The Lagos entrepreneurs championing recycling as a way of life

Always busy. An aerial view of Lagos
Always busy. An aerial view of Lagos
Image: Reuters/Akintunde Akinleye
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The idea to convert trash to saleable products struck Olamide Ayeni-Babajide while on a trip to Dubai where she bought home décor made out of corn husk.

Recognizing the dollar value of Lagos’s trash, she began collecting discarded plastic spoons, paper, corn husk and wine corks to manufacture wall decor and embellished mirrors for sale. Her foray into recycling soon proved successful, and in 2016 Pearl Recycling was born.

To date, the company has trained over 250 people on ways to transform solid waste into valuable items. In schools, they have supplied furniture repurposed from tires and students are taught how to build them from scratch. They are also informed about the impact of waste on the environment and the rationale for recycling.

“We started experimenting with tires because a lot of the requests we were getting was for furniture,” says Ayeni-Babajide of her decision to introduce a furniture line.

To be sure, the basic idea of recycling is not new to Nigerians, in many ways it’s long been a way of life particularly for one-person retailers. For example, peanuts are commonly sold in old wine bottles and plastic water bottles are reused to sell palm oil and other liquids. But for most Lagosians, recycling is more of a side benefit to the much bigger challenge of a metropolis visibly sinking in some neighborhoods under the sheer weight of waste a city of 20 million people can produce. And yet, attitudes are changing. There is now much more awareness of the need to protect the environment from non-biodegradable waste as well—especially as they can see it clogging waterways and gutters, leading to even upmarket neighborhoods getting flooded during rains.. In all, just 10% of the 10,000 to 15,000 metric tons of waste produced daily in Lagos is recycled, says Lagos State’s waste management agency (LAWMA). However most solid waste usually ends up in landfills, drainages, beaches and waterbodies

Scavengers work picking up trash for recycling at the a dump site in Lagos
Scavengers work picking up trash for recycling at the a dump site in Lagos
Image: Reuters/Akintunde Akinleye

Despite a lack of effective waste management policies, social entrepreneurs like Doyinsola Ogunye have been raising awareness on purposeful recycling. Since 2009, her organization Mental and Environmental Development Initiative for Children Nigeria (MEDICNG) has been educating school children and rural communities in Lagos on the dangers of environmental degradation. The initiative organizes children to clean beaches, plant trees, sort and aggregate different kinds of plastics for recyclers, who then transport them to recycling facilities. In return, they’re given non-monetary incentives such as school bags and stationaries.

“We try to make them understand plastic isn’t affecting only fishermen but all of us because we eat from the ocean,” she said, adding she targets children because they’re more receptive to adopting better garbage management practices.

Greenhill Recycling, a social enterprise with a focus on low income areas, offers points-based incentives to subscribers in exchange for recyclable wastes delivered to its designated collection point, and for those whom distance presents a challenge, the firm organises door-to-door pick-up.

“The incentives are a means to create behavioral change,” explains Mariam Lawani, founder of the waste aggregating firm. “It’s more difficult to preach eco-sustainability to low income earners because they have more pressing needs like putting food on the table or paying school fees.”

Members of the Cruise and Clean Team of Lekki Youth Association trawl for waste in Five Cowrie Creek, Lag
Members of the Cruise and Clean Team of Lekki Youth Association trawl for waste in Five Cowrie Creek, Lag
Image: Doyinsola Ogunye

The organization runs community outreach programs where participants are taught how to recycle their refuse. They also spread their message of sustainability to markets, schools, restaurants and other commercial entities, some of which have refused to relinquish their recyclable waste without pay.

“We’ve spoken to a large chain supermarket and they want to sell their waste,” said Lawani. “They’re not interested in giving back [and] it’s almost like they’re doing us a favor even though it benefits them.”

Most of the organizations involved in this sector self-describe as social enterprises. With the rise of tech startups and advocacy for innovation across Africa, social enterprises have at times got a bad rap for being businesses focused more on their social impact than being driven purely by profit motives. That concern may have been driven by what seemed like a more favorable funding environment for African social enterprises with access to traditional venture capital funding alongside international grants and awards as well as specific social impact funds in the early days of the rising startup sector.

And yet, despite the perceived advantages for social enterprises many of the young Lagos recycling companies face a notable challenge with raising funds. The state government neither provide grants nor storage facilities for waste, and for many aggregators, renting space is too expensive.

“The thing about the recycling business is that you have to have a ton or more of plastic to be attractive to [recyclers],” said Ogunye. “So a social entrepreneur would have to spend money every day to collect plastics, but money isn’t coming in every day.”

One Lagos-based social enterprise that has won a range of plaudits is Wecyclers. Its founder Bilikiss Adebiyi-Abiola, was named as a 2016 Quartz Africa Innovator. In March the firm picked up the €200,000 African Development Prize for 2018/19 from the King Baudouin Foundation.

But incentives and awards alone aren’t enough to drive behavioral change. A holistic approach to combating solid waste would involve laws and more public campaigns aimed at encouraging businesses and consumers to adopt environmental-friendly alternatives to, say, plastic straws and Styrofoam food packs.

“Awareness is key,” noted Olumide Ajibade, a Lagos resident who started dropping off his plastic bottles at Greenhill Recycling after a friend mentioned them to him. He however stated providing public bins for different recyclable waste and more collection centres would improve the recycling habits of Nigerians.

But according to the hierarchy of solid waste management, waste prevention is a nobler act than recycling, something Nigeria’s lawmakers have acknowledged with their recent proposal to ban the importation, manufacture and distribution of plastic bags.

Lagos and Lagosians particularly feel the pressure of poorly managed waste systems because the city’s huge population is squeezed into just 1,200 square kilometers (500 sq. m) implying a population density of 8,000 people per sq. km.

Asked if LAWMA was in discussion with restaurants and supermarkets across Lagos on ways to cut their garbage, an agency spokesman said, “It is left for the waste generators to reduce their waste. Our role is to regulate those in the waste sector and inform residents on [waste management practices].”

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