Ashoka Fellow Albina Ruiz is not afraid of cleaning up garbage. Many of us take efficient waste removal for granted. Yet, in some parts of the world, refuse is not effectively managed. This has long been the case in Lima, Peru.
The problem was particularly severe in Lima’s northern district. In 1995, for example, its 1.6 million residents produced 600 metric tons of solid waste daily. Municipal authorities were only able to manage about half of this. The rest ended up strewn all over; it was found in the street, in the river, or in vast open dumps, invariably leading to higher incidence of disease, as well as feelings among the residents of discontent and decreased self-image.
The high levels of unemployment in the area also fueled these feelings. In order to make money, people who called themselves “recicladores” searched the dumps for recyclables that they could then sell, through an intermediary, to a recycling facility. This generated less than $2 a day for the recicladores, who wore no protective clothing and became targets of gang violence.
Albina Ruiz started her organization, Ciudad Saludable (Healthy City Group), to combat these issues. Based on ideas she originally presented in her university thesis, the organization develops waste removal and management systems that are effective and inexpensive. Through a micro-entrepreneurship model, these systems allow the recicladores to take charge of dealing with the refuse, thereby addressing their unemployment. Ruiz’s solution also involves coordinating with the public sector and increasing public awareness about the importance of waste removal.
In the last decade, Ciudad Saludable has positively impacted over 6 million people in Bolivia, Brazil, Colombia, Mexico, Peru, Venezuela, and India. Ruiz has also established two new organizations: Peru Waste Innovations, and Healthy Cities International, whose goal is to replicate Ciudad Saludable’s methods and successes globally. For her work, Ruiz was elected as an Ashoka Fellow in 1996.
David Nahmias, Ashoka’s Knowledge Team liaison to North and South America, helps coordinate Venture and Fellowship in these two regions; he describes Ruiz as one of Ashoka’s most impressive and inspirational Fellows. “When I worked as Venture Coordinator in our Mexico office, Albina came to speak with our team there,” he said. “I was captivated by how she has managed to expand her micro-entrepreneurship model throughout the world, forge strategic partnerships with large corporations, and even influence national public policy in Peru and Brazil, all while speaking very humbly about her achievements. It was at that moment when I understood in real terms the amazing potential that Ashoka Fellows have to generate large-scale systems change around the world.”
Ruiz’s commitment to improving the lives of the working poor recently attracted the attention of The Global Fairness Initiative (GFI), which was founded with the goal of promoting fair and sustainable approaches to economic development. GFI presented Ruiz with the 2011 Fairness Award on November 8.
Two weeks later, Ruiz accepted the prestigious Albert Medal at the Royal Society of Arts in London, joining a long and distinguished list of innovative pioneers that includes Thomas Edison and Alexander Graham Bell.
Ashoka, GFI, and the Royal Academy are not the only organizations to recognize Ruiz’s innovation and passion. Her efforts have been commended by Avina, the Schwab Foundation, the Skoll Foundation, PBS, and the Clinton Global Initiative, among others. In addition, she is the author of several articles and books on the subjects of community planning and disease prevention.
Despite these successes and her international reach, Ruiz maintains her connections to her roots. She can still be found combing the beaches of Lima for trash to clean up, just as she did during her university days.
Here is a short video about Ruiz and Ciudad Saludable.