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Nigerian Eco Heroes Find Solutions in the Everyday

Africa’s most populated country is facing environmental challenges that threaten to only get worse. But a new generation of activists and social entrepreneurs are helping Nigerians take steps toward a low-carbon, pollution-free future.

Written by Sandra Prüfer Published on Read time Approx. 4 minutes
Low-cost, zero-carbon cargo bikes used by WeCyclers to collect recyclable domestic waste including plastic bottles, bags, and aluminum cans. Courtesy of WeCyclers

Already torn by conflict and facing the worst economic crisis in generations, Nigeria is also struggling with massive environmental challenges. Despite rapid urbanization, more than 65 percent of the people in Africa’s most populated country still rely on natural resources for food, energy and development. But 70 to 80 percent of Nigeria’s original forests have disappeared due to soil degradation, logging, agriculture and urban expansion. According to the U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization, the country is losing 3.7 percent of its forest land each year. And as the effects of climate change worsen, environmentalists warn that the rate of Nigeria’s forest cover loss will only increase.

But two women believe Nigerians can reverse the damage. Priscilla Achakpa and Bilikiss Adebiyi-Abiola are bringing environmental issues into the public debate and showing people how small changes can help them lead greener lives.

As executive director of the Women Environmental Programme (WEP), Achakpa finds sustainable solutions to everyday problems, with the aim of empowering women both economically and politically. And Adebiyi-Abiola is CEO and co-founder of WeCyclers, a company that uses bikes to collect recyclable domestic waste and rewards its customers for recycling. The two women often appear with other changemakers to share their green expertise on Eco@Africa, a weekly TV magazine show that launched in April. Co-produced by the Nigerian network Channels TV and Germany’s foreign broadcaster Deutsche Welle, the English-language show recently recognized Achakpa and Adebiyi-Abiola as “eco heroes” for their hands-on approach to teaching Nigerians how to protect the resources around them.

Through WEP, Achakpa emphasizes the importance of focusing on women, who tend to be most vulnerable to the consequences of climate change, and providing them with homegrown solutions to living more sustainably. Women have to support their families through two kinds of poverty – a shortage of both money and energy – but there is huge potential for them to tap into sources of free, renewable energy, says Achakpa. For example, she says, women can save money by learning how to build simple mud stoves that benefit both their health and the environment. “It’s about creating sources of livelihood for women while protecting the environment at the same time,” she says.

The challenge facing her and others trying to promote change is how to discuss the complex issue of climate change in a way most people will understand. “We as activists need to do a lot more on educating our people, simplify our language and avoid jargon like ‘carbon credit’ or ‘sustainability,’” says Achakpa. “Even our elites [government officials] don’t know what environmental problems we have on our continent. We need the media to raise awareness, because it is critical that ordinary women, who are our target, understand what we’re talking about.”

Achakpa calls for a holistic approach to environmental activism and economic development, one that provides alternatives and practical solutions. She points to carbon footprint reduction and says policymakers should be looking at the country’s transport system. “If you don’t have two cars in Nigeria, you are not considered a man,” she says. “How many of our big guys can ride a bicycle? In the Netherlands, I saw the prime minister riding a bicycle.”

As constant gridlock pours carbon dioxide into the air of Lagos, Nigeria’s largest city, tons of trash clog the streets and contaminate the soil and groundwater. The city’s population of 21 million is facing a large-scale waste management problem that threatens public health and the environment, say activists. Only 40 percent of the population has access to municipal trash collection; the rest is tossed into unmanaged garbage heaps.

Each year, Lagos residents throw away 735,000 tons of plastic each year – Coca-Cola alone sells around 4 million plastic bottles a week in Nigeria, according to WeCyclers founder Adebiyi-Abiola. While all of that plastic is the enemy of environmentalists, it is worth about $300 million to waste brokers. So Adebiyi-Abiola found a way to make Lagos’ pollution problem work for the city.

“There is a lot of opportunity in the waste sector. It could be a strategic driver for employment generation,” she says.

Adebiyi-Abiola’s company uses low-cost, zero-carbon cargo bikes to collect recyclable domestic waste, including plastic bottles, bags, and aluminum cans. For every kilogram of material that a household recycles, the family gets redeemable points via their cell phones. These points can be used to get household and food items, cell phone minutes and even cash.

Adebiyi-Abiola helped come up with the idea for a student project four years ago while she was studying at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. “WeCyclers gives households in low-income communities a chance to create value from waste and clean up their neighborhoods through an incentive-based recycling program,” she says.

For her, success means reaching a point when WeCyclers no longer has any trash to buy. To tackle Nigeria’s mounting environmental troubles, she believes sustainable waste management needs to become a policy priority, following in the footsteps of Europe and the U.S.

“What we need is a combination of bottom-up and top-down. Many people all over Nigeria are doing waste management in little pockets,” she says. “Our company is picking up trash in Lagos made by multinationals that produce drinks and plastic bottles. Ultimately, the cleaning up should be their responsibility.”

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