Having completed an MBA at MIT and worked at IBM as a software engineer for 5 years, Bilikiss returned to Nigeria to turn her skills to solving a big problem in Lagos. Though there are recycling centres in Lagos, they don’t have enough materials coming in – people aren’t recycling their waste. Even the factory of one of the largest recycling firms in the country runs at 50 to 60% below capacity.
This is where Wecyclers comes in. Their work ensures local recycling centres have a steady supply of materials, while cleaning up the streets and providing a source of income.
But three months ago, Bilikiss made the decision to step down as CEO of Wecyclers to take a position at the Lagos State Parks and Gardens Agency as General Manager.
We caught up with Bilikiss to see what she’s learning in this transition period.
Ogunte: What has been the highlight of your career so far?
Bilikiss: Being able to create a model that works and is relevant, and that solves a big problem that affects a lot of people. It has been amazing to receive the recognition for this achievement from all around the world.
Ogunte: How did Wecyclers come about?
Bilikiss: The idea came out of a class project while I was at MIT. I was trying to learn about Africa. The class was called Development Ventures and focused on the problems faced by people living at the base of the economic pyramid. Through this, I learned about so many issues around Africa. What struck me the most was that a lot of the issues people are facing are things we can easily solve. There are also not that many Africans working in this area, so I decided to get involved.
The team came to Nigeria in August 2012 and we started up with one bicycle. Since then, it’s grown into an organisation that employs around 200 people.
It was all based on the premise that you can help anyone engage in cleaning up their environment, even people who we think are not educated or not exposed to certain ideas.
We created a system where people can collect low-value materials and gain value from them. The waste can then be recycled and turned into useful products.
Ogunte: What were the most difficult challenges you faced when leading Wecyclers?
Bilikiss: Honestly, there was a different challenge every single day! Initially, it was coming up with the solution: what exactly did the solution look like and how did it work?
Recruiting the team was a big challenge. We had to find people who were talented enough to contribute meaningfully to the project, and who were also willing to come to Nigeria.
The next challenge was gaining enough traction in the community. People initially didn’t know much about recycling. It was really hard to get them to trust the model. The idea is that you collect waste and give it to the Wecyclers once a week. You get points on your phone for every kilo of waste, then every 3 months you exchange your points for food or household items.
For the first few cycles, people didn’t really trust that we were going to give them anything. We had to build up our credibility gradually. I think those were some of the toughest times for us.
Later on, we grew and reached the point where we were beginning to become profitable. The whole process of putting the right structures in place for Wecyclers to grow into a larger company was a huge challenge.
Ogunte: What key learning will you take with you?
Bilikiss: The main thing I take forward is confidence.
When you are in your own company, you can exist in a little bubble, and it can be hard to know how well you’re really doing as a business. I didn’t realise how well we were doing until I left.
Three months ago, I started working for the government, and I’m only now understanding how much we were able to do as a small company. Our focus was always on building a world-class experience. It doesn’t matter who we are serving, we do our very best to give them a great experience. Just seeing that we actually do a very good job at that. Though we are a new, smaller organisation, we are actually achieving results comparable to bigger organisations, which is very satisfying.
I take with me confidence in being able to come up with solutions to problems that I see. Also, leadership skills like how to guide a team and share a vision with them.
Most importantly for me I think is getting people to be passionate about something, and owning it. At Wecyclers, when we were small and we couldn’t afford to pay people, we had to find people that loved what Wecyclers was all about. So, I learnt early on how to sell people our vision. I try to use that skill a lot now.
At Wecyclers, it was a priority to engage with the guys who ride the bikes, and to let them know how important their work is. Sometimes, it’s as simple as just giving them the proper uniforms to wear. It made a huge difference to get them to dress properly. It’s dirty work, so it’s easy to look scruffy, but expecting certain standards of appearance actually goes a long way to remind them that they are doing important work.
It’s this kind of things that has been a key learning for me, though these things are sometimes not very measurable.
Ogunte: Do you have any tips on how to engage people?
Bilikiss: Don’t try to force it. When you come across someone who doesn’t buy into your vision, it’s kind of tempting to see if you can change their mind. But it’s often better to let them go.
To persuade people to change their habits, you need to find out what makes them tick. Try to see the situation through their eyes and their value system. Something I found is that most people want to feel like they belong. Frame it so they see what an essential role they play: if the venture benefits and grows, they will benefit and grow with it.
Ogunte: What was it like for you as a woman in tech?
Bilikiss: It was challenging. It’s difficult to be taken seriously because people don’t think you have that depth, as a woman. It’s an unspoken thing, but people think you can’t be hardcore enough because you’re a girl. So, you have to work harder to build respect from people.
You cannot ever slack off as a woman, you don’t have that privilege. It’s like how, if a woman driver makes a mistake, it’s automatically that all women are bad drivers. Whereas, if a man makes a mistake, you think he is probably just having a bad day. It doesn’t reflect badly on the driving abilities of all men.
Ogunte: Double standards…
Ogunte: So, you are now transitioning into a new role as GM at Lagos State Parks and Gardens Agency. Congratulations! What impact do you hope to make as an environmentalist in this new space?
Bilikiss: I was never an environmentalist on purpose - I think I fell into it! (laughs) But now I’m seeing that we need more people like me to make some noise about the environment. Most people do not think environmental issues are important. Changing this is a matter of life and death.
It doesn’t matter where you are, the well-being of the planet affects us all! Some people think: Well, oh, what we need in Africa is roads and security, or this and that. The environment is not high on their list of priorities.
They talk about securing the pyramid of food, shelter, and clothing before you get anything else. People need to hear that the real base of the pyramid is the environment – if you don’t have a stable, safe environment, then you cannot survive!
Ogunte: What are the key structural issues in your area that you are hoping to work on?
Bilikiss: The government has a very big job to do. We are basically responsible for the environment, which shouldn’t be so. When you look at other countries, parks and gardens are mostly taken care of by NGOs, philanthropists and communities. Here, the government does most of the work.
One of my major things is to get people to partner with the government. I want to help build private partnerships with the government, and create relevant structures through which the private sector and citizens can connect with the government. We need to work together towards common goals. That’s a big one for me.
I want to create an efficient system that will respond quickly to any situation within a certain number of hours. Say, a tree falls down. A system needs to be in place so that it is quickly and effectively dealt with - no questions asked, done. We’re responsible for a massive area in Lagos State, and our tracking is quite low right now.
One of the issues you have to deal with in a government agency is that politics has an impact on the work you’re doing. Management changing hands can upturn the work. It’s difficult to achieve the consistency in culture and systems that is possible in the private sector. I want to build a system that can stay the same, and build standards into its DNA, so that it just works, no matter what.
Ogunte: Did you always plan on working for the government?
Bilikiss: No. It was just a new opportunity that came up and I decided to take it.
I’m excited about it – so far, it’s very challenging. Every single day there’s a new challenge, which I love. I was actually beginning to miss that at Wecyclers, since it has now grown into a mature company. I missed the stressful start-up life!
Also, as part of a government agency, you are entrusted with a certain amount of power. For me, it’s about using the platform and opportunities to be an advocate. I work not to be a regulator but to see how I can help you. It’s a different hat that I wear.
Ogunte: How will your experience as a social entrepreneur help you navigate the pull of multiple stakeholders in the State Agency?
Bilikiss: From a social entrepreneur’s perspective, you learn that people learn things differently and you have to use different methods to convince them that your vision is worth believing in. So I will use this thinking here, and try to be creative in how I present the vision to various stakeholders.
I’m someone who prefers to reach a consensus; I like to have everyone carried along with a decision or idea. I’m also rational and mature, and I like to hear arguments from all sides. I want to work with people and listen to them.
But, if you kill trees, I will go after you! There’s definitely no middle ground or compromise for people who kill trees and cut them down indiscriminately.
In general, though, I’m trying to work with people and carry them along – I’m hopeful that we can find find a way to move forward.
Ogunte: What is the best piece of advice you’ve ever received?
Bilikiss: ‘It’s better to ask for forgiveness than permission.’
I come back to this again and again in my work. Just do things, basically. Don’t be scared to break things and get in trouble.
(laughs) I’ve done this many times, so I’m used to being in trouble!
Ogunte: Finally, who are the women that inspire you?
Bilikiss: Definitely Oprah Winfrey and Beyoncé.
My third person is my mom. She is not a regular Nigerian woman. At a very young age, she said she wanted to be a pilot. In those days, it was unheard of for a woman to do that. Her dad told her that, if she became a pilot, she wouldn’t be able to have a family. So, she settled for the next best thing, and became an engineer. She was the only woman in her class.
She taught me that women can be different. Even though she lived in a fairly conservative society, she went against the grain, which I think is awesome!
She has a good heart, and loves taking care of people. Especially taking care of the underdog - that’s her all the way! She always inspires me.
Ogunte: Thank you for sharing with us, Bilikiss.
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