into recycling?

Bilikiss: Wecyclers was pretty much a venture that started from school while I was a student, but I have always been fascinated by recycling because I schooled in Nigeria till I was 16. So I had my secondary school and then bit of my university education in Nigeria. During that time I was living in Lagos, it was not so clean as it is now. So we’ve always been thinking about how best to do something about the sanitation. My brother and myself were actually working on different ventures, we were trying to raise money but we couldn’t. While I was a student the opportunity for Wecyclers came up and something like the issue we’re struggling with at Wecyclers, which is the issue of recyclable waste, plastics and other kind of things came up. They really resonated with me and like you said, I joined some of my class mates specifically Alexandra Fallon. Alex was the classmate of mine at MIT Sloan and we and some other people kept on talking about the ideas and kind of put something together that we tested. So I actually travelled to Nigeria to check some of the concepts to actually make sure that we have something that makes senseAnd then went back to school and spend some time building a team and building the business model and raising funds for set-up. We actually launched in august of 2012.

EduSounds: Yeah, that’s brilliant. It is interesting that you saw it as a social problem to start with while you were still a teenager which is rare to be honest. The most interesting thing to me actually is that, I could remember around early 2000s, the Lagos state government had this policy where they banned the local cart pushers from disposing waste. Personally, when I was in the university in Ife, I was a bit interested in recycling and I used to read some journals from the United Nations, UNESCO precisely in the late ’90s and early 2000s about recycling and I could remember then they talked about a project in Spain where they were paying the local waste disposal guys. So, when Lagos state government banned them, I had that mind-set that but in Spain, I read years back that they were doing this. So when you came in, you kind of navigated around all those issues and you seem to have harmonized both parties. How did you get to do that?

Bilikiss: One of the biggest realities that we were facing was the fact that, as students and as a startup, there was limited capital. We didn’t have the money we wanted, we needed to do something that we could do with a very small budget. We wanted to make sure that the solution was something that will work in Lagos and in other parts of Nigeria, so we have like very small road networks, densely populated areas and we embraced that and that’s really how the idea for the bicycle came. We knew that if we looked at the cost involved in running a waste management infrastructure, it’s enormous. The 2014 budget for Lagos state, just for waste management was about N6 Billion Naira. You can imagine that kind of money and that was not even enough for them to do everything they had to do in that sector. So if you really want to really invest, we should be talking about a 100 billion and that number is actually supported by the private sector that is actually picking-up in the waste sector in Nigeria.

One of the methods that came out in the waste sector in Lagos sometimes ago, [Inaudible 5:59] with a private investor talking about 85 Billion Naira and just [inaudible 6:02] and all kind of things. So you can imagine how huge the investment is and you have not started talking about recycling plant and other investment that you need to do a standard thing. So we knew that, if you really want to do recycling very well it’s going to cost you billions of Naira and we wanted to do something that will take care of the cost. The fact that there is really not that much capital available; the waste sector is a new sector, people are not really, especially local investors, they are not really comfortable with investing such huge amount of money in the waste sector. So how do you show them the value in a cheap way? And that’s really what we set out to do.

We wanted to do something that will show people that look, waste sector is a very huge sector in terms of investment. It is something that will never go away, everybody generates waste and if you are able to have a good solution in that sector and capture people and start forming like a scale-up, there is really no limit to how much money you can make. That for us was the end gain, but we also saw that there was a lot that was lacking in people’s life, mostly in the low-income communities, where you have people that do not have a reliable collection of waste; they need to result to the cart pushers. The problem with those cart pushers was that, even if they collect the waste, they will just go and dump it at an illegal dumpsite and they were adding to the problem because the PPP are not engaging them on hazardous waste and non-hazardous waste, it is one issue that they don’t really think about. We wanted to do something to show those people in those communities that they should stop disposing of their waste in a way that ultimately impacts them, because it leads to blocked drainage, flooding, pollution, loss of productivity and so many issues that we face that they did not realize. So we wanted to kind of take everybody along with us on that journey to open up their eyes to the waste sector, and the kind of classic story of any social entrepreneur is that you have a huge problem that the government are struggling to solve, but because you are a social entrepreneur, by virtue of that you can only do it in a small way. You have to do it in a very small and low cost rate and that really allowed us to kind of marry everything along, because you have to look at it in terms of driving it in a way that – I do not have the government support but I am trying to solve government’s problem at the same time. So I think that is really what has pushed us to fill that gap through the Wecyclers’ model.

EduSounds: Wow, that’s fantastic! One of the things I noticed when I went through your twitter page was that during the early days, it was like a lone-ranger kind of project, you were all alone. There is a particular picture of yours where you were backing like crates of waste and you were standing alone and then the more ‘you’ look at more recent pictures, gradually you start seeing people coming into the picture and that gives me an impression that – this was like a self-driven project initially, and then you were able to co-opt people into it. So, how did you get a lot of people to join, you know how people look at waste generally and how some people look at people that are involved in disposing waste, even for them, their own waste, the waste they generated. So, how did you get people to get on-board?

Bilikiss: What a good question and it’s very [inaudible 10:15], so overtime it became a bigger thing. You know initially the idea for Wecyclers wasn’t only my idea, it was a group of people that came out with the idea, they were already working on it before I even joined the group. We were in the same class and we were all talking about waste. Lots of people from my class, we were all in different groups and I wasn’t in a group, I didn’t have a group because I was doing my own practical idea. But this other guys, mostly Americans, and they were coming up with this idea of waste for water. So they said you know what, let’s have this idea where we will go to the school, we will tell them to give us waste and we will just give them water. And quickly, you know when I joined the group, I told them that’s really not the way it works because African people are very proud, they will never give you waste for their water, they want to have a point, they want to be able to say look, I want this. And also, we need to think about scalability, we have to think about many people, you know when you look at PPP, people think that Africa is so poor, but it’s not really that poor. People have water, they want other things in their lives. So we had this model and I think our group was about five people initially and it dropped down to two people; so it was me and Alex Fallon. We had couple of months where it was just two of us. Then, Jonathan Kola joined us. And this was during the time when we were still [inaudible 11:55] before we even came to Nigeria. We came to Nigeria in August of 2012, so it was three of us.

Alex had to go back to America and it was just me and Jonathan for a very long time, which was about almost two years. We were working together, he was doing software and I was more of the operations and the CEO, so I was doing more of the interviews and talking, so if you see pictures and you see only me, probably because he was doing something else because we had a lot of work and we were a small team. As time went by, we started to attract people to the cause, you know we started with 3 people and now we have about 120 people that are working for Wecyclers today. And it really started from literally just one-by-one. You have one bicycle, go and collect from this person, sell to that person, everybody is doing every job. So there was not a job that this person could not do, everybody was working together. And I think in terms of the subscribers, I initially, I think to an extent some people still look at waste as a dirty thing, they don’t want to be involved in it at all. I think as people started opening their eyes and they started getting more educated, they began to see that waste is something that is good, that we can embrace and I can’t tell you like how many times how happy it makes me when subscribers come to me and tell me, I initially joined Wecycylers because I wanted to get points but now I see my community, my gutter is clean, I like the way my community is. For me I think that’s what it’s about, showing people that even though they didn’t know before, it’s not too late to protect their environment, keep the community clean, make their lives better.

EduSounds: That’s interesting, I know I have never met you in person – physically, but what I can say is that you seem to be a people’s person to be honest, because from what I can observe from your pictures on social media, you have this kind of horizontal management style, you use the same tops and polo-shirts with your staff, even the cart pushers. Sometimes you have your videos on twitter and you are there on the street with staff and I am like – how does she get to do all these?

Bilikiss: I guess now I am not doing as much because we have a very good team. From the beginning we have a very flat system and it’s just we are getting bigger now we are now having more the [inaudible 15:18] managers and all that, but everybody knows that everybody is important, everybody has a voice. So I always say that, I think people that are doing the work, they are actually the ones getting on the bicycles, we call them Wecyclers. They created their own niche. [Inaudible 15:44] Like sometimes they make a lot of money, it’s an earning job you will find in any country around the world. There are some people in America that are riding bicycles carrying waste. People in China do it, people in India do it. It’s really not a waste, it’s a raw material, people actually buy that waste that we look at as dirty and disgusting. They buy and they use it in their factories, so it’s more of a resource job. If you look at LAWMA, they don’t call their scavengers, scavengers. They call them resource managers, all those guys you see that are picking waste, they are not scavengers, they are resource managers because they are packing resources – waste and it’s actually a resource. It is a natural resource that we should try not to waste. Back to what I was saying earlier, I believe the people that are doing the work; it is a physical job, very stressful. And if they don’t work we won’t have the waste. We as managers at Wecyclers, we really value them a lot and we really value their opinion, so they can tell us I like this, I like that, let’s do it this way, let’s do it that way. And they have really supported the company, they given their [inaudible 17:05] into the company, because there have been times when the company struggled to pay their salary on time, all those kind of things, but they still worked, they are still satisfied. They believe in what they are doing, for me that’s really amazing.

EduSounds: Yeah, it is. It is interesting you talked about the issue of money, because I know those guys when I was still living in Lagos, what they could make in a day. So whenever I look at your tweets online, I’m thinking – how do these guys get to engage these guys to work for them? Because I know what they could make. The remuneration to work under someone and when you are working on your own and you are already earning a lot. So, you said family men are now part of the crew?

Bilikiss: Yes

EduSounds: That’s quite interesting. I think recently you got into a project with the Lagos state government about Youth employment.

Bilikiss: Ok, you mean, the Lagos state employment trust fund.

EduSounds: Yes, I think something like that. That’s It. It seems the government is using Wecyclers as a model?

Bilikiss: Yes, government has been fantastic. Lagos state government. When we first started, they were very supportive of our model and you know it’s a new model. They really embraced it because they have a very big vision for Lagos state. They gave us a space for free and you can imagine how much rent is in Lagos. If we had to pay rent, it would have been a lot of money. And that’s because they saw the value, they saw that we were actually helping them because we are collecting the trash and saving them money, so they don’t have to send trucks to go and pick the waste. We are picking it for them and we are keeping the community clean. It was a win-win.

EduSounds: I mean, I could remember PSP. In the early 2000s, there used to be this Private Sector Partnership for waste disposal in Lagos and the government used to pay them a lot, I think. And a lot of blocked drainage…

Bilikiss: … and they had a lot of problems, especially in lower-income areas because people did not want to pay.

EduSounds: People took it for a given that – we never used to pay for disposing our waste.

Bilikiss: Yeah and people don’t realize that you have to pay. It’s actually something you have to pay for, because it’s a service.

EduSounds: I will like to talk about this your education program, you have a very extensive education program, you are constantly sharing brochures, flyers within the local communities, for young children with a lot of visuals which I find interesting. This concept, ordinarily, I don’t know, for someone that has interest in education. Is one of the founders or the founders of Wecyclers educationists or what?

Bilikiss: We are actually not. Alex is really into the education field, so after she stopped working with Wecyclers she actually went to work with an education startup.

EduSounds: … because your drive using different models in education to engage communities and young people. People of different backgrounds, culturally, income wise, whatever background you want to put people in, you seem to like integrate them and speak their own language at their own level, whatever the level is; advance or low. Which I think is unique.

Bilikiss: I think what really helped us was because we were listening to our staff. We go there, we start with something, and they will tell us we are having issues, the people are not responding or the customers would come and complain. And we always like to try new things, so let’s try this, let’s try this. And that, actually helps us to come up with something that works. So we have different languages, we use pictures. So if anybody takes our flyers they understand it, no matter who the person is, even if the person cannot read and write, they will understand it and that’s our goal because that’s really our target market. We have seen some people that some of them don’t even have education…

EduSounds: …Yes, that’s what fascinates me as someone that is into education. To communicate with the street person, I think that will be the dream of any educationist to be honest. Talking about your education program, you engage with secondary schools?

Bilikiss: Yes

 

EduSounds: Then you have your street projects where you engage with the local communities

Bilikiss: Yes

EduSounds: So do you invite the schools in or do they reach out to you?

Bilikiss: Most of the time, the schools reach out. What we do directly, because we do a bunch of things. We do somethings in-house and we do somethings in partnership with other organizations. So what we do in-house, if any school wants to come and do like an excursion, they can contact us and visit our site and we would take them on a tour of what we do, that is one; we also work in partnership with NGOs that work on education. For instance, there is one called KidsMedia, there is also another one called KidsClean Club, so we work with them. So they do their outreach, we support them and then we come in and do more of the logistics of collecting the waste. For instance, you can go to a school and teach the children there how to recycle and we would just come in and collect things from the school and also give them the points because every time you give us waste, you can earn points by giving us waste. That’s really how we work with schools.

EduSounds: So, is it like now, do you have a designed toolkit to give out to schools to integrate into their curriculum for instance to use with the kids to educate them continuously about recycling?

Bilikiss: What we do is – we focus mostly on the recycling side. So we have a team that if a school asks us, we can actually go and talk to them and give talk to the school, show videos, explain to them why it is important for them to recycle, answer questions that they have. You will be surprised what the kids know, especially if they have any questions that they want to understand better, but we are more about the practical side because we want to do something that can be sustained. So we just teach how to recycle and collect. We have also seen people that do up-cycling, so they take waste and turn into something amazing. There was a child that took noodle wrappers and made it into an apron and a cap, you know, which is really fascinating.

EduSounds: …Really?

Bilikiss: Yeah

EduSounds: Am hearing a lot of good news from you guys. So, the challenges you are facing as an organization in terms of human capital, I think you raised that in one of your interviews some years back.

Bilikiss: Ok, you wanted to know – what are the challenges that we are facing?

EduSounds: Yes, I mean as a startup in Nigeria. Not necessarily from the financial end, that’s obvious. Maybe human resources in terms of training, policy. For instance, where I live in the UK, you can’t dispose the wrong waste in the wrong wheeler bin. You get fined by the local authority. So recycling is part of what you do even though you pay to dispose your waste, recycling is still part of what you are to do.

Bilikiss: It’s actually compulsory right?

EduSounds: Yes. If you put the wrong waste in the wrong bin and the disposal guys come and they pick it up. They could fine you; minimally they will refuse to take the waste away.

Bilikiss: You asking me what the challenge is?

EduSounds: Yes

Bilikiss: Several challenges and you touched on one of them in terms of policy. I think for me, my biggest problem is getting people to just first of all know that there is [inaudible 25:01], they should be recycled. [Inaudible 25:03] teach people one-by-one about recycling, imagine going into a new community now, we have to engage them one at a time and explain what it is that we are doing and why they should do it. But if it was like something that they had to do because there was a policy, like a law, the government would have done that sensitization. It would be done from all levels, schools, community development association, all those kind of institutions would be carried along. So I think that makes our work very hard and very stressful. I think another issue, is also the fact that, you know we give people incentives, so that’s costly because we are actually paying for the incentives. So in a way we are giving them a portion of profit and in other countries they have laws that protect that service. Basically, they set aside a fund and that fund is the one that funds the incentives and the collection program. Having that also will make our work really easy as well because we wouldn’t have to, we would be very sustainable and would be able to scale up really fast. And then you know like normal things that you have in Nigeria around human resources, we have been very fortunate, we have gone through a lot but now we have a very good team of people. We kind of know what the formula is, for somebody to do well in Wecyclers. So before we hire people, we always screen them very well but we do have turnover of people for one reason or the other, that’s actually another challenge. I would say another challenge is, I mentioned public awareness and that, also even on the waste stream because not all the waste that should be recycled can be recycled in Nigeria. I don’t know if I am making sense?

EduSounds: Absolutely

Bilikiss: So things like Styrofoam, like PPlike plastic sachets, not pure water sachets but like sachets that they keep soaps and other things. They should be recyclable but they are not because the technology is probably too expensive or something or the other and that’s actually a problem because we are not diverting and we should be diverting waste from land.

EduSounds: …because I know recently, maybe some months back. I think your organization had 2 million dollars funding or something like that?

Bilikiss: 2 million dollars? Oh, not yet.

EduSounds: Alright, is it that you are vying for it?

Bilikiss: 2 million? No, we were not.

EduSounds: Alright, I must have got something wrong there. I was just thinking, where I live the population of the city is not up to 700,000 but there is a project going on for 175 million pounds for recycling…

Bilikiss: Wow, you can imagine.

EduSounds: …compared to Lagos with about 18 or 20 million population you can see what we are talking about.

Bilikiss: And you will be surprised that, that’s the fantastic thing about Nigeria, we have the population, so for instance in your town or county they are investing so much money but they might not have enough waste to be profitable.

EduSounds: …Sometimes, Yeah. I mean the population can only generate so much waste, isn’t it? So at the end of the day, it’s dealing with what you’ve got. It has been quite enlightening, interesting, and fantastic talking to you to be honest, and I do wish Wecyclers all the best in future. And I hope we will see more of you guys and I hope in the next 5 to 10 years you guys will become a multinational and your dream of becoming the main waste management company in sub-Saharan Africa will come to reality.

Bilikiss: Thank you, I hope so too. And I wish you the best. It was really nice talking to you.

EduSounds: Yes, thanks a lot.

 

In this conversation, we discuss many issues, amongst which are:

  • How a group assignment at MIT led to Wecyclers
  • How Wecyclers is helping to reduce exposure to criminal activities among youths
  • Wecyclers’ rewards system
  • Challenges of pioneering recycling business in Nigeria
  • Wecyclers focus on education

Enjoy!

  • Listen to this episode on Mixcloud
  • You can listen to the previous episode here

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