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I ventured into Waste Recycling to create jobs for vulnerable women, keep environment clean — Olamide Ayeni-Balogun

By Destiny Ezeaga

Mrs. Olamide Ayeni-Babajide is the founder of Pearl Recycling, a social enterprise in Nigeria engaged in the recycling of solid waste into sustainable and eco-friendly products.

The social entrepreneur, motivational speaker and environmentalist explained why she started Pearl Recycling in 2016, a passion she enjoy doing,  raising young entrepreneurs and transforming the life of vulnerable women in the societies. Excerpt

What inspires you to go into Waste Recycling?

My first inspiration came from the fact that every morning on my way to work I see a lot of women who are unemployed begging for alms to survive. It became a huge problem for me to give them alms and at the same time I realized that they will definitely come back to continue begging. Secondly, I see wastes  everywhere and the impacts on the environment are enormous which is a big concern for me.  So, in 2012, I traveled to United Arab Emirates, UAE, for an official assignment.

It was at that point, I bought a wall décor from a store and discovered that the wall decor was made from waste which actually caught my fancy. From that moment I began to think of what to do with the wastes we generates in this Nigeria, how to empower these women, build a product from waste of international standard and keep the environment clean.

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That inspired me; seeing two different problems including the problem of waste and  empowering vulnerable women who I know are ready to learn.  So, in 2014, I started waste recycling business before I ventured into it fully in 2016

…From waste recycling, challenges and achievements?

We have done quite a lot as a small company in Nigeria. It is a known fact that businesses like ours is not likely to survive at inception. But, we have survived and today, we trained over 250 women with vocational skills on how to turn waste into beautiful products.  We are currently donating 400 chairs to 20 public schools in Lagos made from waste.

We are training 800 students from public schools on waste management.  The idea is to train 40 students in each school and have about 85 students joining the recycling club. Also we have been able to change the mindset of more than 2 million people who follow us on our social media platform on wastes.   As an organization we are happy seeing those people. We have orientation on waste management. The environment is becoming better and people are empowered to give back to their community.

For instance, one of our students based in Ibadan created forty playgrounds in forty public schools using waste that is a huge impact for the students and the community.  Looking at our challenges, the ease of doing business in Nigeria is poor; you have to struggle to survive every day.  If the government laws are not choking you, the taxes will be choking you.

It is hard to survive in an environment like that. The environment is not friendly for you to build on your ideas and vision. We also have a problem of perception of people on waste, a lot people see waste as waste because that is how they grew up.  So telling them to change and accept new orientation on waste management becomes difficult. We also have problem of mentors, and being a creative industry there are dearth of mentors who understand what we do. So most time when we are face with challenges, we hardly find mentors we can count on and who understand us deeply and can proffer solution.

…Tell us about your organisation.

Pearl Recycling is an organization that was established for profit. As we moved on we saw the need to change a lot of thing in our structure.  We realized that we need to give back to the community as part of our corporate social responsibility. In doing so, we cannot tell the community to pay us for the impacts, so we became a hybrid organization.  This means that, we channel 30 percent of our profit to impact the community, making us a profit and at the same time non-profit organization. But we are registered as a profit organization, a limited liability company. On funding, we generate revenue and from our revenue we make profit which we used to run and sustain the business.  When we started this business, we got few grants from Tony Elumelu Foundation and WIMBIZ which help us in getting an office space and scale up our operations

Apart from grants from Tony Elumelu Foundation and WiMBIZ, do you have any Government supports?

Pearl Recycling did not get any support from the government that is just the truth. As a matter of fact, we have more support from the international organizations than the Nigeria government. Most of the supports came from the America government and organizations inclduing the Ford Foundation, the US Embassy Abuja through Department of State.  We are looking at other  companies to invest and support us.

What is the criteria for selecting those women for training programme?

We focus more on unemployed women, vulnerable women, widows, single mothers, jobless individuals and unemployed youths who are poised on engaging themselves. Through our social media platform and website we announce an opening for them to apply.  The training is not free, but fortunately, last year, the training we conducted was free because Ford Foundation paid for 100 people. There is criteria for selecting people, We select people without jobs and help.

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Is the fee for the training affordable?

It is affordable. And we have training for the downtrodden.  We give them 50 percent discount for undergoing our training. Our fees are affordable because we look at so many other things. The fact remains that when you start this business and you are serious about it, you will definitely recoup in one month after the training.

The raw materials are everywhere which is wastes. So we look at all these things. We see skills acquisition centers everywhere which are quite more expensive than what we charge, and we also understand the fact that something that does not cost much may really not make sense.  So when the training is made free, a beneficiary may decide to forget about it and  go back to his or her normal business but if it costs them something they will appreciate it more. So these are other things we are looking at.

What is the response after training. Is there a mechanism for follow-up or mentoring?

As a matter of fact  I  do not abandon them. I created  a group on Instagram and  Facebook  to continue the conversation.  In fact, I do not capitalise on vocational skills,  I  also teach them  on  how to access international grants because  I  understand the place of funding and capital in  business startups.  That is why my training is different from other trainings.

I help my trainees get TEF scholarship, a lot of international grants and local grants.  I teach them the rudiment of accessing this grants beyond learning skills and I also let them know that they have to also balance their smartness with hard work.  You really can not depend on 100 percent hard work alone. I  do not abandon them rather I place priorities on communities of women who are empowering each other and lifting each other up everyday

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…And the competitive market?

The waste industry is a lucrative industry depending on the sectors. For me, it is about understanidng your market and implore a unique market strategy.  We have competitors but  we do not focus on them because we have our focus on our rules and principles of where we want to be. Although,  I  appreciate lots of people and firms that are joining the business, if nothing else, just to solve  the problem of wastes in our communities.

…Would you say, this business is a blessing?

Well waste is not a blessing even though it serves as our raw material but the truth of the matter is that there will be waste. It could have been control waste; control waste in the sense that in the developed world they have organizations that are taking waste and people pay to throw their waste.

At the same time, there are places designated for people like us go to and pick what we want out the waste. According to the UN an average human will generate at least 1.6kg of waste daily, now imagine the number of people on earth and in Nigeria 180 million people.

The problem is seeing waste on the streets, drainages, among others which becomes an eyesore and of course not a blessing for us. That is why one of the things we do at Pearl Recycling is partnering with people we know that generates waste.

Now for tyre wastes, we partner with vulcanizers. We pay them stipend to have these tyres because we really do not want these liters on the street.  However, waste is a blessing because it is a raw materials but waste on the street is a curse because it causes sickness, diseases, among others.

…Your future plans as an environmentalist?

I am  looking at creating an academy, a hub for creative environmentalists like us for innovation and ideas.  I want to create that opportunity for schools to bring in their pupils to learn. I also want to create an eco-friendly furniture mart  in Nigeria, like an alternative furniture mart cheaper than the conventional furniture and more beautiful.

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