The custom-made tricycles driving Lagos’s slum waste revolution

By Teo Kermeliotis and Jessica Ellis, CNN
May 30, 2014 — Updated 1705 GMT (0105 HKT)
Wecyclers is a Lagos-based startup using an incentive-based program to deal with the waste problem in Lagos, the Nigerian megacity where more than 18 million people live. Wecyclers is a Lagos-based startup using an incentive-based program to deal with the waste problem in Lagos, the Nigerian megacity where more than 18 million people live.
 Every week, African Start-Up follows entrepreneurs in various countries across the continent to see how they are working to make their business dreams become reality.

(CNN) — It’s a bright May morning and the purple-shirted army of tricycle drivers is on the streets of Lagos once again. Eyes trained ahead, they zip past traffic on their specially-modified vehicles, dipping in and out of the Nigerian megacity’s slums.

This is the mobile division of Wecyclers, an innovative enterprise using an incentive-based program to help solve Lagos’s acute waste management problem.

Every week, the company’s cyclists peddle from door to door in low-income neighborhoods to pick up recyclable trash from registered households. Items like plastic bottles, aluminum cans and plastic sachets are all weighed and logged on site, and from there are taken to a specific sorting area where they’re bagged in order to be sold to recycling factories.

In return, participating households receive points via SMS. These can eventually be exchanged for rewards, mainly donated items ranging from bowls and blenders to food products and mobile phone air time.

“Every three months they have opportunity to redeem the points for something,” says Weclycers chief executive Bilikiss Adebiyi-Abiola. “So we give them really small gifts that just motivate them and encourage them to recycle.”

Stats by Lagos Waste Management Authority
INEZ TORRE/CNN

Lagos, a sprawling megacity of more than 18 million people, generates a massive 10,000 metric tons of waste daily, according to the city’s waste management authority. Only 40% of it is believed to be formally collected, leaving large quantities of rubbish blocking gutters and piling up on streets and outside houses — a major health and environmental hazard.

Entrepreneur makes money from trash

“Low income communities are the ones that are more affected,” says Adebiyi-Abiola. “(People) end up living in their waste, so we basically saw that there was a really big need to provide collection services for people that are living in the low-income areas.”

Born and bred in Lagos, Adebiyi-Abiola went to the United States at the age of 17. There, she trained and worked as a computer scientist, before enrolling to MIT for a masters in business administration. It was during that time, while working on a study project focused on the problems faced by people in low-income areas, when she came up with the idea to launch a company offering waste collection and recycling services in her hometown.

“I really love Lagos and I wanted to do something that would give back to it,” says Adebiyi-Abiola. “For me, the environment is really where it all starts,” she adds. “When you have a clean environment then you have health, when you have health then you can start thinking about money, jobs and things like that.”

Stats by Lagos Waste Management Authority
INEZ TORRE/CNN

Set up just a year and a half ago, Wecyclers has grown today to have some 5,000 households subscribed to its service. The startup has so far collected nearly 300 tons of waste, using a fleet of 16 low-cost cargo bicycles that are creatively designed to transport large cloth sacks of trash.

I want to show the whole world that this is something that can succeed.
Bilikiss Adebiyi-Abiola, Wecyclers CEO

In regards to recycling as a business, however, there are still many challenges faced by Wecyclers, which is yet to make a profit.

“We hope that as we grow and add value to the material we sell, then we hope to see profits come in,” says Adebiyi-Abiola, who employs 31 people.

Despite the problems, the entrepreneur has big plans for the future. She says she’s determined to keep on working to expand the service across Lagos and beyond and ultimately help to change people’s attitudes toward waste.

“I want to show the whole world that this is something that can succeed,” says Adebiyi-Abiola. “That we can create a low-cost way of solving the Nigerian problems, the Lagos problems, here, with Lagos solutions,” she adds.

“To show that we can have ingenuity and innovation here and almost create a movement around waste and make people realize the importance of recycling and the environment — I’m already seeing that but I want to see it on a really big scale all across Nigeria.”

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