Photograph — Fotolighthouse

Did you know you could make a lot of money off trash? Or that you could build an industry off it? Bilikiss kola-abiola is one those people challenging the economic status quo of her country, Nigeria. She is the CEO of WeCyclers, a company which helps people in low-income communities capture value from their waste, while providing a reliable supply of materials to both local and international recycling industries.

On the 30th of July, WeCyclers emerged winner of a $55,000 investment prize at the ‘Pitch for Lagos’ competition hosted by the Case Foundation at the Co-Creation Hub in Lagos, Nigeria. Having delivered an excellent pitch that received the commendation of the judges, her victory was barely a surprise to many.

Ventures Africa caught up with Bilikiss after the event to discuss the business and future of the trash industry in Nigeria.

VA: How does it feel to have won $55,000?

WeCyclers: It’s amazing. I can’t even explain. We were chosen just last week to pitch, and it’s been sitting at the back of my mind. I’ve really been looking forward to it because I know the kind of start-ups that I was pitching with. Winning this pitch just reaffirms what we are doing at WeCyclers. It shows us that we are on the right track, its opening doors already, we’ve got a lot of connections that will help us scale up throughout Nigeria, and so I’m super excited.

VA: Did you create this business alone?

WeCyclers: I co-founded it. It actually was a class project when I was a student at MIT. It basically opened up my eyes to the issues that people are facing in Nigeria, like other countries. About 70% of Nigerians live in poverty and lack access to water, financial services and waste management and sanitation. The Wecyclers idea was created to solve their waste management problem. I worked with a team that had started the initial idea, I gave my own input and then kept running with it, and here we are two years later.

VA: Who are the other co-founders?

WeCyclers: The other co-founders are Alexandra Fallon and Jonathan Kola (Alex is an American, we both attended Sloan and she is currently living in the US. Jonathan is a Kenyan, he moved to Nigeria to start Wecyclers. He stayed for a year and built our tech platform from scratch. Jonathan is currently studying for his MBA at Stanford Graduate School of Business.

VA: How has the progress/business been so far? How have you scaled?

WeCyclers: We have had to customize our outreach to suit our target demographic; people in the low income communities. So, many of them don’ have access to the mall, tech, devices, Facebook, … It’s been a process of connecting with people on a level that they understand, and the way we’ve been able to do this has been through our points. That is really what excites people, with it they feel like “okay, I can do this, and I can get something.” It makes sense, it adds up for them, and that has really been helpful to us.

VA: Can you please throw more light on ‘your points’, what does it mean?

WeCyclers: Households give us their recyclable waste in exchange for points. Points are awarded based on the weight of the material they provide to us. For every pickup, households get points, which they can accumulate and exchange, for prizes. The prizes are households goods, electronics and even cash.

VA: So why are you focused on the low income? Rich people have trash too.

WeCyclers: Exactly. But we just wanted to start with low income because we are a social enterprise and we are constantly seeking ways to help people. We wanted to do this like a CSR (corporate social responsibility) to help those people. We are definitely going to move to the richer communities as we grow, we are not going to discriminate based on demographics, after all, trash is trash.  We are just going to follow the trash.

Bilikiss Abiola, CEO WeCyclers in an interview with Ventures Africa
Bilikiss Abiola, CEO WeCyclers in an interview with Ventures Africa

VA: While pitching, you said something quite interesting, that you are trying to build a trash sector, where trash will be as exciting to talk about as oil. Can you go deeper on that?

WeCyclers: In Nigeria, we’ve been spoiled. Oil has really messed us up, it’s so easy to make money in the oil sector – get a contract, get a concession, and then you are rolling in billions. But the waste industry is not as sophisticated, it’s not very exciting to be a part of. But if you really look at it, oil doesn’t replenish, it’s not a renewable resource, it’s going to finish, but waste will grow. So it’s really in our best interest to focus on our growing sector. Plastic consumption in Lagos is going to grow from around 750 thousand tons a year, to 1.9 million tons by 2025. We conservatively value the Lagos plastic and metal opportunity at $700 million. This is quite exciting. An added incentive is that the environment is very fragile, if we don’t have systems to absorb the huge amounts of waste we will produce, we will have a monumental disaster on our hands.

VA: I’m sure you work with LAWMA (Lagos State Waste Management Authority)?

WeCyclers: Yes we do. LAWMA is a wonderful partner. They have supported us right from the beginning and given us a platform that enabled us flourish. We wouldn’t be where we are right now without them.

VA: Okay. What is the work process for WeCyclers?

WeCyclers: When we pick up trash, we take it to our hubs – LAWMA has given us lands in communities, where the waste is processed based on the specifications of the buyer. Take out labels, caps, shred it, whatever we have to do, then we sell to the recyclers. There are big recycling companies in Lagos and across the world that buy our products.

VA: In what communities are your hubs situated at right now?

WeCyclers: The hubs are situated in Ebute-Metta and Surulere. We are currently working on opening two outside Lagos by the end of the year.

VA: How are you going to spend your prize money?

WeCyclers: That is a very good question. At this point, as start-ups, there are so many things we need. I had a conversation with an amazing person that is going to really help us drive our expansion, and the main issue we had was having the money to pay him, now with this money, that problem is solved. And with whatever is left, we can open another hub in another state. This money is going to take us to at least one more state.

VA: What state are you looking at for your next hub?

WeCyclers: We are looking at Ogun state.

VA: Because of the proximity right? It is closer.

WeCyclers: Yes.

VA: And after Ogun state?

WeCyclers: Oyo state, and then Abuja. We are going to start with neighbouring states, but then we are going to expand with a franchise model – Abia state, Ebonyi state, Delta state – we want everyone in Nigeria to be a part of the waste movement.

we cycle

VA: Do you need any more support or partners?

WeCyclers: We want state governments all over Nigeria to work with us, and help us bring our service to their states. They don’t necessarily have to give money, they just have to open up to us. We are happy to raise money to get WeCyclers all over Nigeria. It’s something that people are calling for; in Lagos alone, people enjoy it as pertaining employment. There was an elderly lady that came to us recently, she said she uses the money she gets from picking recyclables to feed her family. The employment opportunity is huge, the subscribers are working for themselves. They just pick and drop trash, and collect their money.

VA: The job opportunities is a most significant part of WeCyclers, you did mention that you have created 80 jobs so far?

WeCyclers: Yes, we’ve provided 80 jobs, and we pay these people salaries. We can easily create 500,000 jobs in Nigeria within a short period of time.

VA: What were your challenges in building and sustaining this business?

WeCyclers: Our first challenge was making our business model sustainable. Then we didn’t add value, so we were constrained with how much money we could make from this. Now we are adding value and making more money from the sales. Also, we were challenged with building an efficient model, where wouldn’t disappoint our customers, we would be able to make them happy, so we played around with different things and things are looking up for us.

VA: What would you say to other start-ups and entrepreneurs out there?

WeCyclers: I will say don’t give up. I was just thinking a few hours ago how this started as an idea over a dinner table, my friends and I were just talking about it over dinner, and here we are today. God is great. There’s nothing that cannot be achieved if you just put your mind to it.

VA: And no idea is too weird or ridiculous right?

WeCyclers: Not at all. It could be a little bit crazy, you know? As a very smart lady said, you have to be a little crazy to bring out disruptive change.  But it has worked out – trash is cash.

Pitch for Lagos was part of the events of the just concluded Lagos Start-up Week. It was supported by  iconic American entrepreneurs, investors and philanthropists, Jean and Steve Case of the Case Foundation, EchoVCiDEA, and Kuramo Capital. Judges of the event were Jean and Steve Case, Eghosa Omoigui of EchoVC, Dotun Sulaiman of iDEA and Tariye Gbadegesin of Propel Solutions. Sheila Herrling of the Case Foundation and Ross Baird of Village Capital served as emcees.

Bilikiss kola-abiola is quite passionate about her business; she told Ventures Africa that she had done over a hundred  pitches in the last two years but did not attract investors. Now, faith and persistence has earned her $55,000, a three month training – coaching – mentoring program, and an office space.

In a country like Nigeria, where a huge portion of the economy is largely dependent on petroleum, and a good number of start-ups are focused on tech, and e-commerce, it is refreshing to see a revolutionary innovator and entrepreneur like Bilikiss.

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