Why This MIT-Trained Computer Whiz Quit Her Job At IBM And Returned To Nigeria To Collect Trash
It’s a bright Monday morning and as is the norm, the streets of Lagos; Nigeria’s commercial capital, is a vast sea of bodies.
Everything is happening at a frenetic pace – people hurrying to catch the earliest buses to their respective places of work, impatient drivers attempting to meander through a maze of vehicles worsening the gridlock in the process, markets and motor parks already abuzz with all sorts of people and wares.
Well, that’s just another day in the megacity. Frantic is the way of life. But in the midst of the melee, there’s something else that catches the eye – a purple-shirted cavalry of tricycle drivers, apparently immune to the traffic as they whizz past the tightest spots on the streets of the metropolis and even the inner city slums on their specially-modified vehicles.
No, these cyclists are not up for some product promo, neither are they members of some bikers community. These persons actually constitute the mobile division of Wecyclers – an innovative enterprise that is using an incentive-based programme to help solve the notorious waste problem in Lagos. Some might even say they put the ‘gain’ in ‘garbage.’
Week after week, the company’s cyclists waltz in and out of low-income neighbourhoods to pick up trash from registered households, and interestingly, they reward these households for letting them have their garbage.
Wecyclers collects discarded items like plastic bottles, aluminium cans, and plastic bags from designated households. These waste items are then weighed and logged at the point of collection, before being transported to specific sorting areas where they’re sorted, bagged and eventually sold to recycling factories.
As an incentive, points are awarded via SMS to households “who are kind enough to let Wecyclers have their trash,” and every three months, the said points can be exchanged for household products such as blenders and bowls, food items, or airtime vouchers.
And guess who’s making all of this happen? An MIT-trained computer whiz who walked away from a job at a world-renowned information technology company to clean up the streets of Lagos. Yes, it does sound crazy but such was the strength of the pull of the passion of this Nigerian entrepreneur.
The name is Bilkiss Adebiyi-Abiola and she has found treasure in an unlikely turf. Her childhood memories were formed in Lagos where she was born before moving to the United States to continue her studies at the age of 17. And that was after she was forced to abandon the pursuit of a Law Degree from the famous University of Lagos (UNILAG) due to security concerns.
Bilkiss obtained a Computer Science degree from Fisk University and she added more gloss to the achievement by capping that with a Masters from Vanderbilt University. A bright prospect, she had no trouble securing a position at IBM soon after, where she worked as a computer scientist.
Five years into the job, she was as determined as ever to hone her skills even further and that soon saw her pursuing an MBA at the MIT Sloan School of Management.
Well, it started as a regular academic programme – perhaps a piece of cake by her standards too – but what she didn’t know was that her stint at MIT would also serve her a lightbulb moment that was miles away from anything she had ever thought of or even imagined thinking of.
Now, it happened that she had to tackle a particular second-year project that focused on problems faced by people in low-income neighbourhoods. The project demanded that she came up with a real problem and a realistic way to deal with it and she found herself racking her head for days.
She would walk the suburbs and the reservations looking for headways and on one of those ‘idea strolls’, it hit her that she’d perhaps been looking for the right thing in the wrong place. Her thoughts saw her journey from her immediate surroundings in the States to her birthplace.
Lagos is a sprawling, industrial megacity that is home to over 20 million people. With those many people occupying a paltry 1,171 square-kilometres, congestion and the city’s infamous traffic jams are almost unavoidable. But more than those, the city is believed to generate a massive 12,000 metric tons of waste daily. And that’s according to the city’s waste management body.
Worrying still, only 40 percent of this waste is said to be properly collected and disposed of, making huge piles of openly-laid garbage and trash-clogged drainages a common sight in the city’s low-income parts – a major health and environmental hazard.
Bilkiss was aware of the waste problem back home and at that moment, it dawned on her that she may have come upon the answer for her project. The idea that unraveled before her was to launch a company that offers waste collection and recycling services in her hometown.
To give the idea an edge, she threw in incentives as a way of ensuring cooperation and compliance from households who might otherwise be tempted to continue with the old ways – roadside and gutter dumping.
Bilkiss returned to Nigeria during a holiday and bounced her idea her off family and friends. Reception seemed encouraging and that was when she began to really acknowledge that she was on to something.
Upon returning to the States, Bilkiss entered the MIT Ideas Global Challenge with her recycling plan. Although it was a strange concept, one that was hard to grasp for many at first, she did a fantastic job presenting her research and proposed solutions. This saw her garner enough support to go through with the business.
And that’s precisely what she did after the completion of her program at MIT. Bilkiss called time on her job at IBM and returned to Nigeria to bring her dream for a cleaner society to life. She founded Wecyclers in 2012.
It was not easy initially. Bilikiss, who was now a wife and mother at the time, would hop on a tricycle to do some waste collections herself during the day while her kids were away at school. But the business has since gained traction and she’s been able to afford more workers.
Wecyclers use low-cost custom made cargo tricycles which they call ‘Wecycles’ to collect a large portion of the wastes, especially in areas where normal vehicles are unable to ply. The company’s effective structure makes waste collection efficient and rewarding – something many households are keen to jump on.
Wecyclers have since grown from a mere waste collection business to something of a movement. Since inception, over 5,000 Nigerian households have been impacted and nearly a thousand tonnes of waste have been collected and recycled.
More than just waste collection and recycling, Wecyclers also assists low-income communities in Lagos by offering jobs to individuals as participants in various street clean-up exercises, thus, helping to curb unemployment.
The company also has a standing agreement with the Nigerian Bottling Company (NBC; makers of Coca-Cola products) and GlaxoSmithKline – dealing with all the plastic wastes being churned out by these two companies who account for the bulk of the plastic pollution in Lagos.
Bilkiss Adebiyi-Abiola has gobbled up several cash rewards and honorary awards for the Wecyclers project. Her gallant efforts have also been chronicled by several local and international media outlets. Such was the audacity of her leap and we can only hope to see many more of her kind.
Featured Image Courtesy: lionessesofafrica.com