Wecyclers is a social enterprise which incentivizes people living in poor areas of Lagos to recycle their household waste, preventing it from piling up. Lagos born and raised Founder and CEO Bilikiss Adebeyi, previously worked at IBM and conceived of the idea whilst doing an MBA at MIT business school. At 31 she is a mother of two, and was recently chosen as a Laureate of the Cartier Women's Initiative Award.
Wecyclers uses special bicycles to peddle through these neighbourhoods, picking up bags of recyclable goods from subscribers, who earn points based on the weight of their trash. The point can then be cashed in for rewards, such as a blender.
The Africa Report: How bad is the waste problem in Lagos?
Bilikiss Adebeyi: Along with unemployment and infrastructure it's [among] the biggest challenges the city faces. But I must say that government is really doing an awesome job. I'm a mum, and I'm wired to give people credit. They have been incredibly supportive to us. They gave us an opportunity when we were just a team of students. They want to change things.
We want to expand to other Nigerian states, such as Ogon and Kanu. And then Cameroon, Ghana, Senegal. Maybe even India...
Who uses the service?
We see a lot of kids getting excited about us in the beginning. We drive through the neighbourhoods on Saturdays with music playing- usually the song "Iyanga" which translates to "your waste"- to raise awareness. The kids usually find the task of collecting the recyclable goods fun, but then they get bored of it. But by then their mothers might have picked up our leaflet and seen the incentives, and so they continue.
Why don't they recycle anyway?
Many of our customers are living in abject poverty and they love the incentives. Sometimes they say, "can I use my points to get a house, or a car," but I tell them this might take you a lot of years of recycling! For some of these people their immediate problem is not waste, it's survival. They aren't thinking about "the environment", and so the best way to train them is to incentivize them.
What kind of impact could Wecyclers potentially have?
According to our calculations Wecyclers has the potential of creating 500k jobs. If you take into account the construction of the bicycles, and the recycling bin attached, we will be needing welders, carpenters, painters, tailors. We will have to manufacture a lot of Wecycles if we're to eventually reach our target of serving a million homes. We aim to operate not just in slums but all over Lagos, even in affluent areas.
There is often a fine line between for-profit and non-profit in social enterprises. What does the Wecyclers financial model look like?
Currently we're not making enough money to cover our expenses. We are generating some revenue by selling branding to companies like Coca Cola and Nestle, who have their logos on our bikes. However the revenue we get goes straight to paying bills. We aim to be self-sufficient by 2016. In fact, the more revenue we generate [the more] our customers will benefit. The more we make the more the customer's points will be worth.
Why do you think you won the Cartier Award?
For one the jury members were from Africa, and when we talked about the problem of waste in Lagos they thought about it in their own countries and really got it. They saw it as something that can be replicated across Africa.
What's the next step?
We want to expand to other Nigerian states, such as Ogon and Kanu. And then Cameroon, Ghana, Senegal. Maybe even India... We also want to extend our choice of incentives to develop access to banks. A lot of our customers don't have bank account, so we are thinking of creating a system where if you have a certain amount of points the bank gives you a loan. Guaranteed by us, of course!