YouthADAPT Challenge Winner Ecobarter: Transforming Waste into Value to Combat Urban Flooding in Nigeria

In the face of climate change, YouthADAPT Challenge Winner Ecobarter helps vulnerable urban communities in Nigeria lower flood risk through sustainable waste management

U rban flooding is a major climate issue in Nigeria. In 2022,  Nigerian states experienced flooding, according to UNICEF. The flooding is often due to climate-induced heavy rainfall and the limited capacity of the drainage systems as they are often clogged with waste.

Rita Idehai, a winner of the 2022 African Youth Adaptation Solutions Challenge (YouthADAPT Challenge), founded Ecobarter, a sustainable waste-management operation in Nigeria that helps limit the clogging of drainage systems and alleviate floods. The YouthADAPT Challenge is an annual competition and awards program for youth-led enterprises jointly organized by the Global Center on Adaptation (GCA)the African Development Bank and Climate Investment Funds (CIF) as part of the Africa Adaptation Acceleration Program (AAAP).

Through Ecobarter, people can drop off their recyclable waste at community hubs – central locations where waste from different households can be dropped off. Ecobarter also facilitates individual requests for waste pick up from the comfort of their homes through a mobile application. The waste is collected from households by “last-mile collectors,” the waste pickers onboarded as part of the Ecobarter platform. The waste collected is weighed and recorded. Based on the weight and type of waste collected, households receive points, which can be stored in Ecobarter wallets, withdrawn as cash from bank accounts, or used to buy products and services in partner stores.

Ecobarter’s innovative solutions involve a mobile application that facilitates waste pick-up and a reverse vending machine to bolster waste management infrastructure within communities

Through this innovative online solution, Ecobarter facilitates convenient waste management while ensuring people value their waste and refrain from disposing of it in the environment and drainage systems. So far, the initiative has been applied in the whole of Abuja and in some parts of Lagos and Ogun State. 

In an interview with GCA, Rita Idehai shared her journey, the difficulties faced, how the YouthADAPT Challenge helped her operation grow and achieve its goals, and her future aspirations for Ecobarter.

What inspired you to start the enterprise?

A combination of things. I grew up in a home where my parents did not throw things away. They kept materials which they believed still had value. Luckily, we had informal waste pickers who would come around once a week or month to collect some of these waste materials such as worn-out clothes, shoes, and plastics. In return, they gave us new household items. That was the informal exchange program I got used to.  By the time I went to university, I studied geosciences and in my final year, we did the course “Environmental Geophysics” in which I learned how human activities were putting the planet at risk. That was when I made the informed decision to do something about environmental sustainability and got passionate about it. 
Straight out of university in Abuja, I wanted to continue to do what we did at home where we did not throw away but exchanged waste for some value. However, there was no platform like that in Nigeria’s most modern city. I decided that we needed a platform like this, where people can understand that their waste is valuable and shouldn’t be thrown into the environment but exchanged for something. This is how the terms ‘eco’ and ‘barter’ came about.

What are some of the challenges and obstacles that you experienced trying to implement, scale up, or disseminate your solution?

The first obstacle we faced was user awareness. People could not understand the value of their waste so they primarily disposed of their waste in the trash. It is a big challenge for us and we keep addressing it by launching different online and offline campaigns and working with different partners to improve, sensitize, and educate people as well as incentivize them to sort out waste.

The other main challenge was infrastructure and logistics because there is no law in Nigeria that mandates people to sort their waste or recycle. This leaves us at the mercy of households. That means we have to incentivize people to recycle their waste. In terms of infrastructure, there are no collection centers in town. We have to build and install collection centers, which requires a lot of investment. Therefore, our biggest challenges are user awareness, lack of infrastructure, and the lack of regulations that mandate sustainable waste management.

How has Ecobarter contributed to climate adaptation and the community so far?

As mentioned earlier, the major climate risk facing Nigeria is urban flooding as a result of the poor drainage systems. In response, we launched a campaign called “Clean up with Ecobarter” and challenged people to clean up the drainage systems around them. Thirteen communities were cleaned within a month. Most importantly, our routine waste collection influences households to avoid disposing of their waste indiscriminately, hence, protecting the drainage systems. Through this, we are improving our climate adaptation capacity.

#YouthADAPT Challenge Winner Ecobarter's innovative solutions influence households in Nigeria to improve how they manage waste thereby lowering flood risk and improving #climateadaptation capacity Click To Tweet

In terms of community contribution, we dignify labor. The informal collectors onboarded to act as the last mile collectors are people who typically clean the informal space. Their jobs are not protected, and they have no access to protective equipment, bank accounts, or national identification. Thus, we improve their capacity by running a literacy program for them to improve their communication skills, and we provide them with health insurance and personal protective equipment. In the space of one year, a last mile collector triples their monthly income and they transition to more decent jobs, such as driving for a logistics company, because of the level of exposure and capacity they receive.

What led you to apply to the YouthADAPT Challenge?

First, the possible funding and platform offered led me to apply for the YouthADAPT challenge. It was a good source of capital to invest in what we wanted to do. Second, the mentorship and networking activities would connect us to the people that we needed. When they asked what I wanted from this, I was very straight with the fact that I’d love to leverage the African Development Bank and Green Climate Fund. Third, the potential of corporate partnership was also something that made me apply.

What benefits have you derived from the YouthADAPT mentoring program?

Very early on, before the disbursements of the grant, there was an assessment program, and the feedback received was that we needed to improve our value proposition. This influenced us to build community infrastructures such as the reverse vending machine, which would be the first locally fabricated reverse vending machine in Nigeria. We used the feedback we got from the YouthADAPT mentors to improve our value propositions. Even before the grant, the level of feedback and very practical ideas that we got were amazing.

What are the next steps for Ecobarter?

The next step for us is to get more funds. We are trying to raise US$1 million to invest in more infrastructure because they are missing. The second step is to get more corporate partnerships to leverage existing brands that have a presence and the numbers to reach more people. The following step would be to digitize our last-mile collectors’ onboarding process. At the moment, we onboard them physically and create their accounts for them on the app. Once this is done, we would go from 2,500 direct households that we are currently servicing to servicing over 100,000 households in 24 months.

What advice would you give to other young African entrepreneurs?

It is going to be really challenging but stay the course because there are a lot of problems that need to be solved in Africa. There is no other continent that has as many problems as we do but this means there’s no continent that has as many opportunities as we do. So, just stay the course.

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