Women whose ideas won't go to waste

From India to Guatemala and Nigeria, the initiative of female entrepreneurs in areas of need has been recognised in the Cartier awards

Nick Kochan
Friday 18 October 2013 01:14

The transformation from jewellery designer to sanitation engineer and producer of loos looks a big stretch. But Namita Banka was a long-term traveller on Indian railways and had suffered from the appalling state of the toilets. She wanted to find an ecologically friendly way of solving the problem.

Bilikiss Adebiyi-Abiola made the leap from software engineer to manufacturer and marketer of systems for recycling rubbish in Lagos when she saw how new developments in communications could be adopted to encourage people living in Nigerian slums to sort their recyclable waste and leave it out for collection. Points sent by SMS, to be redeemed against goods, would provide a way to reward them for handing over their waste.

Gabriela Maldonado's move from schoolteacher to educationalist in Guatemala was more obvious, although as a teacher of Guatemalan parents and teachers, as well as children, she wants to do nothing less than change a culture whose cultural inclination is to spank children. "We all want to be good parents and have happier children," she said. "I can help Guatemalans achieve this."

These women have each developed a business model that deals with ingrained social and economic problems. Each is now $20,000 richer as the judges of the Cartier Women's Initiative Awards have selected their projects for support and encouragement. The initiative aims to respond to what may be perceived as a "lack of daring among women entrepreneurs", said Christine Borgoltz at Cartier." There is no shortage of ideas. The problem is turning them into commercial ideas."

Crucial for each of the entrepreneurs is finance to make the step from start-up to the next stage of growth. So Ms Banka's toilet maker, Banka Bioloo, wants to recruit senior staff to take it into waste management and recycling. Wecyclers, Ms Adebiyi-Abiola's enterprise in Lagos, needs money to take up opportunities for its technology and service in other areas of Nigeria. Ms Maldonado needs funds to widen the number of classes across Guatemala.

The challenge facing each entrepreneur is massive. Ms Banka says that 60 per cent of Indians live in houses that lack a private loo, and the great majority defecate outside. "The child touches his waste, he then touches food and no one seems to understand why he is getting ill so often. There is a cultural problem across much of India, where people simply are not used to going inside to use the toilet. My mission is to change this habit."

Her loos, which have been supplied to railways, schools and households in rural areas, dispose of human waste at low cost and are easily maintained. Bacteria, cultivated using cow dung, are placed inside biotanks, which can be fitted to new or existing toilets. They replace septic tanks, which are notoriously difficult to clean and unreliable. "This is a huge opportunity both for my business and for India," said Ms Banka.

Wecyclers comes at waste from a different direction. "Very little rubbish is collected in the slums of Lagos," Ms Adebiyi-Abiola explained. "This results in massive flooding risk as clutter accumulates in gutters causing malaria and other water-bound diseases to spread. If we can encourage citizens to have their waste collected and recycled, the risk of these illnesses spreading will be greatly diminished."

Wecyclers has a fleet of 15 cargo bicycles that are well equipped to collect the waste around Lagos because they can navigate the narrow and potholed streets. The waste is sold to companies that have recycling technology. Around 3,500 households have subscribed to a system under which they are credited with points for each litre of waste they collect and hand over to Wecyclers. Ms Adebiyi-Abiola says the points can be redeemed for cellphone units or basic food items. Major producers of packaging, like Coca-Cola, sponsor the company.

The reading and learning skills of Guatemalan children between three and six are honed by Ms Maldonado's company, called Jugando Aprendo, or "Learning by Playing". "Our methods promote active learning, rather than the more traditional rote memorisation," she said. "Children learn more if you give them space and the tools to learn for themselves."

The company also provides workshops for parents so they can participate in their children's education. "Parents are full of goodwill, but if you teach a child the wrong way, they will do it wrong all their lives." Rather than spanking children, parents are instilled with what Ms Maldonado calls "positive assertive discipline".

Other winners of the Cartier awards are the Jordanian entrepreneur Sima Najjar of Ekeif.com, a producer of "how to" videos; Ireland's Leonora O'Brien, chief executive of Pharmapod, whose cloud-based platform lets pharmacists report adverse drug effects; and the American businesswoman Priyanka Bakaya, head of PK Clean, which converts plastic waste into oil.

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