During the lockdown, we’ve continue to reach out to entrepreneurs and inspirational people from the continent. We’ve talked today to Elias Willemse, CTO and co-founder of a company using AI and software solutions to improve waste management and reduce costs.
We covered important aspect, especially:
• The journey to creating the company
• The performances their solution is aiming to achieve
• The issue of waste management in Africa
• The benefit of using Waste elabs in Covid era.
Do enjoy the interview. Click HERE.
RiA: Hello I am Tony Tiyou, founder and CEO of Renewables in Africa (RiA). Today, we have Elias Willemse. We’re going to talk about AI and waste management. And it’s always a pleasure for us to interview the sons and daughters of Africa, as well as anybody else involved into the industry and doing marvelous things. So Elias, it’s a pleasure to be talking to you today.
EW: Thanks for having me, Tony.
RiA (Q1): We always kick off with the chance to properly introduce yourself and your company so we can know more about you.
EW (A1): Happy to do that sir. My name is Elias Willemse. I’m formally from South Africa, currently based in Singapore, though my heart is still very much in Africa. So my background is in industrial engineering. I worked for the last 13 years in using AI to make waste management, specifically logistics. I’m currently the CTO and co-founder of a company called Waste Labs. So, we’re developing a digital twin of the physical waste collection system. And through that digital twin, we can then improve waste management and make it better for municipalities and countries.
RiA (Q2): It’s such a special topic for me, and I can say I’ve never come across that before. So when did you get the idea and what inspired you?
EW (A2): It started almost a decade ago. Through my studies and initial work, I fell in love with this idea of using mathematical modeling and sciences, to solve business problems, to help companies make more money and reduce their costs. And then over time, I realized, you know how massive a complex task waste management is specifically collection, and how much money that’s costing. And it just felt like a really good opportunity to use these mathematical models and sciences to improve waste management.
So, you can save money in how we manage waste and improve services. Waste Management is a basic service and through doing that, you’re protecting the environment. So this is where this sort of brain child started. And then a couple of months ago, I had the opportunity of joining a program called Entrepreneur: First year in Singapore, and there I met my co-founder and CEO. He was also passionate about this topic. We got to support and flesh this out, and develop a company out of it.
RiA (Q3): You talked about improving the services for companies, and also improving the environment. How would you rate your performances so far because it’s very good to be coming up with an innovation, but it’s all about delivering results? So how would you rate yourself?
EW (A3): that’s a good question. I have a disclaimer here, like we’ve freshed out of the production block. We’ve been running with this now for two months. Within those two months, we managed to secure a pilot’s with a big international waste collection company. So we’re now helping them to actually improve their services and save costs. So, my answer to how would you rate your services would be a combination of “I’ll get back to you” and “watch the space”.
EW: If that makes sense.
RiA (Q4): I absolutely understand. It’s a fair answer. So, you touched on waste management as a big issue in South Africa, even bigger in the rest of Africa. So I would have thought we would have seen much more initiative like yours. So how come we don’t see that many?
EW (A4): Yeah, it’s also a very good question. There are a few factors into play. One of the biggest is budget and funding, especially when it comes to waste management. The waste managers in cities are competing with other initiatives that may deal with education, or medical costs. It’s the reality that there’s not always funding available to support these initiatives. Another issue is that with waste management if you don’t invest in it, you pay the cost later. It might not be that big a problem in a month’s time but it’d be a really big problem five years down the line.
So it has been some of the big challenges to get these initiatives off the ground. But I believe it is changing now. So, the technologies out there are becoming more accessible. They’re becoming cheaper through the development of AI, which has now become more mature. There are a lot of opportunities now, I believe, to tackle real problems like waste management.
RiA (Q5): Okay. One thing that you just said that’s very important, if you don’t deal with that now, obviously, the cost is going to be bigger later, it’ll be like issue with climate change, in a sense. Talking about money, so, how much return can you make for waste managers with your services? Is it significant enough?
EW (A5): Yeah, I can make this concrete. So if you look at a city like Johannesburg in South Africa, so they spend upwards of about $15 million per year on waste management. Of that, about half is spent just on transporting the waste around. So that’s collecting it and driving it to disposal facility. With the platform we’re developing, with similar case studies, we’re looking at about a 10 to 20% improvement per annum. So that’s between 5 million and 10 million dollars that you can save per year if you get it right. That money, you can then reinvest in green initiatives, you can invest in recycling plants. It doesn’t have to go to somebody’s pockets. You can really use that money wisely.
RiA (Q6): Okay. That’s definitely a concrete example there, so you can cut it down by 30% from the example that you just gave, which is brilliant. Let me ask you a tricky question. So we talked about AI here, right? So your service allowing people to run different scenarios. The key question is today looking at what is going on. Did your system plan for a COVID-19 type of situation and if yes, what should we do then? What’s happening then once you predict that?
EW (A6): I don’t think anybody’s system planned or predicted COVID in any reflection, but it did sort of inspire us a bit. one thing we realized with COVID even here in Singapore is that the waste management collection system is fragile. At least in Singapore, there was a situation where the drivers got locked out of the country. They were stuck in Malaysia and they couldn’t collect waste and you, suddenly, realized how waste is piling up. So, one of the scenarios we’re currently building is to see what happens if you lose your waste collection resources.
What happens if you have fewer drivers? What happens if you have fewer trucks? Where will the waste start to pile up? And then where should you prioritize the resources that you have left. These are some of the scenarios that inspired our journey this far. Through our platform, which creates this digital twin of the waste management system, we can easily test these scenarios. It’s virtual, it’s on a computer. So, you can easily take resources out of the collection resources out of the platform, and then see how and where the waste piles up and all the rest of the collection resources should be assigned.
RiA (Q7): Let me ask you a last question. Obviously, you’re a bright innovator from Africa, at the moment in Singapore. I just wondered whether you had any word of encouragement for any other innovators like you in the continent. And how can the continent keep hold of its innovators?
EW (A7): Good question. I think my biggest advice would be, don’t give up. If you’re an innovator and you have a dream and you want to achieve something, the road is never easy. There are always obstacles. The second one would be to don’t be scared to put yourself out there. Especially if you’re from Africa, we have nothing to be shy about, we’ve got great ideas, and we can compete with people internationally.
So put yourself out there, don’t be scared. There are a lot of opportunities available around the world. Just because I’m based in Singapore, and certainly you’re based in London doesn’t mean that we’re not doing anything for Africa. I mean, the world is connected now. So our dream is to build this platform and then actually take this back to Africa, to help municipalities and cities there. So if you have a dream, do whatever it takes, take opportunities, even if it’s overseas, it’s fine. As long as you’re looking out for opportunities, especially back in Africa, then that would be great.
RiA: Excellent! Elias that was a pleasure for us talking to you today. That’s very inspiring what you’re doing and I can say that we are looking forward to having many more applications in Singapore for sure, but definitely across the continent. I wish you a very good day in this lockdown.
EW: Thanks, Tony for having me. Thank you for this platform. I think it’s a really great initiative. If I can just add if anybody wants to reach out to me, they’re welcome to do so over LinkedIn or they can email me at email@example.com.
Elias Wilemse is the CTO and co-Founder of Waste Labs, a software company which provides a Data and Optimisation platform for waste collection companies and smart cities. It helps to increase collection efficiency and save 10-40% of the collection costs.