“The Cartier experience set us apart and enabled us to outgrow the startup phase”
Bilikiss received more than just money when the Cartier Women’s Initiative Awards selected her as a laureate in 2013. The name recognition she garnered from the Awards opened doors in the hyper-competitive startup environment of her home country Nigeria for Bilikiss and her recycling startup, Wecyclers. In the last three years, Bilikiss has been able to double her company’s staff, partner with major multinational companies like Unilever, Uber, and DHL and plan expansion from Nigeria into Madagascar.
“People really respect you if you have some kind of certificate, some kind of award,” Bilikiss said. “So being able to say I am the Cartier Women Initiative Awards’ laureate, that has set me apart from a lot of people,” Bilikiss said of being named a laureate, which included a cash prize of $20,000.
While some startups in Nigeria offer products or services to the country’s rising middle class or globetrotting elite, Bilikiss staked her future on trash. Wecyclers collects recyclable waste from neighborhoods in Lagos and rewards the households they collect from with points that can be exchanged for everything from housewares to generators.While some startups in Nigeria offer products or services to the country’s rising middle class or globetrotting elite, Bilikiss staked her future on trash. Wecyclers collects recyclable waste from neighborhoods in Lagos and rewards the households they collect from with points that can be exchanged for everything from housewares to generators.
The company’s bicycle -and tricycle- riding employees collect about 50 tons of recyclables per-month in Nigeria’s largest city Lagos. That’s a small dent in the 10,000 tons of trash the city produces daily, but it’s already something. When she won the award, Bilikiss says the company only collected about 10 tons of trash each month. “We’ve been able to outgrow the startup phase. We’re becoming more of a small to medium-sized enterprise.”
Bilikiss started the company in 2012 with one employee. She now has 103, up from fewer than 50 when she won the award. She was recently able to hire a Chief Operating Officer and other staff to take some of the management burdens off her shoulders and guide Wecycler’s growth. In March, the Lagos governor named her to a board mandated to reduce youth unemployment and promote entrepreneurship in her state. Meanwhile, Bilikiss is working with DHL to expand Wecyclers to Madagascar, perhaps by the end of the year.
Bilikiss hasn’t kept the benefits of the Cartier award to herself. After receiving the honor, she started mentoring other startups in Nigeria. Her mentees include two subsequent Cartier award winners, Achenyo Idachaba and Chinwe Ohajuruka. “I see women who are doing their own entrepreneurial thing,” she said. “I want to help.”
Despite having accomplished so much, Bilikiss says her entrepreneurial journey is just beginning.
“My goal for Wecyclers is to be… a huge waste management company in Sub-Saharan Africa, where we are empowering people with waste,” she said. “I definitely know I’m not that person yet but I hope to be so in the future.”
According to LAWMA, the Lagos Waste Management Authority, Nigeria’s most populous city produces 10,000 metric tons of waste every day. ‘Much of this is not collected,’ says Bilikiss Adebiyi, the entrepreneur steering Wecyclers. Her company offers waste collection and recycling services to the city’s informal settlements, where an estimated 66% of Lagosians live. ‘City garbage trucks often can’t reach them due to bad road conditions. They park in the vicinity and wait for people to bring their trash. Disposing of it becomes pot luck!’
All too often, the refuse is dumped in the street or in open gutters, where plastic bottles and aluminum cans are a particular hazard, explains Bilikiss. ‘They block the gutters and cause stagnant water, which draws mosquitoes and malaria. When the rains come to the water floods into people’s homes: they can be knee-deep in dirty stagnant water.’