Alumni Life

Going for the Gold

A socially conscious grad finds value in waste

Cuthbert Ayodeji Onikute

Waste not, want not: Cuthbert Ayodeji “Ayo” Onikute. Photo: John Emerson

By Mara McGinnis

Onikute’s “aha moment” came in a sustainable futures course while learning about the circular economy.

In 2008, Cuthbert Ayodeji “Ayo” Onikute (BA ’07) was a recent college graduate living in the midsize West African city of Kankan, Guinea. There was no running water or electricity, and he recalls having to climb a tree to get a strong enough signal to use his cellphone. But it was the memory of enormous piles of garbage he walked by daily on his way to teach English at the University of Kankan that would later serve as inspiration for the company he launched in 2015: Dechets a l’Or (or DalO), from the French for “waste to gold.”

“A lot of people fail to understand the basics of waste collection,” says Onikute, whose company aims to set the standard for socially responsible waste management across West Africa. “Many people forget that there is a cost for collection—and in some countries, it just doesn’t happen.” According to Onikute, approximately 60 percent of solid waste currently goes uncollected in Africa. DalO works not only to remove this public health hazard, but also to convert it into economic growth, community empowerment and environmental mitigation—the “gold” of the company’s moniker.

DalO employs a team that collects waste by truck door-to-door from households that pay a fee for the service. The team then separates and processes the waste. Organic materials get composted for fertilizer; most of what remains is recycled. In both cases, the system creates valuable resources as well as new jobs. It also protects public health and the environment by preventing harmful accumulations of waste where people live and by reducing trash burning. The company currently has approximately 750 customers in Kankan and aims to expand to 30,000 customers in five West African cities by 2020.

The journey to establishing DalO began when Onikute was a senior at UB completing a double major in history and African-American studies. Born in Nigeria to Nigerian and Grenadian parents, he knew he wanted to work in West Africa but was still trying to figure out an exact career path. So he stayed at the university for two more years to learn French and add an international studies degree.

After spending some time in Guinea postgraduation, Onikute decided to pursue a degree in urban planning at Columbia University. His “aha moment” came in a sustainable futures course while learning about the circular economy—the concept of maximizing the value of resources by reducing and reusing waste. “I suddenly remembered the piles of waste I saw in Kankan,” he says. He developed the business idea for what would become DalO and shared it with fellow UB graduate and friend Bernard Blake (BS ’07). Blake loved the concept and now serves as the company’s finance director.

“Ayo is a bold, ambitious and innovative businessman,” says Blake. “Waste on the African continent is not a new problem, but it’s becoming a larger issue with the rapid growth of populations and cities. To come up with a sustainable idea on how to tackle it and then implement that idea takes courage and determination.”

Onikute is now focusing on fundraising to scale up the business. Last year, the company was selected as a MassChallenge Switzerland Gold cash award winner, based on its capacity for high impact and potential. It was one of only seven startups to be named a finalist out of 75 internationally.

Onikute is gratified by DalO’s alignment with his lifelong focus on community empowerment—and is inspired by the pride that the service brings to the residents of Kankan. “One customer told me that she appreciated our service because it allowed her to invite friends over to hang out in her yard without having to worry about smelly garbage,” he says. “Our work makes cleaner places with brighter futures.”