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Visionaries - April 1, 2022

African Entrepreneurs Turning Trash to Treasure

Most of the time, great business ideas are hidden in plain sight. And a look at these African entrepreneurs who are turning trash into fortune will prove that point. 

According to a World Bank Urban Development Series research, Africa generates over 70 million tons of trash every year. Africa’s trash output will surpass 160 million tonnes by 2025, owing to rising urbanisation and expanding economies.

When waste is not properly disposed of, it creates pollution, sickness, and environmental issues. The good news is that most of Africa’s garbage can be recycled and repurposed to make new products. Regrettably, just around 10% of Africa’s garbage gets collected every day. The remainder frequently ends up in illicit dumps, gutters, and drainage systems in African towns.

Here are three African entrepreneurs turning trash into treasure.

1. Bilikiss Adebiyi Abiola

Wecyclers, Nigeria

Photo: Rise Networks

Bilikiss is the CEO and co-founder of Wecyclers, a for-profit social organisation dedicated to assisting communities in reclaiming their neighbourhoods from uncontrolled garbage. Wecyclers, which was founded in 2012, employs low-cost cargo bicycles known as Wecycles to deliver simple recycling services to Lagos households using an SMS-based incentive system.

Lagos, Nigeria’s most populous city with over 16 million people, generates up to 10,000 metric tonnes of trash every day. And a large portion of this garbage is not collected. Uncollected rubbish causes congested rivers and unsightly trash heaps that frequently line the streets.

2. Thato Kgatlhanye & Rea Ngwane

Repurpose Schoolbags, South Africa

Thato Kgatlhanye and Rea Ngwane: recycles plastic bags and turns them into  schoolbags |
Photo: Mygirlsquad

Thato Kgatlhanye and Rea Ngwane were both only 21 and 22 years old respectively when they started Repurpose School Bags. It was a green effort to aid hundreds of school students in their South African neighbourhood. Their concept offers recycled and low-cost school bags with a unique twist.

Their business gathers and recycles plastic garbage into school backpacks for underprivileged youngsters in the community. But that’s not all. The flap of these upcycled plastic bags has a solar panel that charges as the students go to and from school. The bags also have reflective strips as an extra safety feature to make the youngsters more visible to motorists in the early hours.

This basic yet incredibly powerful concept has garnered a lot of attention. Thato and Rea have been featured in a variety of local and international media outlets. They were the first runner-up in the 2014 Anzisha Prize, a pan-African prize honouring entrepreneurs aged 15 to 22 who have devised novel solutions to community challenges.


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3. Andrew Mupuya

YELI paper bags, Uganda

Andrew Mupuya – The Ugandan Paper Bag Magnate-Konnect Africa
Photo: Konnect Africa

Andrew Mupuya created the Youth Entrepreneurial Link Investments (YELI), Uganda’s first paper bag manufacturing firm when he was just 16 years old. He got the idea to start this firm in 2008 when the Ugandan government banned the use of plastic bags to minimise environmental damage.

At the time, he was still in high school, and both of his parents had lost their jobs. He didn’t have any money. Andrew calculated that he would require around 36,000 Ugandan shillings ($14) to begin his paper-making firm on a small scale. He earned $11 by selling 70 kg of discarded plastic bottles and borrowed the remaining $3 from his teacher.

The company has expanded substantially. Andrew’s paper bag business currently employs more than 20 people and produces over 20,000 paper bags every week. Andrew cannot yet afford a machine, therefore all of the bags are made by hand.


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