When you talk with her, it’s hard to find the moment that you could use to ask your following question. Albina Ruiz is one of those. She has the drive and focused energy of the ones who have fought for their vision to come true. For nearly three decades she has been building up a model of social enterprise, at first in Peru and progressively all over South America. She is now working to develop it in Asia. With her team at Ciudad Saludable, she addresses an issue that hardly sells newspapers: recycling as an entrepreneurial form of waste management in the slums of ever-growing cities.
I wanted to talk with Ruiz to learn more about a hands-on and resilient case of social enterprise. I quickly realized that her own commitment comes from the singularity of her life story. She grew up in a remote town of the Peruvian jungle. When she finished high school, her parents bought her a one-way ticket to Lima so that she can attend university. There, her home was in one of those small passages that are more like alleyways than streets. Ironically, the one she lived in was called ‘the Jungle’, and there was no way you could enter it with a car, even less with a garbage truck. The first time she arrived there she had to ask her friends what the mounts of garbage really were: her mind could barely process it.
As Ruiz dedicated her engineering studies to address the issue, she realized that the trash cycle was a vicious one. Poor people could not pay the monthly fees for municipal collection, thus the local authorities did not extend its reach to the impoverished areas. The situation was locked in a catch-22, but Ruiz foresaw a misused element of the equation. She proposed a sanitary cum-business plan to a local mayor in the city of Lima in the late 1980s . He jumped on board and offered to immediately implement Ruiz’s plan – even offering her to hire an assistant when she told him she could never do it all by herself.
The key of her plan relied, as it still does, on an element that had until then been considered a nuisance by local authorities: the population of botelleros, cachineros, recaladores and chanceros. These are city-dwellers that live off their craft in recycling some of the trash lining the streets. She organized these resourceful entrepreneurs in a broader, more formalized collection system to offer them a more attractive income. This provided the inhabitants with a cheaper and more efficient waste management for their community. Ciudad Saludable not only legitimized the recyclers’ activity; the organization also designed with the recyclers a small tricycle that allowed them to increase their transportation capacity, their sales territories and eventually their revenues.
This disruption was not to please everybody. Before Ruiz introduced her model, local mobs had been organized to act as wholesalers of the trash the recyclers used to collect. But their pricing was abusive and they were perceived by recyclers, companies and the government as perversos – a corrupt monopoly. Over the years, Ruiz faced many threats and intimidations. But because her recyclers were managing their own micro-enterprise, it was in their collective interest to safeguard their guarantee of a premium pay. The mob monopoly soon did not make sense anymore, and Ruiz faced the new challenge of making inhabitants commit to pay their waste collection fees.
This new challenge became the second pillar of Ruiz’ plan: the education of their clientele. Using all the marketing channels you can think of, Ruiz helped dispense knowledge about sanitary issues to impoverished populations – from books and leaflets to local shout outs and women’s groups. Ciudad Saludable now provides online courses on waste management to engineering students and professors as remote as Ruiz` native Peruvian jungle and as far away as North Africa. Not so surprisingly, education is what Ruiz considers the key for communities to maintain a healthy environment – she herself eventually earned a PhD for her research on the socioeconomic potential of micro-entrepreneurship.
When asked what advice she would give to the young people who are starting their working life, Ruiz repeats something that often sounds unrealistic but of which she is the living proof. “It’s not all about the money,” she says. “When you are young and ambitious you often want to prove the world what you are able to do, and all your energy goes to competing with other people or companies. The amazing thing is, we are all able to do great.” She just suggests we spend our time and energy trying to improve something, anything we see that can be bettered. It takes commitment and passion to use your hard-earned skills to solve such unglamorous problems as waste management. But Ms Ruiz stopped a long time ago counting the people who thank her for what she does with her life.
This post is part of a series produced by Student Reporter for The Huffington Post and the Schwab Foundation for Social Entrepreneurship. To see all the posts in the series published on The Huffington Post, click here.