Ilorin — Two young scientists and entrepreneurs in the capital of Nigeria's Kwara state saw an opportunity in the plastic waste that plagues countries around the world and threatens the health and livelihoods of millions of people.
In cities across Africa and elsewhere, plastic waste litters streets and piles up in open-air dump sites. If it is burned, it releases toxic smoke. Much of the rest clogs gutters and waterways, leading to flooding. Some of it eventually makes its way into oceans, where it kills sea life and creates dead zones, reducing protein sources and impoverishing fishing communities.
Folashade and Victor Amusa are demonstrating that ambition and determination can transform litter and garbage into jobs, education and hope. They see their business, Vicfold Recyclers, as more than an enterprise. To them, it is a model that can be replicated anywhere – changing lives, one plastic bottle at a time.
AllAfrica's Bunmi Oloruntoba, on a visit to Vicfold's operations on the University of Ilorin campus, asked Folashade and Victor Amusa for details of how the multi-stage process works.
How does your enterprise empower women and provide jobs?
We complement the income of the women who work as janitors in the different hostels (residence halls) on the Ilorin University campus by buying the single-use plastics they collect. Instead of having to send the plastic waste to the dump site or landfill, the women separate, sort and segregate the plastics, a process which is often missing in the Nigerian space.
We have weekly buybacks every Tuesday and Friday, and they make money. This project has run for about a year now on this campus, and we have spent close to 600,000 Naira on incentivised buybacks. So the women are able to make extra money, rather than just having one source of income.
When the collected plastic waste gets to our recycling park, there are different functions for different categories of plastic. We hire women – and students – who do a different round of separation and sorting. These women are employed as staff, and we cover cost of their transportation. Also, sometimes, the women will have urgent bills and they can request an advance, which they use to cover their bills.
What are the different kinds of single-use plastic recovery schemes you have?
Campuses are a great entry point for our plastic recycling project, because we can spread the impact. Some students, when they are done with their exams, come to work for us at the recycling park, and they learn about recycling while they earn something.
We also have the "Learn and Earn" scheme where university students come to our recycling park during their free periods and do work like sorting and separating the plastics according to colours and removing the labels and caps. At the end of the day they get paid for what they do. Some students also participate in the "buyback" scheme doing what the janitors do.
What is important is that the schemes involving the students avail them of the opportunity of mentorship. We look at it as having the added benefit of building another generation of environmentally conscious people, who are interested in not just schooling and having a degree, but also possibly pursuing a career in environmental management. So far we've had about 35 students pass through us.
Apart from the buyback scheme, we have Vicfold Recyclers staff who go around to pick up single-use plastics. We have a project running in Ilorin called the "reward for waste" scheme, in which people exchange recyclable waste for value. You give your waste to us, you get groceries in exchange. Companies or individuals partner with us by giving us groceries and other items.
We also use a points award system. Once people have gathered up 500 points or more, we convert it into its cash value. This project encourages people to make a habit of recycling.
Some of our work force are students from the Kwara State Polytechnic, which is not far from the Ilorin metropolis. The students come in when it is convenient for them, they work on sorting the plastic waste and they get paid. The Kwara State government has no jobs. But by getting the young people involved in our recycling park, where they know they can work while going to school, they are able to earn a daily living to take care of their school bills, which makes it a win-win situation.
Can you take me through the business and environmental impact of the Ilorin campus recycling park?
At the end of the day, the plastic we process goes towards making fibre used to manufacture polyester, carpets and rugs, footwear soles and a host of other products. There is a big local and national market for the fibres.
The end [result] is a function of how well you are able to process and recover the plastic waste without the plastics being damaged. The quality of the material matters. What ensures quality is the process of separating and sorting the plastics before the plastic gets to the landfill or is exposed to nature.
Before we set up our site here, all the plastic waste generated at the University of Ilorin came here to this landfill. A lot of the waste doesn't get burnt completely before another collection of waste is added. Before long, the university has a mountain of waste. The university needed to push back the waste regularly every quarter, which cost money.
Now, due to our intervention, the only things that get burned from the plastic waste are the non-recyclables, such as bottle labels. As a result you no longer have the mountains of plastic waste. Taking out recyclables from the pile of waste reduces carbon emissions being released into the atmosphere.
We do not recycle glass bottles for now. The reason we don't is because as a social enterprise, even though we are keen on impact, we also need to sustain revenue – pay our staff, our bills, etc.
There are no immediate takers of the glass within our reach. The only ones at the moment are in Delta State, and that is quite a distance from here.
Apart from glass bottles, there have also been calls for us to take on electronic waste. As much as we are interested in e-waste, the question is who takes the recycled e-waste? For plastic waste, you have a higher level of turnover because it is generated every day. It is also lighter in weight and easier to recycle.
How do you process the plastic waste?
When the waste arrives, the women remove the labels and caps, and sort the plastic according to colours. Clear plastic has a different use from green plastics. The green plastics go to make synthetic fibre like the AstroTurf used in stadiums. They also get used in making cement – the cement goes through a very high temperature kiln, and they use green plastic waste to fire up their kiln, then the ashes are included in the cement.
The clear plastics go to making fibre and can be dyed into any colour. Opaque white plastics such as plastic yogurt bottles are high-density polyethylene and go towards making the thick, damp-proof coarse sheeting used in building construction. The bottle caps meanwhile get re-used in household plastics. Everything you see in this recycling park is re-useable.
We compress the sorted plastics into bales because a heap of plastic weighing about 1,000 kilograms will fill up whole trucks. When it is baled, you can convey 9,000 kilograms with one truck. We try as much as possible to be lean in our operations.
While we emphasise the social impact of recycling plastic waste, at the same time we complete an industrial process that takes the plastic waste away from the streets and landfills and turns it into pellets used for making all types of new products. This is true recycling; not just collecting the plastic waste and moving it around.
Since we started intercepting the plastic waste here at the Ilorin campus, we have noticed that even the plastic waste out there in town has reduced. Very few items of waste make it to the university dump site or landfill. And apart from our recovery and buyback programs, we still mine the waste that arrives at the dump site. We have recovery personnel who pick out the recyclable plastic that makes it to the dump site, and we make sure they have health insurance and safety equipment – boots, hand gloves and face masks.
What impact in numbers do you have?
The recycling park at the Ilorin campus has created 25 jobs, and every new park we open up will bring in 25 new jobs. Out of those 25 jobs, 15 are full time staff, while 10 are contract staff.
Our municipal solutions – setting up shipping container offices and collection centres as part of our "rewards for waste" model – creates 10 jobs at every location we are able to set up, including an accountant, an office manager and the women who sort the waste. Recovered plastic waste and other materials amounts to 360 tons every year, cutting back carbon emissions by 40 percent.
What is the role of government?
In Nigeria, plastic waste recycling should be the work of the government. But it is not being done by the government. There was a time we did a plastic waste-netting project at a river where we noticed that fishermen were getting frustrated by not being able to catch fish. So we said to them, start "fishing" plastic waste for us, we will pay you. They were bringing plastic waste out of the water, we paid them and they were making money.
One would have expected that, having seen what we have done, the government would bring us to the table and ask how we were you able to do this. Instead the government mobilised firefighters to go to the river and pick up plastic waste. They moved the waste, but with no idea of what to do with it. They ended up leaving the plastic waste on the street and people came in from the market, picked up the plastic bottles and used it to sell local drinks. This un-sanitised reuse of the plastics then led to a breakout of cholera and hepatitis, so the government's efforts actually made matters worse. So as much as we want to make more impact, we are also a bit sceptical and weary about going into partnership with government. There is too much bureaucracy and red tape.
Tell me how you have raised funds through grants and awards.
Our processing is a very lean operation. The funding we are able to get is put to good use. When we tell our stories well, we hope one or two people who come across it become inspired by it. We want people in other developing countries to say, "Oh, there can actually be a solution for municipal waste management that at the same time will create jobs and reduce pollution levels, and it is not being done by the government – it is a business."
In December of 2017, Vicfold won an African Entrepreneurship Award in the environment category at the African Entrepreneurship Awards in Casablanca, Morocco, an initiative of BMCE Bank of Africa. After that, there was an award for creativity and social impact [from] LEAP Africa, a youth-focused leadership development NGO.
The more we step up our social impact, the more the possibilities of getting our stories out there. Folashade was in the United States in 2019 for the Mandela Washington Fellowship [in a collaboration of USADI, Citi Foundation and the U.S. African Development Foundation (USADF), which dispenses support and nurtures recipients. Victor was in New York for a meeting with the New York City Compost Project, and it is all because of what we do here.
None of the grants go into operational costs. The grants we get are put to use for equipment and machinery. With the new funding from the USADF, we should be able to get the next batch of machines we need. The main things we plan to get are a bailing machine and a shipping container to serve as an office and storage space for us in Ilorin. Gradually, we plan for shipping container offices to become neighborhood recycling facilities.
See Bunmi Oloruntoba's account of his visit to Vicfold: The Alchemy of Hope – An Entrepreneurial Couple Turn Plastic Waste into Brighter Futures