In Illorin, the capital city of Nigeria’s Kwara state, plastic waste litters the streets and piles up in open-air dump sites. If it isn’t burned, releasing toxic smoke, much of it clogs gutters and waterways, leading to flooding and the displacement of people when the rains start. And like plastics around the world, some of it eventually makes its way from inland areas to the coast and into oceans, where it kills sea life and creates dead zones.

Folashade and Victor Amusa, two young scientists, saw an opportunity in that massive environmental problem that threatens the health and livelihoods of millions of people globally. They want to show that another future is possible by building a sustainable, eco-friendly business that transforms plastic waste into products as diverse as artificial grass, shoe soles and carpet. Ambitious social entrepreneurs, they launched Vicfold Recyclers.

In four years it has become a sprawling but effective entity that operates a youth recycling program, entices communities to swap their trash for value in a waste buy-back scheme, engages women to sort recyclables, and trains young people to operate machinery and gain technical skills.

Now the business is generating multiple spin-offs aimed to promote the common good. “Our work is built on the core principles of sustainability: people, planet and profit,” Folashade said.

Looking back, the beginning of their business based on recycling was when they realised that most of the waste from their kitchen could be recycled. To the bemusement of their neighbours, they began collecting it in their backyard. The challenge, common to all entrepreneurs, was how to grow that practice into a profitable enterprise.

Folashade, a micro-biologist, said inspiration for how to do it hit them when she and Victor, a chemist, both worked at a company that manufactures blown polymer films from old plastic shopping bags and from processed plastic pellets. The films are used to make such items as rubbish bags and cling wrap.

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As a specialist in polymer conversion, Victor knew that the materials used are mainly imported. “I felt that instead of having to import [plastic] resins from China, when we have the same used resins as waste, why don’t we simply convert the used resins and put them to good use in the manufacturing process” at home in Nigeria.

But first, the two would need to survey the area to learn whether their idea was feasible. Did the city and its surroundings generate enough waste to sustain a growing business? And was there a market for what they could produce with that waste? To find out, the two drew upon their experiences.

Folashade began her career in public health, as a student intern with the state’s epidemiological centre at the ministry of health and a volunteer at a project to respond to the Aids crisis. “Victor was into web design,” she said. They met at the University of Ilorin, one of seven universities established by Nigeria’s federal government in 1975. “When we graduated, we started a web design and IT business before we got married.”

Epidemiologists track the spread of diseases and model how they might develop in communities. Designing web and information technology systems requires evaluating complex variables and planning their applications. “Before you could base an industry on recycled waste, said Victor, “the question we wanted to answer was how much waste is actually generated?”

They combined their skills to do a waste audit, finding that over 3,000 tons of waste is generated daily in Ilorin, which lacks adequate infrastructure to deal with it. Municipal waste management authorities are overwhelmed. Only about a quarter of waste is collected, and only about 10 percent is recycled, mostly by scavengers who collect and sell scrap metal.

Photo: Vicfold Recyclers Folashade Amusa (white shirt) with women who earn money collecting plastic bottles from the streets of Ilorin, Nigeria

The problem is growing. The state capital gains an estimated 100,000 inhabitants every year, partly people fleeing insurgency in states further north, and is expected to reach a population of 6.3 million within 30 years.

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Plastic is transformed into employment and environmental progress.

To the Amusas, all that unsightly, unhealthy garbage looked like plastic gold that could be transformed into jobs, cleaner water and cleaner air. “One PET plastic bottle saves as much energy as it takes to burn it in an incinerator,” said Folashade.

Finding funding to launch an untested idea is never easy. But they won 15,000 Euros in a competition called #youforG20, organised to commemorate the holding of the G20 Summit in Germany in 2017. The first of many awards and grants, the money enabled them to buy land and equipment to kick-start their business.

They recently got a boost when Folashade was selected as a Mandela Washington Fellow, in a collaboration of USAID, Citi Foundation, and the United States African Development Foundation (USADF), which provides capital for fellows to invest in their enterprises. USADF has deep experience working across Africa and in the last five years has invested more than U.S.$100 million directly into over a thousand African owned and operated entities and has funded and nurtured hundreds of youth entrepreneurs in dozens of African countries.

The fellowship brings the young changemakers to the United States, where they spend time on university campuses and with businesses. “I am the quiet type”, said Folashade, “but the fellowship opened me up. I was able to meet different African youth who are also doing things in their communities, and we came together to rub minds.”

A tour of the Ilorin University campus, where Vicfold has set up operations, gives a sense of the business’s scope. The campus population of 60,000 produces tens of thousands of used plastic bottles every week. Until Foloshade and Victor began their project, they were all cast into a landfill on the property.

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“Fortunately,” Victor said, “the current vice-chancellor, Professor Sulyman Age Abdulkareem – a professor of chemical engineering – happened to be one of my lecturers (teachers) when I was a student here. So he said, ‘You mean you could actually stop us from burning this waste?’ We said, ‘Yes.’ And he said, ‘Come do it.'”

They have since turned the dump into what they call a recycling park – a “park” because they do the recycling under the shade of trees which will replace the waste dumps. “This recycling park falls under our CREP Model – which stands for Community Recycling Engagement Program – and which refers to recycling and engagement solutions for large institutions and communities,” Victor said.

Now Vicfold has another recycling location in the city of Ilorin and has been invited to set up parks on another two campuses. The more plastic that is reclaimed, the fewer emissions that cause climate change. The more communities that engage through the project, the more ‘ownership’ they take of their streets and their health.

Now, Vicfold has been hit by impact of Covid-19. Like other USADF supported organizations across Africa, the company has turned its work into supporting community responses. “The safety of our workforce is of high priority,” Foloshade says, “so in compliance with the government directive on lockdown, major operations have been on hold. We have continued to engage our network of wastepickers in ways that can heighten their safety while directly distributing food and other palliatives with the support of Leap Africa, a social impact non-profit.”

Folashade remains confident of a future beyond the virus. She looks forward to using her grant from the USADF to buy new machinery to further scale up waste recycling by women and youth in Kwara State.

By Bunmi Oloruntoba

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