On Thursday 12 November, the Cranfield 2020 Autumn Entrepreneur Speaker season got off to an inspirational start with our first guest, Lolade Oresanwo. Lolade is the co-founder of WestAfricaENRG, a business that is transforming the waste management industry across sub-Saharan Africa. It collects, transports and sorts household waste, recovers and recycles 30% of metals, plastics and papers, and 72% of its workforce are female. It also runs at a profit!
Lolade traced the start of her entrepreneurial journey to a class at Cranfield in 2010, where she took her MBA. A graduate in microbiology, her early career was in commercial banking, providing financing and business development advice to SMEs and large corporates in the oil, gas and retail sectors in Nigeria. She and her partner came to the UK for a complete change in their lives, and they found it. In the Cranfield class she learned that the odds were heavily stacked against new ventures: most fail within five years. This only made Lolade more determined to succeed through understanding and managing the risks that business founders face.
In 2012 waste management in West Africa was a sector that was ripe for disruption by a new entrant. Like other developing economies, sub-Saharan Africa had yet to follow practices that were already commonplace elsewhere. Lolade described how she took inspiration from other market disruptors such as google and Youtube. She also saw that wider societal benefits would flow from changing the face of waste collection, sorting, recycling and disposal. Existing landfill practices created pollution and toxic hazards for the populations they served, and failed to recover the value that lay in much of the waste. Plastics, for instance, can be washed and recycled. Metals found in cans are sortable into ferrous and non-ferrous, recycled and repurposed. Waste that cannot be repurposed provides the feedstock for energy generation.
WestAfricaENRG was funded with a mix of Nigerian government debt and founders’ equity, and its first customer was indeed the Nigerian state. In telling her story, Lolade also defused some myths about doing business in her native country. Neither of her parents works for the government and WestAfricaENRG has never offered or been offered a bribe of any kind. On the other hand, the business environment is volatile and hard to predict. In its eight years of operation the company has encountered two major setbacks. The first was in setting up and running operations. Lolade and her partner responded by broadening the skills base of the senior management team. The second setback has been the Covid pandemic of 2020. The company’s response has been to widen the product offer and to spread the customer base: today they have operations elsewhere in West Africa, and next year will have permanent facilities in Ghana.
Lolade would be the first to admit that her journey has been a roller-coaster. The millionaire status that she envisaged at the start has yet to materialise and she has encountered numerous challenges in an industry that is traditionally very male-dominated. Yet she remains justly proud of what she has helped to create. For over eight years, treating waste in a sustainable manner, creating long term jobs, empowering women and eradicating poverty through sustainable waste management and renewable energy, has been the company’s focus. WestAfricaENRG has constructed two of the first materials recovery facilities in Nigeria and operates one itself, deploying technology to recycle waste into reusable materials for electricity production and composting. The business drives every stage of the waste management value chain and provides employment for over 3000 people.
Lolade Oresanwo is a recent recipient of the Outstanding Young Nigerian Entrepreneurs’ award, and WestAfricaENRG was recognised by the UK Prime Minister at the 2020 UK-Africa Investment Summit as being a company to watch.
"Your journey and path is yours! Live it! Don't hold back! This time, this period, is the beginning of the rest of your lives...make it count!"
Find out more about the Bettany Centre's Entrepreneurship Speaker Series.