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Overhead view shows some of Nigeria’s estimated 32 million tons of annual solid waste.

Road to Regeneration: Waste to Life

Rita Idehai helps Nigerian communities turn plastic waste into products, jobs, and revenue.

By Stephanie Overby

When Rita Idehai was young, her mother joked that if anyone wanted her to do something, they’d better not tell her how to do it. “If you told me how something should be done, there was a high probability I wouldn’t do it,” says Idehai. “I was always asking why and challenging the status quo.”


That trait has served Idehai well as an entrepreneur focused on social and environmental answers to the entrenched problem of waste management in her native Nigeria. The West African nation generates an estimated 32 million tons of solid waste annually, one of the highest volumes on the continent. Few households pay for official trash collection, so waste ends up in neighborhood dumpsites, or on the sides of the roads and waterways. Any recycling is left to waste pickers willing to wade through mountains of trash for materials of value.


A geologist by training, Idehai had spent the early years of her career performing solid mineral exploration. She would travel north from Abuja to the poorest rural communities she’d ever seen, where her company would conduct geographic exploration for gold, lead, or zinc. “It was such a sad experience for me,” Idehai recalls. “These people were living in dilapidated conditions. They had so much wealth all around them and they didn’t even know it.”


That experience led her toward social entrepreneurship and informed her view of waste: as an untapped resource and potential source of wealth for those living amid it. In 2018, Idehai launched Ecobarter, a sustainable waste management company seeking to make it convenient for households in Nigeria to choose responsible consumption and waste recycling. Consumers use the Ecobarter app to request pickup or locate a drop-off center. In exchange, they get digital points redeemable for cash, credit, or donations to charity. Ecobarter actively enlists vulnerable, impoverished communities to participate, in order to provide them with a degree of financial security.


Idehai’s vision and Ecobarter’s mission are featured in the documentary film Waste to Life by filmmaker Ose Oyamendan, a featured selection in SAP’s Road to Regeneration film series, produced in partnership with Hot Docs. SAP Insights talked to Idehai about the challenges and opportunities in transforming urban waste management, changing the narrative about waste, and why she believes that a world without waste is not only possible, but an existential necessity.


Photo courtesy of Rita Idehai, 2022


Q: The film describes Abuja, the capital of Africa’s largest national economy, as drowning in waste.

Idehai: The waste management situation is first an environmental problem, but also a resource management problem. The average household produces two large bags of waste every week. The government says it lacks the financial resources to provide waste management services to everyone, and people don’t want to pay for waste management because they think it’s a service the government should provide. As a result, 90% of our waste is mismanaged: thrown on the side of the road, piled up in neighborhood dumpsites, and ultimately polluting our waterways.


Some households will hire informal collectors willing to pick up their waste for a small fee (less than 200 naira, or US$0.50). But the waste ends up in the same places because they don’t have access to official landfills.


The only thing that most people care about is that the waste is not in their backyards. Once it rains, however, the streets will flood because the drains are clogged with plastic bottles and bags. Meanwhile, more than half of that waste could easily be turned into something new.

Q: How do local waste pickers fit into this picture?

Idehai: There are individuals who will scavenge landfills and dumpsites for those materials with some resale value. They’re responsible for collecting the majority of the country’s recyclable waste. But people treat them like thieves or chase them away like pests. The government does not protect them. When you look at the waste value chain, waste pickers do the most work yet make the least money and are socially ostracized.


Photo courtesy of Rita Idehai, 2022


Q: How did you decide where to focus your efforts?

Idehai: I wanted to show people what we could do with the waste – turning PET (polyethylene terephthalate) [NB1] bottles into polyester fabric, for example. But I quickly discovered that because our waste was not being handled well, we didn’t have clean sources of PET plastic. Bad inputs led to bad outputs. So, we decided to focus on building a last-mile collection infrastructure to ensure a steady supply of clean, traceable recyclables directly from consumers.

Q: Was there much awareness of or interest in new approaches when you first started working as a “wastrepreneur”?

Idehai: When I started working on this in 2017, the only people who understood what we were talking about were those who had traveled outside the country to areas where recycling is mandated. It wasn’t an issue most people were interested in talking about. There was a lot of finger-pointing and denial about whose responsibility waste management was.


Now, more people are beginning to understand, but you still have to convince them of the value of getting involved. When we started to go out into the communities to tell people about the environmental benefits of recycling, they would ask, “What’s in it for me?” That’s why we developed a point system: for every kilogram of recyclable waste, you get a point which is redeemable for cash.

Q: You’re also using sustainable waste management as a lever to help populations in extreme poverty.

Idehai: We decided to launch a corporate social responsibility (CSR) program to train vulnerable, displaced women to make new products from waste. Some categories of solid waste are easy to collect and sell to companies with facilities to recycle them, like paper and plastic bottles. We decided to focus on the single-use bag – notoriously difficult to recycle – and turn it into fabric. We saw the opportunity to get more of these bags out of the waste stream and empower[NB1]  women to learn a sustainable trade in the process. This goes beyond traditional humanitarian aid or providing people with food once a month. We can start to transform waste in the community into wealth and do it in a sustainable way. It’s about the environment but it’s also about taking care of our people.


We’ve also been working to reduce the stigma associated with waste picking and improve the quality of life for people who perform that work. We offer literacy development, facilitate access to government IDs and bank verifications, and help with health insurance. Our aim is to legitimize their work, embrace them, and leverage their network to help us scale.

Q: What are the biggest challenges in building out Ecobarter’s capabilities?

Idehai: Over the past two years, our biggest issue has been logistics. There are no regulations mandating recycling of household waste in Nigeria. And trying to serve, say, the 20 households within a community of 1,000 that chose to recycle with us was expensive. We switched from using midsize trucks to electric tricycles for pickups this year. As we’ve opened more recycling hubs, we’ve attached a tricycle to each one, which is more cost effective and reduces our carbon footprint. We’ve been able to advance from offering household recycling collection from every other month to twice each month.


We’ve also found that people are looking for incentives we cannot afford to give. There are not a lot of companies within Nigeria that are processing waste into finished products here. Most gets shipped out of the country, so the value that trickles down is minimal, making it difficult to retain people in our recycling program.


Our focus for 2023 will be on expanding awareness and incentives. We’d like to get more funding for continued marketing. We’re exploring moving further up the value chain to capture more of the financial benefit for people. We’d love to partner with consumer companies, who might work with us as part of their CSR or sustainability goals, in ways that would help us further incentivize people to recycle.


Photo courtesy of Rita Idehai, 2022


Q: You believe we can build a world without waste. What sustains your optimism?

Idehai: The way the world is going, especially in my country where there is an economic downturn and other challenges, if we are able to show people that this thing we call waste can be easily transformed into new products, that has value. It’s not that we will stop generating waste, but waste can become a resource in another product’s value chain.


I think we can get there. The world is already dealing with a shortage of raw materials. Here in Nigeria, our population continues to grow, but our resources are capped. We will get to a point where we have to embrace a circular economy to survive as a race. We have to better manage what we have to be able to sustain ourselves for this generation and generations to come. Now, more people are beginning to understand, but you still have to convince them of the value of getting involved. When we started to go out into the communities to tell people about the environmental benefits of recycling, they would ask, “What’s in it for me?” That’s why we developed a point system: for every kilogram of recyclable waste, you get a point which is redeemable for cash.


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Stephanie Overby
Independent Writer | Business and Technology

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