Startups lead the way on recycling in West Africa

Startups in Nigeria and Côte d’Ivoire are showing that private sector initiatives can make a big impact in dealing with waste. Will McBain reports


Governments have a poor record on promoting recycling in West Africa, but startups in Nigeria and Côte d’Ivoire are showing that private sector initiatives can make a big impact in dealing with waste. Will McBain reports

Saviour Anyanwu, a resident of Jos in Nigeria’s Middle Belt, grew up in a neighbourhood where children got sick from playing in the poisoned water of a polluted stream. Living there meant digging a hole to dispose of household waste, or having to throw it into the street.  

But when a close friend died in a car crash after dodging waste thrown out of a car on a highway, he decided to process his grief by solving the waste problem plaguing Nigeria, and much of West Africa. 

Anyanwu founded OkwuEco – a hybrid word from Igbo and English meaning to start a conversation about the environment – and built an app to get households and waste collectors working together. 

“Collecting and recycling waste is not something we’re familiar with in this part of the world,” he said. “We prefer to just throw away rather than recycle waste. You cannot walk past any of our streets without actually noticing some form of waste; so waste is competing with people for space here in Nigeria”. 

The app uses image recognition to educate households about recycling, and links them with merchants who can trade their waste for cash credits or mobile data transacted through the security of an online platform.  

The app’s inbuilt GPS facilitates logistics, helping merchants navigate the clogged streets of rapidly expanding cities, and directs them to various households’ sorted waste.  The solid waste can then be traded in recycling centres, helping to establish a circular economy in metals, plastics, paper and glass, and in turn give hope to Nigerians that the private sector can succeed where local governments have often failed. 

Confronting Nigeria’s waste challenge

Nigeria’s waste problem is vast. President Buhari’s 1980s “War against filth” collapsed under the weight of rising mountains of waste. In Lagos’s mainland district of Ajegunle – popularly known as AJ City – plastic covers many roads, with sachets and bottles piled high on asphalt and gravel.  

Nigeria is the ninth major polluter of marine environments in the world, according to Environmental Sciences Europe, while a recent study in Nigeria estimated that around 60,000 tonnes of used electronics are imported per year, as the country becomes an e-waste dumping ground. Nigeria contributes 32m tonnes of solid waste each year – 70-80% of it is estimated to be recyclable, according to the UN Environment Programme – as Africa’s largest population rockets past 205m. 

But despite these great challenges, shoots of optimism have emerged. Last year the Nigerian government strengthened its ban on single use plastic bags by introducing hefty fines and potential jail sentences for stores found to be giving them to customers. In addition, more local businesses are attempting to monetise the growing waste. 

“The Nigerian government has approved waste recycling plants for virtually all the states in Nigeria, but sadly many are not operational,” Anyanwu said. “The challenge is that people are not bringing their waste so there’s nothing to do, and going out to look for the waste will cost more. But when people know they can create value from the plastic they throw away, they will think twice about doing it. And when the person who is buying knows that what is coming to him is already sorted, it cuts down on time and costs for him so it’s a win-win”. 

OkwuEco’s app is finishing its pilot stage after months of trialling among 70 users. The business will charge $9.99 monthly subscription fees for traders, and will be available in dozens of the country’s 200-plus languages. Anyanwu plans to roll out the business across Nigeria from June. 

But the ability of OkwuEco to scale will face barriers due to Nigeria’s low rate of broadband penetration and high illiteracy rate. A public-private initiative is in motion to achieve 70% broadband penetration by 2025, but the federal government estimates up to 75m Nigerians are illiterate. 

Lagos-based Wecyclers operates a similar business model.

Making progress in Côte d’Ivoire

Côte d’Ivoire’s Coliba operates in its home market and Ghana. It was co-founded by Yaya Kone, an Ivorian professor of business management who returned to West Africa after years lecturing in Paris. His company received investment in March from Germany’s GreenTec Capital to help scale across the region. 

Coliba collects plastic bottles to convert into pellets or granules at its recycling plant in Abidjan. The washed and fragmented plastic is sold to local companies to be remade as tables, chairs, or exported abroad to businesses in Ireland and China. The company has partnered with MTN Côte d’Ivoire – Côte d’Ivoire’s largest telecommunications operator – to exchange plastic bottles for airtime and data, and plans to double its existing 24,000 users by the end of the year, before entering new markets from 2021. 

“Most of the collectors of the waste are women,” says Kone. “They don’t have formal jobs but go door-to-door collecting waste from houses. So for us, it was a big point, to convince the women to work with us in regular employment. Not to take their roles away but to give them jobs.” 

Some 80% of collectors who work with Coliba are women, with 30 full-time female employees at their recycling plant. 

“Each team has five women” says Brigitte Kotche, sorting centre supervisor. “One person to remove the seals and labels, and the others to clean. Then we grind the PET.” (PET is the dominant type of plastic used in bottles.)  

Over 5m tonnes of solid waste are generated each year in Côte d’Ivoire, but less than half of the current waste is collected, and only about 3% is being recycled, according to GreenTec.  

But there are profits to be made. The global recycled plastics market is forecast to reach a value of $66.73bn by 2025, although the damaging economic effects of the Covid-19 pandemic may lead to companies reneging on recycling commitments. 

Coliba recycled 5,000 tonnes in 2019, and the company plans more recycling plants at home and in Nigeria, Benin and other regional countries. Its margins are being further boosted by a growing number of Abidjan businesses employing it to collect their waste in exchange for data supplied by MTN as the waste management ecosystem gets redefined. From Banjul to Benin City, a culture of recycling is germinating, and local citizens are doing the heavy lifting. 

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