I’d imagine that few people who saw two women and a man peddling purple bikes through the crowded streets of Lagos one sunny morning in 2012 thought highly of what they were seeing.
Bilikiss Adebiyi-Abiola and two of her Wecyclers co-founders were collecting trash, and, as Bilikiss tells me, in her culture, people who deal with trash are looked down upon—they’re assumed to be from the lowest rungs of society. The people they passed on that route probably didn’t guess they were witnessing two MIT graduate students and a Harvard undergraduate launch an innovative social enterprise that would make their city’s neighborhoods healthier and its residents more financially secure.
While their story is unique, in many ways those three were doing something we at Oracle often see from energetic founders: rolling up their sleeves and proving their concept in the early stage of a startup with their own sweat, literally in this case. A tough road lay ahead of them, but Bilikiss and her partners were powered by grit and determination to improve the country they loved then and love today.
Now, almost 10 years later, their extraordinary venture removes thousands of tons of recyclable trash from the streets and shores of Lagos every year, protecting Nigeria’s natural environment, combating climate change, and providing income to thousands who might otherwise be destitute.
I first heard of Wecyclers while attending an event at The Tech Interactive museum in San Jose in 2013. A video about the startup was shown in the Tech Awards laureate spotlight, and I had to learn more.
Wecyclers was exactly the kind of company Oracle wanted to support through a grant portfolio we were preparing focused on Africa, specifically Nigeria and Kenya. Our goal was to encourage social entrepreneurs who were making inroads in education, protecting the environment, and strengthening communities. Considering those criteria, Wecyclers was a natural candidate, and became one of the first Oracle philanthropic investments in Nigeria. In 2014, I made my own trip to Lagos to see its operation in action.
As soon as I got to Nigeria, I was struck by how much plastic there was everywhere: littering beaches, snagged in tree branches, and clogging the storm drains. Communities seemed to be drowning in the material. And then I saw the riders astride a fleet of purple tricycles with big panniers, collecting recyclables from everyday people and households, and hauling it off to the recycling center. Seeing is believing.
Oracle has been supporting Wecyclers ever since, and the social enterprise has inspired us with its growth. Wecyclers now has more than 25,000 subscribers who sell recyclables and 200 employees who collect and escort it to 15 kiosks and three main collection hubs set up across the city. (Most riders have exchanged the peddle-powered bikes for motorized tricycles with more cargo capacity). Wecyclers also supports eight franchisees working in other parts of the country.
That success is all testament to Bilikiss’ vision, talent, drive, and belief in her ability to make a difference.
Bilikiss was born and raised in Lagos, but went to America to pursue her university studies. After graduating, she started her career as an intern at Oracle before working five years as a software engineer at IBM. An MBA program followed at the MIT Sloan School of Management, where she enrolled in a lab called Development Ventures that focused on solving problems in underdeveloped nations.
The Development Ventures program struck a chord, Bilikiss says. Her home country suffers greatly from poverty, and a lot of the people on the ground, working to solve that entrenched problem, were not from the African continent. After 13 years in America, she wanted to do something for Nigeria.
And Bilikiss had a simple but brilliant insight: “living in a dirty place can actually make someone poorer.” When waste goes uncollected, rain and flooding pollute villages, making it harder for people to work and attracting mosquitos that bring diseases like malaria.
While at MIT, she teamed with some of her fellow Nigerians, including her brother Olawale Adebiyi, who also came to America to attend college and stayed to pursue a successful engineering career. Almost four years ago, Bilikiss passed the baton of leadership to Olawale, who has guided Wecyclers into its next phase of development as CEO.
“In the past, the problem of uncollected waste—and all its negative effects on communities and the environment—was one nobody tried too hard to solve,” Olawale says.
But there is a solution, one that stems from understanding the dynamics of the value chain of waste disposal and then introducing incentives to take advantage of what actually is a very healthy market for recyclables.
To make that work, Wecyclers needed to go to the bottom of the trash-disposal pyramid and engage the poorest people who suffer the most from trash-strewn neighborhoods. Back in 2012, that effort started by exchanging raffle tickets for recyclable trash, then in 2014 evolved into offering points that could be redeemed for consumer goods, and in 2015 grew into a system for direct cash payouts. Wecyclers even helps its subscribers establish bank accounts and use ATMs for the first time.
On any given day, Wecyclers can haul away 10 tons of trash that might otherwise pollute neighborhoods—about 90 percent of it discarded plastics. Last year, the company recycled 2,400 tons of plastic, 100 tons of aluminum and 400 tons of sachet (compared to 84 tons of plastic, 17 tons of aluminum and 69 tons of sachet in 2013). Recycling those materials prevented the release of 13,000 tons of CO2 in 2020.
“But that’s not even scratching the surface of what’s possible,” Olawale says.
So far, Wecyclers is, at best, breaking even financially. To keep the business going, it still needs corporate supporters like Oracle in its corner, making sure it can: pay those employees; invest in more tricycles; build out new infrastructure, including its first self-owned recycling facility; and continue experimenting with the business model.
But Olawale believes his team is close to achieving the critical goal of having control over that whole value chain to optimize how Wecyclers’ ability to push profits all the way down to the subscribers who provide it with trash. Once that milestone is reached, the business can become self-sustaining, and ready to scale through further investment and more franchises across Nigeria and other parts of West Africa.
I know Bilikiss can’t help but feel enormous pride in the business she created and that Olawale now brings closer to profitability. You’ll find few people more passionate about protecting the environment, which is why, when Bilikiss stepped down as CEO of Wecyclers, she accepted the position of Managing Director of the Lagos State Parks and Gardens Agency.
“It’s a really hard life to be an entrepreneur. It’s tough,” Bilikiss tells me. “Sometimes you want to give up. But then you see a street that’s cleaner, heaps of trash in the recycling hubs that would not have been there had you not done this, and that makes it worth it.”
And just as important, she says, is the financial safety net her company has created in a country where unemployment is rampant and seniors don’t have anything like Social Security to fall back on. Women account for 90 percent of subscribers, and a lot of older women especially have made it their full-time job to collect and drop off recyclables to Wecyclers—their dignity restored, even elevated in the eyes of the community, by their earning power.
Bilikiss laughs when considering how much work it took to change societal norms around trash.
“We’re making it interesting and cool to work in the trash sector, because now people know you can make money and make the environment better,” she tells me.
And cleaner streets have profound implications. Wecyclers conducted a focus group a few years ago in which they asked Nigerian children how they feel about the trash that’s everywhere around them. The children overwhelmingly said it makes them sad.
Seeing Bilikiss’ dream to make Nigeria cleaner become a reality, and alleviate that sadness, I also can’t help but feel enormous pride when she and Olawale tell me that Oracle is a big part of why their company is still here today, strong, and growing.