Rebecca Bulus, 35, is a cleaner who lives in a suburb of Abuja, Nigeria. Married with two kids, she and her family used to dispose of solid waste at a dump site, just like the rest of her community. But she realized that littered waste was making her environment dirty, so when she learned about Ecobarter from her workplace—Global Plaza Galadimawa—she was eager to participate.
Bulus now picks up bottles and other recyclables from locations around her community and brings them to Ecobarter drop-off locations, where she exchanges the recyclables for cash. The cleanup exchange now adds 2,000 naira ($5 USD) to her monthly income of N25,000 ($64).
“I use the money they pay me to buy ingredients to cook,” Bulus says.
Actions like Bulus’ aim to tackle the problem of waste in Nigeria, where solid waste management is arguably the most pressing environmental challenge faced by urban and rural areas alike. Nigeria generates an estimated 32 million tons of solid waste annually, one of the highest rates in Africa. Nigeria is already Africa’s most populous country, with a current population of more than 200 million people, and that figure is expected to double by 2050.
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Most of the country’s waste is said to be generated by households or local industries, artisans, and traders who litter the immediate surroundings. The country’s disposal, recycling, and waste-management system is inefficient and insufficient, with 70% of plastic and non-plastic waste ending up in sewers, beaches, water bodies, or landfills, where it is often burned.
Still, efforts like Bulus’ are a start. She is pleased not only to bring in some extra income, but also to reduce the waste she sees in the environment around her. “The experience has been nice,” she says.
Connecting Homes to Reuse Services
Ecobarter is a youth-led sustainable waste-management company that connects homes and local communities to recycling services, such as community exchange centers and doorstep collectors.
The goal is to make responsible consumption and disposal easy. Schools and organizations can have Ecobarter install collection bins on site, where the waste is safely stored and regularly picked up.
The company has an integrated website and mobile app to make it even more convenient for waste producers and collectors alike. Users get points for the weight of the waste they collect, either by delivering it to a drop-off location or by requesting a pickup in their community hub using the app. Plastic, for example, is 1 point per kilogram, whereas metal is 3 points per kilogram, depending on the location and the day.
The points are converted to monetary value, which can be deposited into a bank account and then withdrawn as cash. The points can also be transferred to friends or family using the app, or users can shop at a physical Ecobarter marketplace to purchase eco-friendly household items or subscribe to basic health insurance services.
Rita Idehai is a young social entrepreneur and the founder of Ecobarter. She realized the lost value of resources like waste while researching as a geo-scientist, traveling to different rural communities to look for solid minerals like gold, zinc, and lead. In 2018, she started the social enterprise to help people transform waste into wealth.
“With my passion for making a positive impact,” Idehai says she drew inspiration from the UN’s 17 Sustainable Development Goals (specifically those pertaining to responsible consumption and sustainable waste management), which she says “will help people use their everyday waste and transform it into currency and value.”
Blessing Ekwere, Ecobarter’s head of operations, says the company was created not only to build systems for waste transformation, but also to give hope to the people.
Some of the Nigerians who benefit most from this work are informal waste collectors, which includes individuals, associations, or waste traders who are involved in the sorting, sale, and purchase of recyclable materials. Ecobarter works with market cleaners, street cleaners, and waste pickers that gather their waste via doorsteps, vendors, or events, and bring it to community centers, where a hub manager pays for the waste.
“In Abuja and Lagos, our major operations for all the recyclables we collect from households and communities are taken to our main operations yard, where they’re properly sorted, bagged, and sent to companies that help us generate revenues.”
Ekwere says recyclables, such as plastic bottles, cartons, and metals, are sold to off-takers who make them into fibers for furniture, egg crates, and new metal products, respectively. And the savings can be meaningful: If they didn’t have recycled waste to use, Ekwere says new paper and nylon cost N20 to N30 ($0.05 to $0.07), cardboard costs N35 to N40 ($0.08 to $0.09), and metal for cans costs upward of N150 ($0.35).
“The plastic bags we collect are transformed into functional lifestyle products using traditional weaving methods by internally displaced women in our communities,” Ekwere says.
Other Waste-Management Efforts
Another enterprise working to tackle waste-management issues in Nigeria is Ecocykle. The company recently launched its Smart Mobile Bin, a waste collection cart it says keeps collectors and communities healthier.
The cart has two wheels and is pushed by hand, which allows operators to reach communities with narrow, unpaved streets that conventional waste-collection vehicles can’t access. The cart is also airtight, which prevents the common problems of smells and leaks between waste pickup and drop-off. The bin operators themselves are trained and provided with personal protective equipment to keep themselves safer and healthier on the job. The company’s founder, climate activist Aliyu Umar Sadiq, is also working on an eco-friendly toilet project, which utilizes plastic waste to construct bathroom facilities in rural schools. The goal, he says, is to simultaneously address health, hygiene, and pollution challenges associated with open defecation.
Another organization approaching waste management in Nigeria through its awareness-raising campaigns is SustyVibes. The group champions sustainability projects to make young people into responsible environmental stewards. Jennifer Uchendu, the CEO of SustyVibes and a sustainability professional with more than 10 years of experience, says the organization has been addressing issues like waste management since its founding in 2016.
“Our street conferences usually include sanitization and advocacy sessions, where we educate community members on the importance of a clean environment and connect them to recycling hubs to ensure proper recycling of the waste generated,” Uchendu says.
SustyVibes’s team of volunteers organizes campaigns and street conferences to educate everyday people on the importance of waste management. Its Susty Marshalls project, for example, aims to empower informal waste pickers, enabling them to see the dignity in their work, and motivating them to do their work in a more organized manner.
Its “Stare Down on Pollution” campaign involves visiting various communities across Nigeria to educate and enlighten local residents in their native languages about the dangers and impacts of negative waste habits, as well as the need to change the culture of littering.
From Trash to Cash
Since Ecobarter launched in July, the company has signed on 200 users, who have collected 300,000 kilograms of waste, primarily plastic bottles and cartons. Based on the company’s modeling, that’s the equivalent of 800 metric tons of carbon.
Abigail Andrew, 35, is a mother of two children, and she works with Laurmann and Company Limited, an indigenous professional environmental service organization in Garki, Abuja. Andrew, whose husband left years ago, earns N18,000 ($46) per month, well below Nigeria’s monthly minimum wage of N33,000 ($85).
“My friend told me about Ecobarter,” Andrew says. “Picking waste for them has been helping me, because I … get money to buy food for my children.”
Now, when she picks bottles for Ecobarter, she earns an average of N4,000 ($10) over the course of a month to help cover the cost of feeding her children.
Juliana Garuba, 45, who works with a cleaning agency in Abuja, says seeing waste around makes her angry, which is why she signed on with Ecobarter. “The experience is good for me,” she says, and the extra income helps too. “Sometimes I don’t have money to go home after work, but now I can pay for my transport.”
Ecobarter’s CEO says the social enterprise is now servicing more than 5,000 households on the platform to recycle their waste, especially within its community hubs in Abuja and Lagos.
But there’s still room for improvement.
Rebecca Bulus, waste picker, says, “I want to appeal to the company to increase the money they pay us, because the place we dip our hands to get the waste from is filthy,” she says.
Another challenge the social enterprise faces, according to founder Idehai, is behavioral change. It’s hard to convince people to sign on, because awareness of waste management as an issue in Nigeria is low, and because government policies backing waste disposal aren’t mandatory. Safe waste disposal, too, can be a challenge.
Still, Ekwere, the head of operations, says the company wants to take the solution to all states in Nigeria and beyond. For Ecobarter, this vision includes instituting mini drop-off centers in semi-public areas, such as malls, markets, and estates. The company acknowledges the obstacles to this expansion, including funding, policy issues, and societal acceptance. But that’s not stopping it.
“The goal for us is to ensure recyclables do not get to the dumpsite,” Ekwere says. “Every household should have access to a collection system.”
Samuel Ajala is a data and development journalist covering climate change, energy transition, and water, sanitation and hygiene (WASH) in Nigeria, working as a freelance contributor to The Energiewende Blog, an outlet based at the European Union office in Heinrich-Böll-Stiftung, Germany and Gasoutlook. In 2022, he was selected as the only Nigerian in-person media fellow to attend the Berlin Energy Transition Dialogue (BETD). He was also a fellow for Future News Worldwide (FNW) 2022 Digital Conference, organized by British Council to bring together the best 100 young journalists from all over the world. His bylines include Dataphyte, Adweek, AllAfrica, Xylom, Gasoutlook, The Nation (Nigeria), Premium Times, TheCable, HumAngle, and The News Digest (Nigeria).