Photograph — Dechets a l'or

“It’s important to actively stimulate the economy but it’s also important to address environmental concerns. And we have been able to encourage this kind of economic development that Africa needs to move on to where it needs to be.” – Cuthbert Ayodeji Onikute, CEO and Founder, Dechets a l’or.

Africa is brimming with a rising generation of creative thinking individuals who are concerned about solving local problems and are committed to developing exceptional solutions to help change lives and transform societies. Cuthbert Ayodeji Onikute is one of such individuals.

Ayo is the CEO and founder of Dechets a l’or, a social venture that creates new sources of revenue for communities and improves environmental sustainability through an innovative waste management system in Guinea. During his Master’s programme at Columbia University where he studied Urban Planning with a focus on International Development in African cities, Ayo came across the idea of using waste as a source of fuel and energy to improve cities. “And that’s how Dechets a l’or came about,” he told Ventures Africa.

Sub-Saharan cities are growing at a fast pace, and so is their waste. The average Sub-Saharan city is experiencing a steady annual growth rate of 5 to 6 percent, and the average Sub-Saharan citizen produces .34 kilogrammes of waste daily. But these wastes are not treated properly, resulting in environmental pollution and creating unnecessary health hazards.

To effectively tackle this issue, Ayo and his team have created a functional waste management system that both improves public health and provides communities with meaningful and lasting local employment opportunities.

In this exclusive interview, Ayo talks the value of waste, the importance of urban environmental sustainability, and his goal for Dechets a l’or in Africa.

Ventures Africa (VA): What is the meaning of Dechets a l’or and what is it about?

Ayo: Dechets a l’or means garbage to gold. It is a project that came about as a solution, as a means to an end. We are using biomass that is in abundance in Guinea to address some of the issues that are present in the country; high unemployment, low access to fertilisers, low access to energy. Dechets a l’or is an economic development project. Although it’s a social venture, it has quite a lot of economic development aspects tied in like creating jobs for young men and women in secondary cities.

 VA: Why secondary cities?

Ayo: We focus on secondary cities because we think that secondary cities are often times overlooked in the development discourse going on in the world, especially in Africa. Secondary cities are the engines that need to be thriving so that the capital cities can be even more vibrant than they are today. Capital cities are incredibly vibrant in Africa but they are primarily the only ones that are vibrant. So, if we can generate a lot of economic activities in secondary cities, they will spur other activities in capital cities.

VA: What is your business model?

Ayo: There are two sides to the model; there’s the business to customer and then the business-to-business side. So the business-to-customer is the service side where we are paid to provide customers with waste collection services. The other side is, after collecting the waste; we try to reduce the amount that we have to send to landfill. So we take the waste to our facility for processing. We process the organic stream to produce fertiliser. Over 60 percent of the waste is organic. So for every tonne of organic waste we collect, we can produce about 100 kilos of organic fertiliser or a little bit more. We recycle the plastics and the papers to make briquettes. Then we sell these by-products to households and businesses. The fertilisers are particularly beneficial to small-scale farmers. In all we recycle over 80 percent of the waste stream, putting it to some valuable use in the local market. The remaining 18 to 20 percent is sent to the landfill.

VA: Why did you choose to set up in Guinea?

Ayo: Guinea was just the obvious choice. During my undergrad days, I decided that I was coming back to West Africa. My first experience was with the International Foundation for Education and Self-Help where I taught English in Guinea. So, it was an ideal situation to start where I was. But my goal for Dechets a l’or is for it to be functional in at least half, if not all the cities across West Africa. I hope to get outside of Guinea and eventually get back to Nigeria.

VA: Are you working with the government in Guinea or doing this solely on your own?

Ayo: The government is aware; we are in an operational partnership, as I have to ask permission to operate in the state. But in terms of an actual financing, we haven’t received any from the government as of yet. However, the state can help in other ways like providing access to facilities and providing low-cost rental land.

VA: As Africa becomes more industrial; do you see a future where Africa escapes becoming a new capital of environmental abuse in terms of waste?

Ayo: Definitely. And I think because there’s an increased knowledge and a lot of focus on waste as an issue, we have a lot of potentials to leap forward. We can adopt the European or the Norwegian model of waste disposal. Currently, we are almost disposing of all of our waste in an environmentally beneficial way or an economic beneficial manner than the American model.

My business is based on the idea that I will be able to use anaerobic digestion to produce fertiliser and energy from waste because the waste profile is going to remain 50 percent organic for some time. The goal is for us to eventually get to a place where we are benefitting from the waste we are producing, more than viewing it as a nuisance.

More ventures like mine are springing up across the continent, addressing concerns around waste management and looking at all aspects of the waste stream so that we are obtaining more value from it. Africans are now taking charge of, and increasing the conversations around environmental sustainability. Although there’s more work to be done on the part of the government with policy regulation and implementation.

Currently, Ayo is a finalist in the Mass Challenge accelerator in Switzerland competing for $50,000 to $100,000 prize money to help grow Dechets a l’or. To fund the trip to Switzerland, he is raising funds via a gofundme campaign. The company had won two competitions prior, raising about forty-five thousand dollars. But more money is needed to grow and expand the business, as is Ayo’s goal.

Watch Ayodeji Onikute talk about his brilliant venture, Dechets a l’or, in the video below:

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