Uncollected trash is a very big problem in developing regions of the world, especially Africa.
According to a World Bank Urban Development Series report, Africa currently produces just about 70 million tons of waste every year. With its rapid urbanization and growing economies, waste production in Africa will exceed 160 million tons by the year 2025.
Waste is a problem because it causes pollution, disease and environmental crisis when it’s not properly disposed. The good news is, most of the waste produced in Africa can be recycled and reused to create new products. Sadly, only about 10 percent of the waste generated every day in Africa is collected. The rest usually ends up in illegal dump sites, gutters and drainage in Africa’s cities.
Did you know that in the USA and Europe, waste collection and recycling is a multi-billion dollar industry? In this article, I’ll introduce you to five amazing African entrepreneurs who are building successful businesses in the waste recycling business. They are the young men and women who are creating jobs, building wealth and saving Africa’s natural environment.
Let’s meet Africa’s top entrepreneurs who have mastered the science of making money from trash.
1. Bilikiss Adebiyi Abiola – Wecyclers, Nigeria
Lagos, Nigeria’s most populous city of over 16 million people, produces up to 10,000 metric tons of waste every day. And much of this waste is not collected. This uncollected waste leads to clogged waterways and unsightly heaps of trash that often line the streets.
Bilikiss is the CEO and co-founder of Wecyclers, a for-profit social enterprise working to help communities reclaim their neighborhoods from unmanaged waste. Founded in 2012, Wecyclers uses low-cost cargo bicycles called “wecycles” to provide convenient recycling services to households in Lagos by using an SMS-based incentives system.
Bilikiss developed the business idea as an MBA student in the USA, after a five-year career as a corporate software engineer at the IBM Corporation. She left her corporate job and decided to focus on the waste business. Bilikiss sees huge potential in this sector, with Nigeria’s recycling plants hungry for recycled waste materials due to local and foreign demand for end products.
Her work with waste in Nigeria has attracted quite a lot of local and global attention. She has been featured on CNN and The Huffington Post among others. She is also a Fellow of the Echoing Green Foundation and a 2013 Laureate of the Cartier Women’s Initiative.
Bilikiss is a graduate of Fisk University, Vanderbilt University, and MIT’s Sloan School of Management in the USA. She is now based in Lagos full time.
2. Thato Kgatlhanye & Rea Ngwane – Repurpose School bags, South Africa
Thato and Rea are just 21 and 22 years old respectively. They both founded Repurpose School bags as a green initiative to help hundreds of school children in their local community in South Africa. Their idea provides recycled and low-cost school bags with an interesting twist.
Their young business collects and recycles plastic waste into school bags for local disadvantaged students. But that’s not just it. These “upcycled” plastic bags have a solar panel in the flap, which charges as the children walk to and back from school. The bags also have strips of reflective material, an added safety design to make the children more visible to traffic in the early hours.
The charged solar panels are used to provide lighting at night. Students can use this light to do their homework and study instead of using candles. This helps students to do more school work and saves money which could have been spent on candles.
Thato and Rea have partnered with local individuals and organisations that are willing to cover the cost of the bags on behalf of the students. Depending on their donation, these so-called “giving partners” are typically matched to a class, a grade or a school.
This simple but highly effective idea has attracted quite a lot of attention. Thato and Rea have been featured on several local and international media. In 2014, they were the first runner-up at the Anzisha Prize, a pan-African award celebrating entrepreneurs aged 15-22 who have come up with innovative ways to solve problems in their communities.
3. Andrew Mupuya – YELI, Uganda
Andrew Mupuya was just 16 years old when he founded YELI, Uganda’s first paper bag production company. He got the idea to start this business in 2008, when the Ugandan government put a ban on the use of plastic bags in order to reduce the environmental damage it was causing.
He was still in secondary school at the time and both of his parents had lost their jobs. He didn’t have any capital. To start the paper production business on a small scale, Andrew figured out he needed about 36,000 Ugandan shillings ($14). He raised $11 from selling 70 kilos of used plastic bottles and then borrowed the remaining $3 from his school teacher.
While gathering capital, Andrew visited local shops, kiosks and businesses to find out if there was any real demand for paper bags. The potential was, and still remains, huge. He also didn’t know how to make paper bags. So, he got on the internet and watched videos. That’s how he learned to make paper bags.
Today, the business has grown quite dramatically. Andrew’s paper bag company now employs over 20 people and produces more than 20,000 paper bags every week. All the bags are produced by hand as Andrew cannot yet afford a machine.
His long list of clients includes restaurants, retail stores, supermarkets, medical centers, as well as multinational companies like Samsung. His company, YELI, has made about 1,000 niche bags for the local stores of the electronics company.
In 2012, Andrew won the $30,000 Anzisha Prize, a major award given to young African entrepreneurial leaders who take the initiative to address critical needs in their communities. He has also been featured on CNN, Forbes and How We Made It In Africa.
4. Bethlehem Tilahun Alemu – soleRebels, Ethiopia
Bethlehem grew up in Zenabwork, a poor village in the suburbs of Addis Ababa, Ethiopia. Today, she’s the founder and owner of soleRebels, the most popular and fastest-growing African footwear brand in the world!
SoleRebels’ footwear is unique because it is 100 percent made by hand using locally-sourced and recycled materials like old car tyres, discarded clothes and hand-loomed organic fabrics. She uses experienced and highly-skilled local craftsmen to transform these recycled products into world-class footwear products.
Her eco-friendly brand of footwear now sells in more than 50 countries around the world, including the USA, Canada, Japan and Switzerland.
A few years ago, soleRebels became the first footwear company in the world to be certified by the World Fair Trade Organisation. By using local craftsmen, Bethlehem has built a global brand and a hugely successful business that has created jobs and improved livelihoods in her local community.
Bethlehem started SoleRebels in 2004 with less than $10,000 in capital she raised from family and friends. Today, the company has more than 100 employees and nearly 200 local raw material suppliers, and has opened several standalone retail outlets in North America, Europe and Asia.
Bethlehem was selected as the Young Global Leader of the Year 2011 at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, and was a winner at the Africa Awards for Entrepreneurship in the same year. Bethlehem and her inspiring success story with SoleRebels have been featured several times on Forbes, the BBC and CNN.
5. Lorna Rutto – EcoPost, Kenya
Lorna Rutto left her bank job in 2009 to start EcoPost, one of Kenya’s biggest plastic recycling businesses. Her business recycles plastic waste, which is collected from dumpsites and garbage cans across Nairobi, to manufacture fencing posts. These posts, which are used to fence houses and forest reserves, are fast becoming a preferred alternative to timber.
So far, Lorna’s innovative business has produced over 10,000 fencing posts, created more than 500 jobs, and generated more than $150,000 in yearly revenues. Better still, her plastic recycling idea has saved over 250 acres of forests which would have been destroyed to produce wood for building and construction needs in Kenya.
She recently upgraded to a larger and better-equipped factory compared to the one in the video below. Lorna’s business has also attracted a lot of worthy attention. She has won several awards including the Sub-Saharan Africa Cartier Laureate, the Bid Network Nature Challenge Award, the SEED Award and the Enablis Business Award.
Want To Know More About The Waste Business In Africa?
I’ve written a few articles before on the lucrative potentials of the waste business in Africa. This article didn’t go into the nitty-gritty of starting your own waste collection or recycling business. If you’d like to know more about this interesting industry, you should check out this article I wrote a while ago: From Waste to Wealth – How to build a profitable business out of Africa’s huge waste market.
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