As part of the MIT IDEAS Global Challenge, dozens of student-led teams are innovating solutions to critical quality-of-life barriers around the world. In this series, we learn more about individual teams' efforts to develop solutions that could earn them implementation awards of up to $10,000 at the IDEAS Global Challenge awards ceremony on May 3.
Wecyclers is a crowdsourced recycling platform that will operate in the slums of Lagos, Nigeria. The lack of proper waste management is a pressing issue in Lagos, as evidenced by the prevalence of trash on the streets. The team aims to inspire these urban communities to take action against this problem by incentivizing residents to collect recyclable materials. By developing a fleet of bicycle-powered mobile collection centers ("wecycles"), the team plans to utilize an SMS-based points platform to reward those who bring recyclables to the collection centers. As wecyclers sells the collected materials at scale to the local recycling industry, the team will use the revenue to purchase goods such as clean drinking water or cellphone minutes that in turn will be offered as rewards.
To date, wecyclers has received funding from MIT Public Service Center (PSC) grants, the MIT $100K ACCELERATE Contest and the Carroll L. Wilson Award. Team members include Bilikiss Adebiyi MBA '12, Harvard University student Emily Boggs, Alex Fallon MBA '12, Madeline Hickman '11, Lafayette College alumna Lindsay Majno and Venkataraman Ramachandran MEng '12. The team also receives advising from Diana Yousef, a spin-out ventures consultant who specializes in areas such as clean technology, global health and sustainability. Here, Adebiyi spoke about her own interest in this issue and how she and her team plan on moving forward in developing their model.
Q. Why did your team choose to address the issue of urban waste management in the developing world?
A. I'm a software engineer by training. I got my master's degree in computer science and went to work for a large technology company. Even though I did important work, I didn't feel connected to it. It wasn't something that really excited or motivated me. I'm from Lagos, Nigeria, and I love Nigeria. But I know that it's a place where there's a lot of waste. I started reading up on the scrap metal issue that we have there. We have millions of people, but we don't have a very good industrial sector that processes scrap metal. I received a Legatum Fellowship around this issue and was doing a lot of research on it. I took a class called Development Ventures in the fall, where I met Alex and Diana. We were all interested in trash and waste. Alex had the idea of making communities recycle, and Diana had the idea about incentivizing. We married the two ideas together and came up with wecyclers, which is crowdsourced recycling in low-income communities.
How do you encourage people who live on under $2 per day who live in the worst conditions in the slums to be excited about recycling? And in turn, how can we clean up the waste in their communities, give them some relief from having to spend money and get that useful waste material directed into the recycling supply chain? Those are the questions we ended up with.
The reason that this motivates me is that I have family who live in the slums. These are people who are not just statistics; to me this community is something I feel strongly about. Over IAP [Independent Activities Period], we had the good fortune of being semifinalists with $100K ACCELERATE, and the PSC gave us a generous grant that allowed us to actually go to Nigeria and do research.
The moment when I knew that this is something that could make a difference is when we interviewed children at one of our demo days. We asked, "How do you feel about your environment?" I remember that a 10-year-old boy answered, "I feel sorrowful, because it's so dirty."
And I could only think, "Wow."
Q. How does your crowdsourced recycling model work?
A. We're looking at urban communities and slums — in the greater Lagos area there are millions of people who live in slums. So how do you enable people who live in these types of areas to become passionate about recycling? The way we thought about it was that we'd need a platform that provides incentives. We plan on having an incentive structure that will provide people with goods such as soap, noodles or phone cards. In that way, people will be able to see recycling as a challenge. When they collect recyclable materials, they will be amassing points that can be used for something that will be of use to them. That's one part of it.
It's also a way of managing real-time what the needs of the market are. Let's say in one month we find that there is a need for aluminum. We can push "flash messages" to people, say that we're looking for aluminum and motivate them to have a directed effort into collecting a particular material.
Q. If you win an award, what will your plans for next year be?
A. We're working hard to have a pilot program for this summer, which is our immediate goal. We're getting mechanical engineers as well as software engineers to help us build our platform. Once we have a strong team and a strong prototype, we will spend the summer in Lagos to pilot the prototype. Once we learn from this, we hope to roll out by next year. Our basic plan is to go to Lagos and learn more about what's going on. We have all of these ideas, but we need to have a working prototype and be able to learn from it before moving forward.
Once we do, we'll build out a fleet of maybe four wecycles to start with and hire people to work on the fleet. The interesting thing about our model is that we're employing people from the dump to ride the wecycles and collect materials. We're excited because of the potential that by next year we'll have four people, previously working in the dumps, who will be working for themselves.
When we went to Lagos, I didn't know the idea would be so well received. Because when you have an idea like this, you chat with friends and academics and think it's so cool, but it's all theoretical. But when we went to Nigeria, we saw that people in Lagos were also excited. They want this to happen. There's lot of excitement around it, and I'm looking forward to it.