‘There are many times I felt like throwing in the towel and picking up a paid job’ – Olamide Ayeni-Babajide
One of the biggest environmental challenge in the world is waste management. Often times as humans we only focus on the consumption of the products without thinking of the diverse effect of releasing the waste to the environment. So many people have been trying to change the narrative and sensitize the society on the the need to manage our waste products the same way we screen what we consume.
While effective disposal is one of the major mechanisms to waste management, recycling and remodelling the waste is a better way to preserve it for re-usage. Olamide Ayeni-Babajide has taken this up through her Pearl recycling initiative. In 2016, she started a social enterprise that remodels solid waste into sustainable, eco-friendly products for the last-mile citizens. Her organization trains women and unemployed youths on waste to furniture vocational skills. She also solves the problem of inadequate chairs in public schools by producing ergonomic classrooms chairs from waste for the pupils, a project sponsored by the US Embassy Abuja.
In 2017, she was selected as one of the Tech women Emerging Leader by the United States Department of States which makes her interned with In 2018, she was named as an Obama African Leader for her impact work and also named as the most outstanding social innovator by LEAP AFRICA.
Olamide who holds a Bachelor of Technology degree in Computer Engineering and several certifications from CISCO and ISACA and With more than eight years’ experience as a Network Infrastructure . She shares her inspiring story with me in this educative interview.
In her words : “ The environment is not enabling for most start-up founders due to rigid government policies stifling life’s out of young start-ups. ”
I grew up in the rural part of south-western Nigeria. I was taught early that when things are broken, they are fixed and not thrown away. I think the learning came from the fact that we didn’t live a life of luxury neither did we live in penury but the little we had, we were taught to use it well. Also, coming from paternal generation of wood carvers was also part of what contributed largely to my creative nature. At an early age, I started repairing my spoilt shoes and slippers myself, I had all the shoe repairer tools, I could weave and sew, and I had my hands on practically every skills.
Inspiration behind Pearl Recycling
Pearl Recycling started on the flight back to Nigeria from UAE in 2012. I had gone for a conference on Infrastructure engineering and bought few home decorative products. I checked one of them and realized it was made from waste corn-husk. You can imagine my anger and unbelief when I made this discovery. First, I had issues with customs bringing those decorative products into the country and coupled with the fact that they were expensive. As days goes by, my anger turned to curiosity. I told myself we have corns in Nigeria, but we are throwing the husk away. Why can’t I start collecting the corn husk from the roadside corn sellers and start turning them into beautiful work of arts? That was how Pearl recycling started. We progressed from corn husks to plastic, wine corks and tyres. We currently work with all form of solid waste, turning them into artistic pieces either as furniture or décor.
Pearl Recycling, was selected by World Youth Forum as one of the 100 initiatives from Africa and she was selected to represent Nigeria at World Entrepreneurship Investment Forum in 2017 due to the impact that Pearl Recycling is making locally. We have also been featured on several international and local media including, Reuters, Washington Post, and Aljazeera
Impact of being an Obama African leader and Leap Africa’s outstanding social innovator
In 2018, Obama Foundation made a call for outstanding leaders in Africa who are changing narratives in their field. We know we are constantly breaking the glass-ceiling with the waste remodeling niche we are building so I applied. I was selected as one of the 200 Obama African Leaders. This gave me the opportunity to meet with other change-makers in the continent, connect with investors and create a ripple effect of change. One of the highlight was pitching the waste to tiles project as an alternative to bad roads in Africa rural locations. The project was selected and scaled to top four out of seventy other projects and we pitched it at the pitching event. A fellow leader from Angola took the idea back to his country and started working on the project.
LEAP Africa SIP is a progamme for social innovators in Nigeria where selected social entrepreneurs are trained on important subjects like structuring social enterprises and building a sustainable social enterprise. I was selected in 2017 and after the one year programme, three outstanding social innovators are selected and awarded grants of 1 million Naira each to scale up their impacts through the support of Union Bank. I was selected and the grant has helped us to scale up our distribution outlets and acquire more tools.
When we started officially in 2016, there were a lot of cultural inhibitions, negative stereotypes and complete rejection of the idea. The first hurdle we had to break was the age-long belief that “waste is dirty and meant for landfills”. We came up with a strategy to make waste enticing to feel and touch and that was how we were able to break the negative stereotypes. In 2016, we could go a whole week at the office without anyone calling to ask about what we do. However, there has been significant change in perception and acceptance. We get up to six calls weekly from individuals and organizations asking about what we do and the service we render.
From computer engineer to eco-friendly products and waste
After the curiosity of my UAE trip, I started working with solid waste products on weekends. I was in an 8-5 job and the only time I had left to work on my passion was weekends. I started showing colleagues what I made from waste and they were interested and willing to buy. That was how I started making wall decors and art pieces from waste for colleagues and friends. In 2015, I applied for Tony Elumelu foundation grant with the idea. It wasn’t a registered business. It was just an idea and it was selected. That selection birthed Pearl Recycling. It was a defining factor for me, knowing that an organization like TEF founds such a niche worthy propelled me to make it a full time job.
The most significant challenge of all is the perception of people to waste. This time around, not from a place of negative assumption, but from a place of complete ignorance. People aren’t aware of the treasure in waste and they end up throwing them away.
The second issue is government intervention for emerging businesses like ours. The environment is not enabling for most start-up founders due to rigid government policies stifling life’s out of young start-ups.
Also, we lack proper funding institutes or organizations locally that can fund social innovations. Most funding organizations are international and this has impeded the growth of local social enterprise.
On giving up
There are many times I felt like throwing in the towel and picking up a paid job. Most especially, when I am fully aware of my skill and worth in the labour market. However, tenacity of purpose and understanding my Why has been the reason why I can stay and fight to see my vision become a reality. In an environment like ours, everything is working to choke your vision and you must be ready to fight to survive.
Being a Woman of Rubies
I became aware of my worth at the young age of ten and the inherent power I have as a women to create positive impact around me. I am a woman of rubies because I create the change I want to see without waiting for anyone to do it for me and by so doing, I am also helping other women to see and acknowledge the inherent power in them
Advice for those who want to go into my line of business
You must be sure of your WHY. You passion must be able to sustain you when every other thing fails. You must listen and open your mind to learn. You need to build bridges and know that collaboration is the new competition. However, you must be smart in all your dealings.
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