February 20, 2020

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Albina Ruiz Ríos – From Jungle Girl to Refuse Queen

"Whenever a family gets money with the help of a junk-job and can buy fresh bread or send the kids to school, it is a wonderful feeling for me."


Part one of CSRwire special series: the Future Makers, based on the book.

By Joanna Stefanska Hafenmayer and Wolfgang Hafenmayer

Child of the jungle, engineer, specialist in waste disposal systems and refuse queen, Albina Ruiz Ríos grew up in the San Martin region of Peru. Her childhood was spent between the wild rivers and gigantic trees of the Amazonian jungle.

The Refuse Just Bothers Me!

“I always had the opinion that it was necessary to find new solutions. That is why I wanted to become an engineer,” Albina says. When she was 18, she moved to Lima to study.

She felt disgusted by the huge, noisy city. She lived with her brother's family in a room in El Augustino, one of the many slums in which stranded immigrants live wall-to-wall with criminals.

During her first days in the city, Albina hardly left the house. She was bothered by the gross, stinking refuse heaps that piled up everywhere in the slums, harming the environment and affecting people’s health. Comparing this to the beauty of the jungle, she was appalled. “How couldAlbinaRuizRios the people in Lima ever be able to live with dignity when they were exposed to such filth and noxious odors every day?”

Seeing Potential Within Her Own Profession

The omnipresent rubbish heaps gave the emerging scientist the idea that she could use her abilities for something other than the construction of new machines or tools.

So, in the early 1990s, Albina started to look into the subject of waste from a scientist’s point of view. She wanted to understand the problem as a system and hoped to solve it. She founded a student workgroup, calculated the health expenses of families living in the slums and spent days in libraries. She spent time in the refuse collection trucks of the well-to-do boroughs of Lima. By doing this, she began to understand the system.

Albina wrote her doctoral thesis on the social and ecological implications of refuse utilization. Her findings drew the attention of the mayor of Lima who consequently offered her a job, in which she was asked to implement her system in a pilot project.

Many were surprised that I wasn’t working for a company and making good money. Helping other people has always been more important to me than money or a career. I always lived in poor area—and in poor areas, it is dirty. In order to make life as bearable as possible, people try to help one another and are often innovative in the way in which they do it.

A Sophisticated System with Many Employment Possibilities

The basic idea of Albina’s system is easy: the inhabitants of the slums usually spend up to US$10 a month on fighting diarrhoea and other hygiene-related illnesses, however, by investing this amount into a functioning waste collection service, they avoid a good portion of these illnesses.

Simultaneously, Albina’s system provides opportunities and income for a number of small-scale enterprises that have sprung up around the waste collection and recycling services. So, while some people pick up the refuse and collect the fees, others separate the waste and recycle a good part of it into new products – which generates a AlbinaRefuseQueennumber of jobs. Often these jobs go to women who establish an additional income, for example by composting part of the refuse and later selling it as fertiliser.

Albina manages to turn a chain of resource withdrawal into a chain of resource recovery – thereby creating jobs for the poor at every stage.

As a side product, she provides information on environmental issues. It might seem amazing that 98% of the inhabitants in “her” neighborhoods pay their waste disposal fee, compared to 60% in administration-run neighborhoods. This can probably be ascribed to the fact that the living standard of people goes up noticeably when the negative side effects of the refuse are reduced so dramatically.

“A pile of rubbish is a chance, not just a problem. Plastic, organic waste, cardboard – all that means money!” Albina says. The system in Lima currently offers up to 50,000 jobs for the poorest of the poor and reaches three million people.

A Model Program

With the support of several foundations (see below), Albina’s concept has been extended to several cities in South America and her consultation is being requested all over the world.

The job is hard, but wonderful! Whenever a family gets money with the help of a junk-job and can buy fresh bread or send the kids to school, it is a wonderful feeling for me. Poor people are in need of my work, and I want to change the world for them. My dream is to have clean cities all over the world. Maybe I won’t be alive to see my dream come true, but I believe my children will. At this very moment, our model is being exported to Mexico and Uganda.

The Light and The Dark Side of Entrepreneurship

Albina's path has been long and trying: first she had to fight the prejudice against her job, then the corruption in the different administrative sections of the boroughs, while struggling repeatedly with problemsRefuse-job-creation of funding.

Though her systems do operate cost-effectively, their development, documentation and expansion demand initial capital. The permanent search for money, the filing of applications, responding to requests and the tiring negotiations have left their mark in the last 15 years. Today, Albina is supported by several organizations for social entrepreneurship. In 2006, she was awarded the Skoll Award for Social Entrepreneurship and she will use the US$500,000 prize money to export her system to 20 more cities.

With Time, Reputation Settles In

Albina does not object to being called the “Refuse Queen.” After all, she creates hundreds of jobs, helps millions of people avoid sicknesses and horrendous health-care costs they can hardly afford, while beautifying their cities along the way. She would have never imagined all of this as a child, back in the jungle of Peru.

Foundations supporting Albina’s work:

About the Authors:

Joanna Stefanska Hafenmayer is the Managing Director of “MyImpact”, an organisation focusing on helping leaders to realize meaningful careers through coaching and seminars, as well as assessment tools and publications. An expert in the development of corporate responsible leadership programmes, Joanna is also a member of the Board of “Öbu” – the Swiss think-tank for business and sustainability – and leads the Responsible Corporate Leadership (RECOL) Forum, a group of innovative global enterprises in this area. Prior to 2012, she was a member of Microsoft Switzerland’s Executive Board as their Innovation & Sustainability Officer. Joanna was selected as a First Movers Fellow of the Aspen Institute.

Wolfgang Hafenmayer is the Managing Partner of LGT Venture Philanthropy, with a mission to improve the quality of life of less advantaged people. To realize this mission, Wolfgang built a team of 25 investment managers and philanthropy advisors on five continents to identify and support organizations with outstanding social and environmental impact currently improving the quality of life of 7.9 million less advantaged people. Wolfgang has been an Investment Manager with BonVenture, the first social venture fund in German-speaking Europe, and helped set up Forma Futura, a sustainable asset management company.

The opinions, beliefs and viewpoints expressed by CSRwire contributors do not necessarily reflect the opinions, beliefs and viewpoints of CSRwire.

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