Upcycling waste spurs art, farming among Lagos students

Nehemiah Jacob approaches waste-filled areas with a new perspective since he came in contact with the Foundation for a Better Environment (FABE). The final year student of Aguda Senior Grammar School, Surulere, Lagos says he now thinks ‘of ways to transform waste into wealth.’

But this was not always the case.

Nigeria produces the largest amount of solid waste in Africa and approximately 70 per cent of it are plastics. In general, it is estimated to be around 32 million tonnes annually with only about 20 to 30 per cent being collected and managed properly.

Lagos State alone generates about 14,000 tonnes of waste per day with about 20 per cent of it being plastics. Only about 70 per cent isbeing disposed of properly while the rest ends up in illegal dumpsites, streets, canals, drains and waterways, as reported by the Lagos State Waste Management Authority (LAWMA). The repercussions include environmental pollution, degradation and other climate change issues.

This became a burden for Mrs Temitope Okunnu, an
environmental sustainability advocate, who believes that behavioural, attitudinal and mind-set change is a crucial first step in building environmentally conscious citizens. Motivated by the desire to be a catalyst for change, she set out on a mission to nurture an eco-conscious generation across Africa. This led to the creation of Foundation for a Better Environment (FABE International) in 2016, which kicked off with a focus on schools.

‘Our vision is very simple – to create an eco-conscious generation across Africa and we are focused on creating that attitudinal, behavioural and mind-set change,’ she says.


At the heart of Okunnu’s Eco School Programme are the five Rs, which are: refusing, reducing, reusing or upcycling, rotting or compost and recycling.

‘We use all the waste around the school and home to teach the teachers and students upcycling, recycling, composting and sustainability. And this is well embedded in the school curriculum,’ she says.

‘So we teach the students how to make art,
such as frames, decorative materials, crafts such as ottoman seats, lamps, and upcycled eco-garden or zero-waste garden from waste.’

The upcycled garden is made from different kinds of waste which are converted to functional products of high environmental and economic value. From there, PET bottles and tyres are transformed into planters while bamboo and tyres are also used for fencing and barricades. Kitchen wastes or rot are used as organic fertilisers and manure in the garden.

Making art

When FABE introduced its programme in Jacob’s school, he eagerly became part of the recycling team with a focus at making ottomans.

They started by picking and gathering plastics and other recyclable materials with the aim of turning them into something valuable. ‘The waste we cannot recycle, we use them as manure for our garden,’ he explains.

Recently, Jacob crafted ottomans from plastics and cake boards gathered from his mother’s catering supplies. Other waste products he uses are cartons, fabrics, and foam. So far
he has sold five artworks.

‘Sixteen inches ottoman is from seven-thousand to eight-thousand naira while fourteen inches is from five-thousand to six-thousand naira per piece,’ he explains, adding that this has empowered him and lessened his parents’ financial burden.

Other students, like Gloria Ndum and Fareedat Yahaya, both in their third year at Victoria Island Junior Secondary School, planted their first batch of vegetables in April 2024.

They reflected on how the experience has broadened their understanding on how waste materials such as old tyres, plastics, and sacks could be repurposed to cultivate crops at home.

Education and advocacy

The foundation hopes to reach 1,000 schools by 2030.

‘We have reached over 200 public and private schools in Lagos, Ogun, and Akwa Ibom states,’ Okunnu says.

In November 2023, during the unveiling of the October 2023 Cadre Harmonisé analysis on food insecurity, it was revealed that in 2024, Nigeria is expected to see about 26.5 million people grappling with high le
vels of food insecurity. Several factors have been identified as contributing to the problem. These include poverty, climate change, conflict, population growth, inadequate policy implementation, ineffective agricultural methods, post-harvest losses, and insufficient funding allocated to agriculture, among other issues.

‘With waste materials such as old tyres, sacks, plastics, paint buckets; you can grow your own food like yam, vegetables, root crops etcetera. So everyone should have this kind of skill.’

The eco-garden also brings about various learning outcomes for the students, she points out. Agriculture can be taught with practical examples in the garden. ‘Because we realised that most schools are just teaching agriculture in the classrooms, meanwhile it should be more of an outdoor process.

‘So we see this as a learning laboratory and instructional material for agriculture, geography for science students to learn about nature, art, biodiversity and environment. With this, they are able to understand c
oncepts in the classroom, carry over the knowledge to their homes and communities. That way, the knowledge is spreading, there’s behavioural change and sustainability.’

The long journey home

Mrs Asanya Ekpenyong, a biology teacher at Aguda Senior Grammar School, Surulere had struggled to involve students in environmental conservation efforts before FABE’s intervention. Now an Eco-Coordinator of Eco Schools Project, she says the comprehensive education on recycling, composting, upcycling, gardening and organic farming has empowered students to become stewards of the environment.

The provision of recycle bins by FABE has facilitated proper waste disposal, significantly enhancing the cleanliness of the school environment. This, she explains, has encouraged them to sort their waste from source.

‘The establishment of an eco-garden on our premises has contributed positively to our environment, providing a space for cultivating crops and vegetables,’ Ekpenyong says.

‘We are getting organic food from our farm wi
th no artificial additives or preservatives. All the manure is from the waste we generate in the school. With the prices of food items in the market, we are able to use the little we grow on the farm for ourselves in our homes.

‘Sometimes, we sell the farm produce, especially the vegetables, at a reduced price while other times, we share with the students and teachers for them to use at home.’

At home, Ekpenyong manages her own farm using the techniques she has learned. In addition to this, she makes ottoman seats with plastics for sale.

‘Past and present students have embraced these practices beyond the school. So this initiative by FABE has been of great impact to our lives,’ she adds.

But one challenge she encounters is in maintaining the garden. Instances of vandalism and theft pose a threat to the eco-garden’s security. Then there is the waterlogged nature of the school compound and inadequate irrigation during vacations which present obstacles to crop cultivation.

Chidimma Nwobodo, a chemistry teac
her who is also an Eco-Coordinator at Olomu Community Senior Secondary School, Ajah, shares the same enthusiasm as Ekpenyong. She recalled how they often waited anxiously for waste collection trucks, sometimes in vain for an entire term.

‘With our new approach, where every item, from PET bottles to eggshells, sachet water nylons, and cartons holds value, waste accumulation has significantly reduced,’ Nwobodo says. This does not only minimise waste but also reduces the school’s expenditure on waste disposal while simultaneously generating wealth for the institution.

‘Recently we harvested our vegetables from our eco-garden and everyone in the school was excited to patronise us. We have a treasury where the money is kept and registered for accountability.

‘Our recycling efforts are proving to be financially rewarding, as students channel their creativity into crafting various decorations using materials like plastics, cotton bud sticks, cartons, and bottle caps,’ Nwobodo adds.

Some parents misunderstand the

The foundation sometimes must contend with government bureaucracy and students’ parents.

Okunnu points out that some think their children are being turned into scavengers. ‘Also some of the teachers are not able to understand how to relate what we’re teaching them to their [students] studies. We have been advocating for environmental education to be included in the curriculum in schools. In Lagos state, it has started and there are recycling clubs supported by the state government.

‘Another challenge is bad soil for the garden. Loamy soil is good for planting and what we have mainly in Lagos is sandy and clay soil which is not good for planting, so sometimes we travel as far as Ijebu-Ode to buy soil.’

But this challenge came with a discovery.

When they realised that there was a lot of money expended in buying soil, the foundation found solutions to amend the soil. ‘So whatever bad soil we have, we can amend it and it will still produce the same results as a loamy soil,’ she says.

‘We also have g
overnment bureaucracy to deal with. Initially we were in private schools because we had a hard time getting into public schools. But it is a lot easier now and we’re into both public and private schools.

Ensuring Continuity

Designated teachers, called Eco Coordinators, and students, referred to as Eco Ambassadors, play pivotal roles in driving these environmental initiatives.

Annually, outstanding schools are recognised with the Eco School of the Year Award, honouring those who excel in all recycling, upcycling and gardening activities. Teachers and students who exhibit exceptional enthusiasm for the programme are also recognised.

‘Our Eco Ambassadors serve as mentors, imparting their knowledge to fellow students, thus nurturing future leaders in the environmental sustainability space,’ Okunnu explains, adding that the project has helped to reduce the amount of pollution around schools.

Learning from them, carpenters around are incorporating PET bottles into their carpentry work.

Parents too have starte
d growing their organic food with no chemicals added. ‘They now have healthy eating habits, there’s a lot of greenery and conservation,’ she says.

Partnerships with organisations like the Aspire Coronation Trust Foundation, Coca-Cola Foundation, Food and Beverage Recycling Alliance and FundQuest continue to strengthen FABE’s efforts. Some of them render support in various activities run by the foundation. Others assist in terms of recycling or during the annual graduation and award ceremonies.

‘The Eco schools programme is gaining more recognition across schools in Lagos State. However, we don’t have enough finances to reach as many schools as we would want to, so we are open to more financial support and grants.’ (NAN)

**This story is with the support and collaboration of the Solutions Journalism Network and the Nigerian Health Watch.

Source: News Agency of Nigeria