Adebiyi-Abiola: New Face Of Waste Management In Nigeria
Bilikiss Adebiyi-Abiola is a young dynamic businesswoman. She is an MIT Alumni and founder and CEO of Wecyclers, a vibrant, wave making and innovative business enterprise. Wecyclers is a social enterprise working to help people get value from their waste through the convenient collection of recyclable materials from households, using a fleet of low-cost cargo bicycles. In return, the households get redeemable points through selling collected waste to recyclers. She discovered the idea, while undertaking an project. And since then, she has revolutionised recycling in Nigeria.
Bilikiss’ fascinating story has been an inspiration to many young Nigerians because she is a typical example of how young professionals, especially those in the Diaspora can take their destinies in their own hands, return to Nigeria in the spirit of patriotism and affect their communities for good.
Born in Lagos, into a family of five, she attended Corona School, Ikoyi, for her primary education and then to Supreme Education Foundation for secondary education. She later got admission to study Law at the University of Lagos, but ended up staying for one year before leaving for the U.S.
“I left because that year at Unilag was very difficult, the conditions were terrible. There were constant clashes and fights among certain students. It really was not great. I had to leave as my parents and I were scared for my safety,” she recalls.
In America, she had studied computer science at Fisk University and has an MS in Computer Science from Vanderbilt University. She also got an MBA from MIT, Sloan School of Management. Her preference for computer science was because everything was being computerised, then.
“I actually enjoyed programming, as I am analytical, like mathematics and love to solve problems. After my Masters, I worked with IBM for five years and was lucky to be under a very intelligent boss, who gave me a lot of responsibilities and big projects to work on. But at some point, the lack of career progression opened my eyes to other opportunities,” she explains.
For her to get promoted and move up the ladder, she would have to work at IBM for a very long time. Of course, the benefits were good, because she could work from home and had flexible working hours, which was handy because she had already started having kids.
Her daily responsibilities involved working on projects to develop some interesting products for their customers. Often times, these software products had to be deployed internally at IBM and she was responsible for this. With a 400,000 employees globally, this was a lot of work since there were a lot of users to look after.
“For example, if a server went down, I would be on call to provide support. That was a bit frustrating because sometimes you could find yourself at 2am on a Saturday morning trying to fix a broken server, and the pressure was immense as everyone was on your case. These things happened frequently and so, was quite stressful,” she says.
But this was just one aspect of the problem. She needed to achieve something significant with her life and career. So, to get more from life, she had to move and she was determined to do so. Perceiving intuitively that she was destined for greatness, she became convinced she shouldn’t continue working in an office. Feeling knew there was something in her that needed expression; she wanted to be with people and give back to the society.
So, she quit and went to MIT for her MBA in order to rediscover her life’s purpose.
“I’m of the opinion that studying for an MBA is usually a good idea because it gives you “breathing space”. It affords you the time to look for a job, think about your life, provides an amazing network and much more,” she says.
And the decision to go to the highly reputable school paid off.
“That experience has made me to have a lot of lifetime friends at MIT and I’m really glad I went there. I also applied to Harvard, but didn’t get admitted. However, with hindsight, I am glad I ended up at MIT. Whilst there, I was able to interact with counterparts at Harvard, and other prestigious schools.
“At MIT, it’s all about “How do you get stuffs done? It was all about learning by doing. The culture was less talk, more doing. If you had an idea, then it was all about implementing it.
“It was an amazing two-year programme consisting of four semesters. Wecyclers was born in the second year of my MBA. For our project, we had to choose specific sectors for our group, and I chose waste,” she says.
In January 2012, when there were no classes, she came to Nigeria to see her family and ended up doing a small project on waste management. This was during the fuel subsidy crisis, which made planning difficult because of the strikes. The idea was to ask people to turn in their waste for an opportunity to qualify for a raffle draw and win various items. The response was simply amazing.
“The people were excited. We also interviewed some kids, asking what they thought about waste in general. These people were generally unhappy about the state of waste management within their communities, which sometimes caused disputes with neighbours,” she explains.
After this, she returned to MIT to complete the MBA, and whilst there, she entered into some competitions with the business idea and got support. She then returned to Nigeria after graduation to set up the business. Since then things have been progressing.
She finally returned home in 2012, especially as her husband had always lived in Nigeria and also because she wanted to be closer to her parents, family and friends, and to set up Wecyclers.
Like most startups, taking off was hard. Initially, she lived with her parents on the Mainland for some months, while her kids schooled on the Island. So, they were commuting there everyday. Every week she spent 13 hours in traffic, which was quite a nightmare.
“It was also tough getting used to all the power cuts. The generator was not on all the time, and with the intense heat, it was difficult to sleep at night. But thankfully, I survived,” she says.
What informed her establishing Wecyclers?
“In developing countries like Nigeria, there is low awareness of recycling and relating to environmental sustainability. So, we have a fleet of low cost cargo tricycles called Wecycles that go from house to house to collect recyclable plastics plastic, ‘pure water’ sachets and cans,” she explains.
At the point of collection, the materials are weighed and placed in the hands of Wecycles workers, who then take them to their hub, from where the people sell to the recyclers.
“The initial response was mixed. As you may imagine, this was a new idea, so people had to get used to it. The first challenge was in understanding what people wanted in exchange for their waste. Different people had different expectations, so creating the market was somewhat challenging. We have a system where people accumulate points in order to redeem their gifts. The quality of their gift depends on how much they recycle.
“We have had people expecting to redeem laptops for giving a single sachet of pure water, but anyone should recognise it would take a bit more than that. Also, not many people appreciated the environmental impact initially. However, once they started noticing cleaner environments, they began to appreciate the service more. Things have been progressing steadily, and we now have 31 employees in the business.
“Our clients keep coming consistently. They even refer us to others for bigger jobs. This, in my mind can only mean one thing: they are truly satisfied with the services we provide and our ability to deliver and get the job done in time. It means we are doing many things right. I am convinced that we do our best and always do everything to the expectations of Nigerians. Yes, there are challenges, but we keep improving by the day,” she says.
With hard work, innovation and professionalism, Bilikiss and her team can be referred to as the new face of waste management in Nigeria. This means doing waste management differently and with lots of dexterity, which was hitherto not there, at least, not to that magnitude.
This, she admits, is a challenge, but they are getting there. She strongly believes in having a good training programme, and the rest would fall into place. Hence, in the next five to 10 years, her goal is to be the best recycling company in Nigeria.
“We have the capability of creating efficient recycling all over Nigeria and are currently in Surulere and Ebute-Metta in Lagos. We have built a scalable model and will expand. We are not just about collecting waste; we are also a social enterprise, helping people to create value out of their waste. For instance, if a low-income earner is trying to buy a blender, they can use their waste as a savings to afford it”.
She advises young Nigerians desiring to go into the recycle business or own businesses to first of all ensure they have sufficient determination and focus before making the move.
“When you are still new, do not make any major investment, as you might overspend because you still calculate and think of money in terms of dollars and pounds. Make sure your mind is calibrated to the local valuation system before making major purchases”.
And when seeking employment, they shouldn’t be afraid to ask to meet the company’s MD.
“HR officials might not the most helpful since there might not even be a vacancy. So, you need to speak to the decision makers to network and let them know about you. They should also dress smart and nice. This is given that in Nigeria, dressing is extremely important, as people judged you on how you present yourself,” she explains.
She is very passionate about national growth. She is equally a believer in the Nigeria’s potentials to be the best country in the wo
rld, if it can get it right.
“I am a Nigerian to my roots. I love this country, but should not be struggling in the very basics. It is possible for us to do things right. I think we have the problem of leadership and following. The leaders don’t seem to have a firm and deep conviction in making this country livable and prosperous. On their part, the followers do not even know what they want, so they cannot demand such from the leaders.”
She is worried and indeed saddened that Nigerians are not patriotic.
“We have so many Nigerians, whose life ambition, is to ensure that their children do not grow up here and never even know what Nigeria is all about. We take our monies and store them in banks abroad. We travel far and wide to the best of countries and yet we cannot replicate what we see there in our own country. We cannot go far continuing like this,” she says, soberly.