Recycling while cycling

In densely populated Lagos, uncollected trash piles up high, the detritus of Africa’s rapid urban growth. Like many cities, Lagos, with its 12 million inhabitants, produces a lot more garbage than its over-taxed and under-resourced municipality is able to collect—10 000 tonnes of waste each day, of which only around 40% is collected, and of that 13% is recycled.

The massive untapped volumes left behind could potentially fuel nascent plastic and metal recycling industries to the tune of $700 million, giving a boost to Nigeria’s manufacturing sector, according to Lagosian waste entrepreneur Bilikiss Adebiyi. Instead, at present, ubiquitous plastic bottles, metal tins and drinking water sachets litter the streets and clog municipal drains, giving rise to flooding and waterborne diseases, and adding to the everyday stresses of living in this noisy, congested city.

To address this gap in the market, Adebiyi co-founded Wecyclers, a local start-up that has introduced a bicycle-powered pick-up service for household recyclables. On Lagos’s gridlocked streets, it turns out, bicycles are far more efficient than trucks for recovering the small but steady streams of recyclable waste produced at household level, and channelling it on to recyclers.

Wecyclers has deployed a small fleet waste collectors, operating in several low-income neighbourhoods of Lagos, who pedal from household to household on sturdy, purpose-built cargo bikes, pulling carts for the recyclables. So far, more than 6 600 households have registered for the service, and 600 tons of material has been collected and sold on to recyclers, who have used the materials to produce plastic bowls, chairs, textiles and pillow stuffing. Some 80 jobs have been created in the process.

Adebiyi developed the Wecyclers concept in collaboration with two classmates while studying for her MBA at the MIT Sloan School of Management in Cambridge, Massachusetts. In 2012 she returned to Lagos and, with classmates Alexandra Fallon and Jonathan Kola, launched Wecyclers. This efficient, low-carbon model of waste collection links the potentials of bicycle transportation, untapped waste streams and community mobilisation. It is not only starting to plug some of the gaps in municipal services, but also provides a means of raising public awareness of waste and other environmental issues, says Boluwaji Oyewumi, the programme manager at Wecyclers. “People can actually start seeing themselves as change agents,” he says. “We can create a community of people who take care of the environment.”

Initially, however, it was difficult to interest people from low-income communities in issues of waste and recycling, when most had more pressing worries about feeding their families, Oyewumi says. For now, the scheme works on an incentive basis—households accumulate points by SMS for the materials they provide, which they are able to redeem for talk time, cooking utensils and even larger items such as sewing and welding machines, which in turn provide people with small business opportunities. The Lagos Waste Management Authority has been an enthusiastic partner, providing the business with two spaces for sorting and bulking the waste. In partnership with the city, plans are to scale up the business to reach up to a million households in Lagos, while expanding the model to other cities across Nigeria.

According to Adebeyi, the Wecyclers model has the potential to generate jobs for some 500 000 cyclers, processing-plant workers and bicycle manufacturers, she said in an interview with Ventures Africa. Plastic consumption in Lagos alone is expected to rise from 750 000 to 1.9 million tonnes a year by 2025, providing a $700 million business opportunity

Megan Lindow

 

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