Ayodeji Onikute is the CEO and founder of Dechets a l’or, a social venture that creates new sources of revenue for communities and improves environmental sustainability through an innovative waste management system in Guinea. During his Master’s programme at Columbia University where he studied Urban Planning with a focus on International Development in African cities, Ayo came across the idea of using waste as a source of fuel and energy to improve cities. And that’s how Dechets a l’or came about.
Ayodeji has created a functional waste management system in Guinea that improves public health and provides communities with meaningful and lasting local employment opportunities. In this interview, Ayo talks about waste management in Africa and how governments can tap into the economic potential of waste to create a sustainable waste sector.
What do you think is the biggest challenge/hindrance towards effective waste management and recycling in Africa?
The biggest challenge toward effective waste management recycling in Africa is that there isn’t an engagement on the part of the government to validate waste operators as a business and as a structure. I think this kind of lack of support by the government makes it very difficult for waste operators. Also, households aren’t very considerate; they don’t consider waste disposal in the same way they consider their electricity bill or water. I think there are other ‘minor’ challenges like how do you make sure you get the trucks? How do you maintain the trucks? How do you get short term loans from banks?
But I think the main challenge of waste management and recycling is that there isn’t a standard uniform voice in this space. There is no standardization, there is no coherent policy that is distributed and enforced. Again it’s not like the police but it’s like they set it up so you have for example a standard of how much households pay for these things. By making everyone aware of the same standards, households and businesses and communities know what to expect.
Entrepreneurs are young men and women who say I can do this, okay! Because the numbers work out. Once that happens, you are pretty much set. Like a household to pay for more than one service. I know a small number of households that pay for certain services at the same time because they don’t want to deal with their waste because they can’t afford to. Others don’t do that. I think it’s very much a question of choice to me.
What are the economic developments tied to your business?
The economic development tied to waste, we employed about 20 young men and women we are paying around $100 a month and in a small city. That’s giving a lot of young employees a lot of freedom right. They are able to have more spending power in their local community, to take care of their family, to have freedom for themselves. So we have one young lady that is about 19years that is working. She is making almost $100 a month. We have a bunch of our collectors that are married with children and they are able to take care of their family that way.
Economic development is tied to our business directly in terms of what we do to the community. We allow our customers to save money on the service we provide, even though we charge a fee. We found for example that seven of our commercial customers are able to serve more people because they have the guarantee of a steady service provider to take care of their waste. A bunch of our customers are women groups that sweep the market, so they are able to do business and sign more contracts because, with us, they are aware that they have a reliable partner. So the market is actually cleaner, I don’t have the economic problem of the cleaning market, but the market is cleaner. These women are gaining more customers so the women are actually earning more and saving more. Those are some of the economic benefits.
Additionally, when we start getting our fertilizer processing going, the average benefit will be the income farmers are supposed to get from low-cost fertilizer that returns higher yield. So we will be doing better. We will be providing quality low-cost organic fertilizer that will ideally help the farmers produce better crops, produce larger sizes of product to sell and earn more money in the market. Those are the kind of economic development that is tied to waste management and our industrial laws specifically.
Do you think processing/recycling will solve Africa’s waste crisis? If so, how?
I believe one hundred percent that processing and recycling of waste will solve Africa’s waste crisis to some extent. Because the major problem is that the waste that Africa generates on its own can be processed and managed in Africa. All the other waste, the e-waste, the plastics a lot of the papers are coming from companies and manufacturers that are not engaged in the life cycle of their products in Africa. For example, Unilever has some initiatives in Nigeria, but beyond that, I don’t know any other major waste initiative in Africa. In most of the spaces, Africa’s population is still at a point where we can go either way. If Africa teaches household, individuals and businesses how to manage their waste, how to behave around waste … the kind of things that took 30 to 40 years for household, companies, cities and communities in America to learn and are still learning, I think Africa can get ahead of that curve much quicker.
Another fact is that so much of Africa’s waste is organic; over 50 percent of the waste is organic. There’s an economic opportunity if Africa learns how to process its waste. I’m not one that subscribes to the idea of buying people’s waste especially when you’re dealing with organic waste. It’s a hard hill to climb just because of the logistics of measuring the amount of waste you are paying for. And there are ways to do it. My models can be completely inverted where we negotiate with households how much we will pay for them, but that’s if you wanted to do that. I think there is an opportunity to solve Africa’s problem and still make it something that is valuable without having to incentivise people to give you waste.
Regarding projects that are still built around recycling plastics. It is because a lot of plastics are still bulky. When it comes to just plastic bags, those schemes have a hard time functioning; hence my business scheme is the way it is. Once we get to a certain scale, absorbing all of that plastic is really just another thing that we do. I do really think Africa’s waste crisis can be solved by the recycling model. It’s the entire reason why I’m in this business. I think at this particular venture, there is so much opportunity.
How can Africa/African governments tap into the economic potential of waste to create a sustainable waste sector?
I think the first thing governments can do is to create an enabling environment. One of the biggest challenges for most waste businesses is getting access to credit. Waste management is a kind of space where if you have enough clients and provide reliable services, you’re going to get paid. We’ve always had a decent rate of payment by our customers and very soon as I mentioned earlier we expect to be profitable by the end of this month if we are not already there. What governments should do to tap into the potential of waste is first to help push households to sign up for waste collection services.
Waste disposal is one of those things that people are willing to pay for. So if the government can create an enabling environment by saying, for example, this is the rate that we want you to charge households and then set the rate at a decent price, so everyone knows what the rate is for the number of people in a household. It would go very far to helping people in the business because it’s a much clearer space for them.
The next thing the government can do is to encourage banks to give small loans. I’m not talking of hundreds of millions but a few thousands to buy or rent trucks for work. Charging a flat fee or rate or giving concessions is reasonable. A lot of what it takes to make things work isn’t foreign, it’s just a matter of deploying it in Africa. For example, governments want to have a clear sense of how many people are in a household. Waste collection companies have every reason to do so, I ask households how many people are in your household and they give me an estimate. Obviously, I expect a downplay, but speaking to people and getting an estimate is pretty much a good start.
If you have an independent third party corroboration of your estimate, you take an average of the two and then you can get closer to getting a sense of what your population looks like and this gives a sense of where you should put schools and what you should be paying people. We also ask the profession of the head of the household, how many people are in the household and that gives us a sense of how we pick the price points for households, but we fix based on the number of people, the number of people goes up into progressive price points.
So for governments to tap into it, it’s really just about creating a space for people to start. One of my biggest challenges is repairing my trucks. If there was some training facility with reliably trained mechanics and access to quality motor parts… the demand for that is immense and the benefits of that to waste operators are hard to measure.
Creating a sustainable waste sector would also require a lot of engagements in terms of the environmental impact of waste. I think local governments in countries across Africa should carry out a lot of civic engagement to get people on the same page.
How do you propose Africa moves towards a circular economy? What steps or actions should be taken?
I think it’s really hard for Africa to move towards a circular economy because Africa isn’t the original producer of a lot of the waste material that comes out of its consumption. Until African governments have the buying power to tell companies to provide less waste in their products and to be more conscious of the materials shipped here, it’ll be very hard to get kind of a good economy.
That said, if you want to look to recycling the materials already produced here, the materials that exist and also obviously, some of the stuff that’s being dumped here, there’s an entire industry that can grow up around that, that can feed it into new economies.
The thing that I think about the most is recyclable clothing and making new fabrics from recycled clothing. Instead of having people wear old clothes from Europe, you can just recycle a lot of the fabric material and then you have a new thread that you can then use to produce new and different fabrics.
I am not sure how that will play out. But I think a lot of the steps I mentioned earlier about engaging households and setting standards and base fees for waste collection. If the government sets minimum standards for the materials produced in African cities, I think you can then start to have a circular economy. But again I think the main challenge is that Africa isn’t the manufacturers of products that end up as waste.
Now, organic waste is a very different story. Creating a circular economy around fertilizers can be something governments can do but again, to do that, the government must set ground rules for waste collection in terms of sorting that must be adhered to.
In light of this, I can see it being a space where you have people owning different aspects of the value chain. There can be a business or two that are just paying for organic waste and then processing it into fertilizers for sale. This is obviously my business model.
What do you perceive is the general attitude of Africans and African governments towards waste management and recycling?
In my experience, Africans and African governments have very different attitudes towards waste management and waste recycling. I think generally, governments do not really care about waste management other than the fact that it makes them look bad to see large piles of garbage in cities.
Meanwhile, Africans generally see waste as a nuisance and want to get rid of it. So when people think about waste management, for example, my company gets a lot of positive feedback for the work we do.
I think that most people don’t consider waste management and recycling because it’s not something you generally consider. Governments consider it because they need to implement these things to make their communities and cities better. However, that’s lacking on the part of local governments here. Hence I think the general attitude is one of nonchalance.
But like I said, here, I think people see it as a remarkable thing because they see me as this foreigner doing something that their local people aren’t doing and putting in time and skill. But for them, it’s just about getting rid of the garbage, they don’t think about anything other than that. I think people need to be educated on the importance of recycling and processing. I think that will help.
One of the things I’ve realized is that waste collectors have a lot of leverage to get people to do what they want. As a company, we’ve noticed a lot of behavioural change with small things. The general attitude of households is “whatever it takes to ensure you keep coming to get rid of my waste, I’m doing it.”
That said, I’ve been contacted by two local governments to think about launching waste collection services in their area, so there’s that.