Flatscreens for trash: Recycling for prizes in Nigeria

A prize for one of the households participating in the Wecyclers program. Photo posted to Wecyclers' Facebook page.
A prize for one of the households participating in the Wecyclers program. Photo posted to Wecyclers' Facebook page.


For four years, employees of Wecyclers have been rolling through the streets of Lagos on bikes, collecting rubbish to be recycled from households in the Nigerian company's programme. The originality of this approach resides in its incentive structure: households earn points for their garbage, and those points can be exchanged for prizes.

Wecyclers was founded in 2012 by Bilikiss Adebiyi, a Nigerian who studied at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), in the United States. It was during her time at the university that she came up with the idea for the business, hoping both to help reduce the rubbish problem in Lagos – her home city and Nigeria's economic capital – and to help the poor.

The bikes used by Wecyclers. Photo posted to Wecyclers' Facebook page.

"Households can win food, little appliances, telephone credit, money..."

Boluwaji Oyewumi works at Wecyclers.

About 10,000 metric tons of waste are produced every day in Lagos State, mostly in the city of Lagos itself. But only 40 percent of the rubbish produced in the city is collected, according to the authorities. Municipal garbage trucks do drive around to pick it up, but they can't go into all the little streets and there aren't enough of them to collect everything. To say nothing of all the people who leave their rubbish everywhere, which creates problems of squalor."

Photo posted to Wecyclers' Facebook page.

Furthermore, 87 percent of the city's recyclable waste ends up at the dump, according to the authorities. As a result, recycling companies in Lagos often have supply problems and don't work at 100 percent capacity. So they're obliged to buy recyclable materials that come from farther away, which costs them more.

"With the bikes, we can go pick up garbage everywhere, even when the streets are in bad shape"

On the basis of these initial observations, we decided to collect recyclable waste, like plastic bottles and bags, aluminium cans, paper, cardboard... We also chose to do our pickups with bikes, because that would allow us to go everywhere, even places where the road is in bad shape. In addition, it's more ecologically friendly and it costs less than using motorcycles, for instance, which require gasoline. We currently use 30 of them, which were all made in Lagos. Making these bikes costs about 350 dollars [312 euros].

The bikes can access all of Lagos' streets. Photo posted to Wecyclers' Facebook page.

Each time we go to a new neighbourhood to spread the word about Wecyclers, we take down the information for the households that are interested. Then we enter them into a program, which assigns them a day of the week. This is how we organise waste collection across the city. People don't have to call us. Of course, they can also sign up directly on our website.

Wecyclers' employees fan out through Lagos to find households that might be interested in joining their program. Photo posted to Wecyclers' Facebook page.

Once we've picked up people's garbage, we send them an SMS telling them the number of points they've earned, which depends on the quantity and quality of the garbage we've picked up from them. Every three months, they can trade in their points for prizes: food, drinks, little household appliances, telephone credit, money... Since no one likes sorting his or her garbage, it's a way to incentivise people to do it, and notably the poorest people.

A prize for garbage. Photo posted to Wecyclers' Facebook page.

Some of the prizes on offer for households that participate in the program. Photo posted to Wecyclers' Facebook page.

Once the garbage has been picked up, we sort it, then we sell it to local businesses that specialise in recycling. It's thanks to this money, in part, that we can give people prizes. [Editor's note: Wecyclers' funding also comes from subsidies and awards the company has won.] We currently work with about ten different companies, which treat the waste before selling it again or which make direct use of the materials we provide them with to make other products. From their perspective, the advantage to buying from us is that we sell them our materials at a lower price than what they usually buy.

2,800 metric tons of garbage

Since its founding four years ago, Wecyclers has picked up 2,800 metric tons of household waste and worked with more than 11,000 households, most of them relatively poor. The company now counts 80 employees and works in partnership with the Lagos Waste Management Authority to collect the city's household garbage. Eventually, it plans to expand to Abeokuta, the capital of Ogun State, about 100 kilometres north of Lagos, and to other African countries.