Salvaging Waste to Protect Lives in Nigeria During COVID-19

Chime Asonye
Feb. 26, 2021

While considering ways to respond to a global pandemic, collecting trash might not seem like the most obvious path. Victor Boyle-Komolafe, co-founder of Garbage In, Value Out (GIVO) saw the opportunity to turn items that have been thrown away into vital personal protective equipment (PPE). The efforts are not only countering the health challenges of COVID-19 but also investing in local talent and the circular economy.

Nigeria began its response to COVID-19 early, becoming the first country in Sub-Saharan Africa to confirm a case of the disease. Despite this dubious honour, in comparison with other countries on the continent, it has witnessed fewer cases. This began to change at the end of last year when the nation saw a new variant of the novel coronavirus and experienced a second wave of infections which led to further travel restrictions and a negative impact on the economy.

While this is cause for concern, for innovators like Victor Boyle-Komolafe, it has also proved to be an opportunity to strengthen particular areas of his business. “The local manufacturing industry in Nigeria is not thriving as it used to be,” he says. “This gradual decline started decades ago but was accelerated due to the pandemic as logistics of moving raw and finished goods were severely impacted.”

Victor Boye-Komlafe, co-founder of GIVO

The organisation Boye-Komolafe leads GIVO is employing pioneering production practices to counteract the trend focused on waste, which he refers to as ‘gold dust’ to emphasise its value. GIVO’s origins are rooted in a competition it entered to find an end-to-end solution to the plastic waste and management problem in Sub-Saharan Africa. The winning product the organisation designed for the contest was the first iteration of what GIVO has become.

The scale of the problem has motivated the team to continue to take on the challenge. 180 million tonnes of plastic waste is generated in the region at a rate of 0.5% per person, per day. That might look like a small number but it means that the plastic waste generated annually is around 17 million tonnes in Sub-Saharan Africa. 70% of this waste is openly dumped posing serious public health risks and environmental impacts such as blocking drainage that increases flooding and spreads pathogens, reducing air quality and causing climate change from plastic burning, and micro-plastic contamination of food value chains.

Since its success at the competition, GIVO has worked on robust solutions to support the circular economy, which emphasises eliminating waste through the continual use of resources. Today — just 18 months later — it has collected over four tonnes of material from 200 households in over 700 unique transactions. This work goes even further than removing waste, Boyle-Komolafe explains, “Since Q2 2020, we have been using these materials to make consumer goods such as personal protective equipment, including face shields and masks, as well as flowerpots and toys. To date, we have made over 15,000 units of these various products.”

COVIDaction is assisting GIVO with subject matter expertise to develop the business’s artificial intelligence and machine learning capacity for understanding the waste materials data it collects. It is also using this information to identify and sort materials at its facilities, which provides insights and helps the evolution of its systems and processes.

Local empowerment

As with many countries around the world, Nigeria has seen a harmful economic impact due to the spread of COVID-19. 27% of Nigeria’s labour force — more than 21 million Nigerians — is now unemployed and the economy contracted by 6.1% year on year in the second quarter of 2020. The decline is Nigeria’s steepest in the last decade and echoes the World Bank’s assessment that the economy faces its worst recession since the 1980s as a result of the pandemic and other macroeconomic factors.

The need for work and local networking was the first thought for Boyle-Komolafe who intensified his focus on local employment. He describes his thinking when he first heard news of the virus, “‘How can we help?’, I said to myself. How can we help our employees, and everyone else? What did we do? We kept paying salaries, and started producing PPE locally to reduce the spread of the virus.”

“Circular economy principles are important as it shows that sustainability does not have to negatively impact profitability or economic growth. If anything, it spurs the local economy and creates societal impacts.”

“We believe in empowering youths and women through GIVO. At the heart of our business model is a franchise system that will allow us to empower dozens of unemployed women and youths. At the moment as we are growing, our core team is 10 people and we hope to move upward from here.”

Shredded plastic produced at one of GIVO’s facilities

GIVO also works in a distributed way by coordinating geographically dispersed manufacturing facilitates. The head office is based in a three-storey office block in an urban district of Lagos, the economic capital of Nigeria and Africa’s biggest city. It’s a busy urban metropolis and GIVO staff generally live within an hour’s commute from work. A second site is based in Agungi, a residential area in Lagos Island, and Boyle-Komolafe has plans to open a third hub to have a greater impact among more diverse communities.

Its efforts in creating health resources in Lagos have proven even more necessary recently as new research uncovered that over one in five people (approximately four million inhabitants) has had COVID-19 infections in the city. Suggesting that the scale of the problem is far greater than previously thought from formal figures. The cases top Africa’s official total.

Working locally and in a distributed way within Nigeria to address this challenge as well as solving problems around waste management and the need for PPE illustrates Boyle-Komolafe’s thinking around the circular economy, “It promotes sustainability of the environment and this is key to the future health of the planet. Furthermore, the circular economy principles also promote sound business practices like using waste, which is a low-value resource to create products that are vital to improving the safety of medical staff and health workers,” he says. “Circular economy principles are important as it shows that sustainability does not have to negatively impact profitability or economic growth. If anything, it spurs the local economy and creates societal impacts.”

While Boyle-Komolafe’s belief in these methods is advancing benefits for business and communities, he feels that it could also do with more support so that everyone can profit from its advantages. “I’d like to see more education and marketing around this,” he says. “At GIVO, we believe in giving value for trash. The best way to do this is to educate consumers about the value of what they are throwing away and this could be done with more incentives, better storytelling, and the use of data to illustrate the benefits.”

COVIDaction is helping GIVO by supporting its circular economy goals to extend the lifecycle of products. With equipment and business development support, GIVO can increase its ability to convert recycled bottle caps into injection moulded face shields and face masks.

Future plans

GIVO has great plans for future growth. The next is to democratise waste management by creating modular recycling sites from 40ft containers that can serve as local processing centres across Nigeria. “Each centre will be able to aggregate and process 300kg of recyclables daily into 100 units of consumer goods,” Boyle-Komolafe explains. “We aim to establish 20,000 of these centres around the country.

GIVO staff work with an injection mould machine

The company’s work will continue to create PPE and it has already donated 10% of its PPE output to essential workers as a way of giving back to society. “Our work revolves around community-based collection and processing of recyclable material,” Boyle-Komolafe says. “By setting up in various communities, we aim to facilitate environmental impact by collecting data and providing waste management services and social impact by creating jobs in each community.”

So what drives him to turn trash into treasure and pushes him to work to support the response to the pandemic? Boyle-Komolafe’s response is simple, “The thought that — If we don’t do it, who will?”