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. Fela Akinse – SALUBATA footwears, Nigeria
He’s credited for been the first to recycle plastic bottle waste into modular shoes for fashion in Nigeria and the shoes are available all over the world.His successful experiments with plastic waste paved the way for numerous developments in the industry space.
Fela Akinse Was born in lagos State but hail from Ondo State. He holds a Bachelors in Environmental Toxicology, 2013/2014, University of Lagos and a
Masters degree in Environmental Toxicology and Pollution Management, University of Lagos 2017 with distinctions.
He have received several awards over the years for his inventions notably are; Next Einstein Forum 2020, LEAP Africa Fellow 2019/2020, Africa 3535
Laureate (2019) Winner of the UUBO Black Friday Pitch Competition (2019), UK
Government’s Department of International Trade Hackathon Winner (2019) on social
innovation from plastic wastes to shoes, UBER pitch winner (2019), British Council
Entrepreneurship Incubation (2019), Forbes Fellow (2018)
In today’s contemporary Africa, daily life activity is gradually moving towards technology and inventions. It is with this regard that Fela Akinse of Nigeria invented the footwears through plastic waste, and became the first West African to initiate such.
The SALUBATA footwears is affordable and available in around the world. According to Fela Akinse, his invention is to help reduce waste and to help produce economic wears for the less privilege as well.
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Additionally, He owns two global patents in repurposing modular shoes from recycled plastic wastes and also the Carbon to Oxygen decomposition shoe technology. He also co-founded a Fintech, Genera, with his wife Yewande Akinse who is also an entrepreneur (cofounder at Genera Finance) Poet and Author of two collections of poems titled, “A Tale of being, of green and of ing” (2019) and Voices: A collection of poems that tell stories (2016). She holds a Bachelors and Masters degree in law from the University of Lagos.
Her poems have appeared in Afritondo, Trampset, Galleyway, Nightingale and Sparrow, The Creative Zine, The Agam Agenda, The Open Culture Collective, Shuf Poetry, Visual Verse and elsewhere.
She is the winner of the World Bank YouthActonEDU poetry prize, the Project Knucklehead prize for Creative Rebellion, The Guardian Newspaper Poetry Prize and The Fidelity Bank prize for creative writing.
She is a multidimensional individual committed to solving problems and a serial entrepreneur driven by deep intellectual curiosity, hardwork, creativity and innovation.
4. 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.
5. 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.