Bringing about behavioral change is the fundamental challenge to development work. Projects that don’t have this at its core are often destined to remaining unsustainable forays into good works. One of the many moralities within aid is utilizing cash-based (or asset-based) incentives to reward positive deviance. Wecylers has implemented this principle in their innovative approach to tackling recycling in Lagos, Nigeria. According to data on their website, Lagos’ recycling plants are only able to reach 13% of the total recyclable material being dumped. With an estimated population of 17 million and rapidly rising consumption rates as incomes improve, tonnes of valuable electronics, plastics and metals are being discarded every day.
Wecyclers has sought to address this by filling the logistical gap being left behind by municipal service providers. Their collection carts cycle throughout low-income communities spread out across the sprawling city collecting recyclables from households. They sort the recyclables and sell them to the larger recycling factories, who sell the materials in bulk to foreign buyers. Wecyclers’ model provides a service to that their city and people desperately need. Best of all, its not charity, but social entrepreneurship! The households who provide their collectors with recycling earn SMS-based credits that can be exchanged for everyday goods like phone credits, household appliances and even food. They can afford these rewards because they themselves are earning their profits from the larger recycling factories in the city. Their are ostensible the middlemen in the collection of recycling, a middleman whose services the municipality has made a vital necessity for Lagos.
The innovation at the heart of this social business is that it offers an opportunity for all stakeholder to benefit. Their “collectors” have an incentive to recycle the waste they produce and garbage pickers can save on the long journey to deposit their recyclables. The recycling plants can deal with a reliable and steady “supplier” that makes their businesses feasible. Lastly, Lagos and the world can breathe easier with fewer materials making their way to eternal burial in garbage dumps. The project also reinforces the idea that recycling serves a purpose in society and that the activity is valued in the market.
Before we pronounce the project a miracle and demand that cities around the world emulate the Wecyclers model, we must consider to economics that underpin the viable of the venture. To remain feasible, Wecyclers’ buyers need to be remain in business themselves. The export market for recyclable materials is relatively new and still being expanded to new parts of the world. A glut in certain commodities may make recycling (and the international shipping of) certain materials affordable compared to buying new resources. Of course, we live in a world of finite resources, so there is little to be feared that recycling will ever go out of style. Their nascent market is probably set to become a fundamental pillar to industrial production. Another limitation to the project is that it is reliant upon low-income households willing to accept the rewards that Wecyclers can afford to offer. As incomes improve this may jeopardize their ability to pay for people to collect recyclables for them. That being said, once recycling is ingrained as a reward, its likely that families would continue too recycle regardless of how significant the incentive is.
Everything considered, Wecyclers have developed an innovative solution to recycling that merits closer analysis by municipalities around the world. To find out more about their work have a look at their website here.