There is a glint in Motunrayo Taliat’s eyes when she speaks about how she is finally able to take care of the school fees of her three children.

A widow who sells – and sometimes hawks – sachet and bottled water, Mrs Taliat said it had always been a struggle to raise the needed N15,000 to cover their fees for one term.

Until she turned to recyclables.

“I started to pick plastic bottles as I don’t have anyone to support me take care of them; my husband is dead,” said the 35-year-old, in Pidgin English.

“And since I started picking, it’s only a small money – N7,000 – that I add to pay their school fees.”

Mrs Taliat is among dozens of parents in Ajegunle, a popular Lagos slum, who are keying into Recycles Pay Project, an initiative that allows people in low-income communities to pay the tuition fees of their kids using recyclables like plastic bottles, cans, sachet water nylons. The parents bring the recyclables to school in large sacks and, in return, have the monetary equivalent credited to the school. At the end of a school term, the monetary value of each parent’s plastic contribution is computed.

“We had to go into all of these because we noticed to a large extent that most parents have issues with keeping their kids in school,” said Alexander Akhigbe, executive director, African Cleanup Initiative (ACI), the non-governmental organisation that pioneered the project.

Plastics for fees

Although primary education is officially free and compulsory in Nigeria, about 10.5 million children aged 5-14 remain out of school, according to the United Nations Children Emergency Fund (UNICEF). Only 61 per cent – six out of every ten – of 6-11 year-olds regularly attend primary school and 35.6 per cent – four out of every ten – of children aged 36-59 months receive early childhood education.

In December 2010, Mr Akhigbe organised a cleanup event in Ajegunle, where he led a group of residents to tidy their environment.

But in 2019, he returned to the community with a different project – the Recycles Pay Project; the project was already running in more than 10 schools across Lagos.

“We thought we can create an impact in this space because one of the reasons kids are out of school is because they cannot afford school fees,” Mr Akhigbe said.

“So now if you don’t have money to pay, you have plastic bottles.”

In June 2019, Mr Akhigbe visited Isrina School, situated inside a small shanty in the back streets of Ajegunle, to introduce the project to them at the school’s parents, teachers association (PTA) meeting. At first, he was greeted with scepticism and misgivings.

“The first time I heard of it I was surprised because I had never heard of it before,” said Ruth Ejemeli, a parent at the school.

“I’ve never seen where somebody can pay a child’s school fees or buy a child’s textbooks from just picking mere bottles. It seemed unbelievable. The first time they came to the school and talked about it, I thought they were joking.”

But when the first few trials came out successful, most parents joined the initiative. The process begins with a parent bringing a bag of recyclables to the school where the recycling firm, Wecyclers, weighs the bag and values it at N25 per kilogramme. To pay the school fees of one child – N5,000 – a parent needs to accumulate 200kg of recyclables.

“Every money we make from the bottles goes to the parents,” Mr Akhigbe said.

“For example, Wecyclers will buy the bottles from us at N25 per kg. The parents too, we are informing them that it is N25 per kg so as they are bringing their bottles and they are being weighed, they’ll know how much they are worth immediately.”

Wecyclers is the recycling firm that receives the recyclables from the parents and weighs them. At the beginning of the project, Sampson Morgan, a staff of the company, said he would be amused at the shocked expression on the faces of the parents when they are told that their “massive bag” weighed a few kilogrammes.

“Majority of the people don’t understand,” Mr Morgan, Team Lead, Wecyclers for Recycling Exchange, said.

“When they bring a big bag, to them it’s a whole lot. The only ones that weigh higher are when they are pressed.”

Mr Morgan has to always be on the lookout for dishonest people. Usually, in a bid to increase the weight of their bags, some people hide stones in them or pour water into the bottles before bringing them.

“A sack of bottles is about 3-4kg,” he said.

“Looking at a bag, I can tell what it will weigh. So when I measure it and it is giving me excess of what it’s supposed to be, I tell them to open and let’s see the inside. And when they open it, I find they have a whole lot of things.”

Early days

Isrina School – coined from Israel and Angelina, the parents of the founder – was established in 2015 by Grace Amuzie, who is currently a final year Economics student at Crawford University, Ogun State.

It began as a summer class where she gathered nearly 50 children and taught them rhymes and the basics of learning. The class held alongside a daycare centre run by her mother, Angelina. Grace was in Senior Secondary 2 at the time.

“With the kind of environment we find ourselves in, the rate at which children do run around the streets was a cause for alarm,” Grace, 19, recalled.

“So I decided that every summer break, I should gather these kids and teach them for fun.”

But when the children’s parents began noticing a remarkable improvement in their academics, they started to pressure Grace and her mother to start a proper school. After months of persuasion, they yielded.

The school started with four children, increasing by the dozens yearly to reach its current 105-pupil population.

In the early days, the kids were charged N3,000 as school fees, later increased to N4,000. It is currently N5,000. But, no matter the amount, it had always been a challenge getting the children to pay up. At a point, the kids’ parents were given the option of paying the fees in instalments, including a daily payment of N50. The problem, however, persisted.

“Initially, we’d send kids of defaulting parents away but we realized that it won’t do anything,” said Rose Amuzie, Grace’s elder sister and the school’s administrator.

“It’s not like we’ll tell them to stay at home, ‘don’t come back to school again.’ It was like, ‘just go home.’ Then the next day we still tell them to come because education is key and we don’t want some of them to end up like their parents.”

In 2017, while she was in her second year at Covenant University, Rose was asked to assist her sister in the school project.

“When I came, I noticed no books, no pencil, how do you want me to teach you?” Rose, who graduated last year and is doing her mandatory National Youth Service Corps in the school,” she said.

“I noticed all those things about them. So when I went to school, I started talking to my friends about the school and the challenge. The first fundraising I did, N22,000, we used it to sponsor four kids. I spoke to my friends and we put it online.

“Then an organisation came, Green Only Foundation, they were the first organization to come to the school. They shared notebooks, pencils, and sponsored a child to his common entrance in 2018. Then other organisations like the New Foundation, Dreams from Slum, and others.”

While the supports from the organisations were helpful in providing teaching material and school uniforms for the children, the Amuzies still had to dig into their pockets to buy school sandals as well as take care of the teachers’ salaries.

The arrival of Mr Akhigbe and his ACI team with their Recycles Pay Project was a turning point for the sisters. Rose described it as a “huge relief.” “At least, if they (the parents) cannot meet up with the N5,000 at the end of the term, pick plastics, people are there that will come and assist you.”

Currently, 35 children have benefitted from the project – their parents brought enough recyclables to cover their school fees.

Mrs Ejemeli had two kids in the school. The older one just graduated from Isrina and is now in Junior Secondary 1, while the younger one is still in Nursery 1

“When we just opened the school, we were finding it difficult to pay the teachers because the parents were not paying up,” said Mrs Ejemeli, who is also a pioneer teacher at the school.

“Some of the children even came to school without food, sandals, uniform. The school took it upon themselves to give the children uniform, but them sandals, sometimes they even buy them socks, give them food in school here.

“But since the PET bottles people came, they’ve been able to buy one or two books for their children. Some of them have even saved up enough money to buy their children school uniform and sandals.”

Supporting the project

Across Lagos, used plastics and sachet water bags are common sights littering drainages, canals, and the streets. It is no different in Ajegunle where a heavy downpour often leaves residents’ homes submerged by flood due to clogged drainages.

Every morning, Israel Amuzie, armed with a sack, combs his neighbourhood in search of recyclable material. A pastor, his mission is to pick as many recyclables as he can to be able to support some of the indigent kids in his daughter’s school. Since the initiative began last June, he has picked enough to pay the school fees of four kids; exercise books and storybooks for nine children; and uniforms, sports wears, and continuous assessment for a few others. He said he decided to cater to the children because “God used someone to train his two daughters from secondary school to university level.”

“Because if God had not used somebody to train my two daughters, only God knows how they would have turned out,” said Mr Amuzie.

“I now said to myself let me use this and see how I can help, even if it is one or two persons. Nobody knows what tomorrow will bring.”

The recycling firm evacuation truck was meant to be at the school every two weeks to collect, weigh, and value the recyclables collected by each parent. But between November and mid-February, there was no sight of them. In that period Mr Amuzie had stored up to 350kg, equivalent of nearly N9,000. As usual, the money will go into paying school fees for the most indigent of the pupils, buying exercise books, textbooks, and sandals and paying teachers’salaries.

There are eight teachers in the school, including a Higher National Diploma holder, and each of them earns between N10,000 and N15,000.

“We tell the teachers that this is what we can afford to pay, and whatever they are doing they are doing it for the children and their future,” Mr Amuzie said.

“We don’t owe them. That’s why I continue picking the rubber.”

The infrequent visit of the evacuation truck led to a different kind of challenge for the parents in the school, including Mr Amuzie: where to store the heap of used plastics. He said his collection was so huge his co-tenants began threatening to call health officials from the local council.

For Mrs Taliat, after her landlady complained about the heap of plastics in her compound, she made a space in their one-room apartment and began dumping them there.

With the humiliation from the house owners and co-tenants being meted to the parents, frustration and anger started to creep in. Initially, Mr Akhigbe would make a contingency arrangement to visit the school and evacuate the plastics. That, however, proved unsustainable as some drivers decline to come to the school due to the bad road in Ajegunle. He then approached the Coca-Cola Foundation, and they agreed to partner with him.

“We decided to fund that project so that he can be able to upscale it because we discovered it’s an initiative that targets multiple folds, it allows children to be retained in school, so it touches education,” said Nwamaka Onyemelukwe, public affairs, communications, and sustainability manager, Coca-cola Nigeria Ltd.

“What we want to achieve is that we are a beverage company that produces a lot of products in plastic packaging. So we are leading that campaign to actually educate people that plastic wastes should be recycled, converted to other uses.”

In addition to providing an evacuation truck, the Coca Cola Foundation also committed to supporting the parents to raise their children’s school fees. To raise the N5,000 fees for a child, the parent needs to bring 200kg of plastics. If a parent is able to raise 80 per cent of that quantity (160kg), the Foundation would foot the remaining bill for the kid.

“Even if you bring 200kg, we will push it to the next term. We will target 80 per cent of your 200kg and fund the remaining 20 per cent to encourage you to do more by actually gathering more bottles,” said Mr Akhigbe.

On February 7, ACI officially launched the Recycle Pay project at Isrina School. The partnership with the Coca-Cola Foundation has a 12-month lifespan and Mrs Onyemelukwe said they are putting things in place to enable it run on its own afterwards.

Mrs Taliat lost her husband five years ago, and her kids are aged 14, nine, and five. She said she doesn’t yet know what the future holds for her eldest child, Tawa, because her education has been slowed by her inability to provide the requirements needed to keep her in a school.

“Paying their school fees have been difficult, and I cannot follow men,” she said.

“That is why I’m praying for this project because I’m using the plastic to support my pure (sachet) water business. Now if I make N1,500, I’ll keep N500 and we’ll use N1,000 for feeding.”