Entrepreneurship can be all about making money and or about making impact. WeCyclers is an example of a business that is built around create a sustainable environment for people. Bilikiss Adebiyi-Abiola is an award-winning social entrepreneur who built a sustainable and viable business model to help the poor communities of Lagos reclaim their neighborhoods from the scourge of pollution and waste.
Bilikiss was born in 1983 and raised in Lagos where she had her early education. She completed her secondary school education at Supreme Education Foundation Secondary School. Afterward, she enrolled at the University of Lagos for a Law degree but opted out mid-way into her first year at the school to continue her education in the United States of America, where she lived for over a decade.
In 2003, she graduated with a BSc. in Computer Science from Fisk University, Nashville, Tennessee. She enrolled for a Master’s programme at Vanderbilt University also in Nashville, graduating in 2005 with an MSc. in Computer Science. Five years after, Bilikiss went back to school for an MBA. This time, she chose the Sloan School of Management at the prestigious Massachusetts Institute of Technology and completed the programme in 2012.
She gained further business and tech experience while working as a corporate software engineer at IBM for about 5 years. Before starting her studies at MIT. While at Vanderbilt for her MSc. Bilikiss worked as a Research Assistant, a job that involved the development and implementation of a Multi-Agent Architecture System utilised in TAG research software.”
Between December 2005 and June 2010, she worked as a Staff Software Engineer at IBM. This was her first full-time corporate job where she was fully involved in the design and implementation of key user interface components. She also worked with clients towards the resolution of deployment issues, managed internal product deployment serving thousands of users, as well as other critical roles.
In May 2011, she became a Summer Consultant at CSMG Global, a strategic consulting firm changing the rules of the game in communications, technology, and digital media industries.”
While at the MIT, Bilikiss was assigned to a study project aimed at finding solutions to tangibly help people at the bottom of the social pyramid. In Nigeria, about 70 per cent of Nigerians are at the base of the pyramid and are very poor; they don’t have basic sanitation; they don’t have basic healthcare, and she wanted to do something that would impact that segment.
Her interest in working with waste stemmed from experiences and observations while growing up in Nigeria. She always had the interest to resolve the problem because it seemed to be something that was present everywhere. Her project, which eventually became the inspiration for her company WeCyclers, was a practical response to dealing with huge local waste issues in Lagos, where only 40 percent of the city’s garbage is collected.
Returning to Nigeria in late 2011, it was time to put the inspiration to work.
“The “AHA” moment for pursuing WeCylcers started from a class that exposed students to the plight of people below the pyramid; and there are many in Nigeria. There are so many case studies that pertain to Nigeria and finding a way to solve some of these problems was important.” She recounted.
WeCyclers is a successful initiative that enables low-income communities in Nigeria to make money from the waste piling up in their streets. In the beginning, they were using low cost cargo bicycles called WeCyclers to provide convenient recycling services to households across Nigeria.
The company recycles this unmanaged waste in Nigeria’s capital, Lagos. Every week, these bicycles go around people’s homes picking up a variety of plastics, cans and sachets. The residents receive points based on the weight of recyclables they collect, which they can redeem for basic food items, consumer electronics, or even cash. This is a highly effective, accessible and low-tech, but high impact, recycling scheme that is a win-win for all involved.
The company, which works in partnership with the Lagos Waste Management Authority, makes its money by selling the materials on to manufacturers. The plastic collected eventually gets shredded and exported to make polyester fibre for clothing, pillow and mattress stuffing, and trash bags.
“I really believe this is the best time to be an African start up. This is Africa’s time and we as Africans need to seize this opportunity to contribute our quotas to our respective countries.”
Thousands of households have signed up for the service and there are plans to extend the initiative to other cities throughout Nigeria. WeCylers has used this waste-to-wealth initiative to create employment for hundreds of young people in Lagos, and is helping to foster enterprise in other new areas. WeCyclers will become a world-leading leading example of a solution that empowers its community to lead healthier, wealthier and more sustainable lives.
Investment has been made into essential processing machines so that the company can add more value to sales, attract really smart people passionate about change, and build more capacity. The company was able to generate its own revenue, while equally raising money through donor agencies. In 2015, Wecyclers won $55,000 from Case Foundation during the #PitchForLagos event at the Lagos Startup Week.
In 2016, the company got an offer from the serial investor, Eric Guichard, who promised to help grow Wecycler’s asset. Sometime in 2018, WeCyclers signed a partnership deal with Guinness Nigeria Plc, with the aim of addressing some pressing environmental concerns.
Still under Bilikiss’ leadership, Wecyclers gained much recognition and received awards including; the Le Monde Smart-Cities 2017 Global Innovation Awards, the Cartier Women’s Initiative Awards 2017, Seif Awards, Sustania Awards, etc.
In terms of social impact, it is really making a difference at street level. There is less pollution and less flooding. People say their neighbourhoods are cleaner and their kids seem healthier. In September 2017, it was announced that Bilikiss would be stepping down as the CEO of Wecyclers, but she has kept on with her environmental sustainability activities since then.