You describe yourself as an impact enthusiast. What do you mean by that exactly?
I was a long-term corporate guy, working for multinationals and consulting firms. However, at some point, you start questioning how much you’re okay with doing things that you don’t really believe in or that are not aligned with your values. You start wondering, am I making an impact? Am I making a difference?
At Nadeera, we want to be able to look back and be proud to say that we solved a social problem – in our case, waste mismanagement in the region. Because it’s a bit absurd how much we don’t recycle here. We throw away more than 95% of our waste and recycle less than 5%, whereas we could recycle up to 80% of our waste if we do the right things.
How does Nadeera’s solution work?
Our product, Yalla Return, is an engagement platform powered by technology. First, we help communities understand how to recycle through an app, using infographics, games, and even an AI algorithm. If you recycle with us, you receive a bag with a unique QR code that allows us to tell you if you’re recycling well or not. If you’re recycling well, we’ll give you credits that can be exchanged for cash or rewards. If you’re not recycling well, we’ll help you improve the quality of your sorting.
Then, our bespoke, hyper-focused, community-centric, technology-enabled, full traceability system ensures these recyclables are not lost in the rest of the waste. We technologically empower our waste collection partners who handle the physical collection of the bags. Our bins are access-controlled and only people who actually want to recycle can open them using their phone. That way, we ensure that only pure, high-quality recyclables are collected with no contamination.
We’ve expanded the value chain by adding elements like engagement, capture, inspection, and feedback that allow the system to become more circular and make the recycling journey super easy and rewarding.
What impact have you been able to measure so far?
We’ve diverted more than 1,000 tons of recyclables across our operations – that’s equivalent to around 100 billion bottles that would have ended up in a landfill – making them circular and reducing Co2 emissions and energy consumption.
Why did you choose waste and recycling in particular?
Waste wasn’t my background, but in 2015 in Lebanon, my home country, there was a major garbage crisis. I started wondering how I could be part of the solution, given that Lebanese governments are quite ineffective at addressing these problems.
We started to work in a very traditional manner but, when COVID hit, we applied to an accelerator program with the hypothesis that waste mismanagement is a behavioural problem that can be addressed by using technology and message personalisation.
Why did you decide to establish Nadeera in Abu Dhabi?
After we fine-tuned the concept, we incorporated in Abu Dhabi through a collaboration with Ma’an, the Authority of Social Contribution authority, that gave us a grant and allowed us to run a pilot.
We really liked the interconnected ecosystem in Abu Dhabi: we are now in a ADQ company; we are connected to Ma’an; we are working with Aldar and Tadweer, the Abu Dhabi waste management company. Once you enter the ecosystem, it gives you access to all these different companies, as well as governments and government-owned companies.
How do you explain Nadeera’s very fast growth?
We’ve always committed to growing quickly because we know that our unit economics are very low. We don’t sell luxury items; we buy and resell recyclables. So, for us to be able to catch up, cover our overheads, and become profitable, we have to sprint.
Also, we’re lucky to have partners that have trusted us. It didn’t happen overnight. Take PepsiCo, for example: from a small project in Lebanon in 2021, we are now launching a mega project across multiple communities.
How hard was it to engage these large organisations?
The key for us was to get meetings with these different entities that are difficult to penetrate and are sometimes bureaucratic. We had to be very patient and very persistent.
You have to be a bit delusional and very much believe in your product, knowing the value that you bring to the table and pushing until they see it as clearly as you do.
What other challenges are you facing?
Launching a startup is hard but launching a startup in a highly regulated environment such as waste [management] is even harder. It requires a lot of government approvals, especially if you’re doing it in a way that has not been done before – for Nadeera, we created a brand-new system that we have patented on a global level.
What has kept us going as a team is our determination, and this is the strength of a social startup. What drives us every morning is not making money; it’s making an impact.
Still, you have a business model. What is it?
We sell the recyclables themselves. And, although we have historically been working mostly with individuals and FMCGs, we are now awarded projects with offices and malls. Commercial and retail entities generate large volumes of waste that we would like to serve as well.
How do you find the balance between impact and the need for a minimum of profitability?
Our priority today is not to be profitable, but to prove that our model works at scale. We’re now operating in 15 communities in the UAE, and we have another 50 confirmed projects in the pipeline. Operating in 15 communities is nice and cute, but operating in 65 communities is operating at scale. If we’re able to do that, the next step will be operating across cities. This is what we are focused on today.