From “Garbage Collectors” to Micro Entrepreneurs

From “Garbage Collectors” to Micro Entrepreneurs

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Albina Ruiz was honored as an Ashoka ChangemakeHER, Changemakers's inaugural celebration of the world's most influentual and inspiring women. Find her fellow honorees' voices here.

Interview by Lorena López, Ashoka Changemakers

Albina Ruiz, founder of, created a system of micro businesses that are dedicated to collecting and processing urban waste, promoting cleaner and healthier cities in Peru. Perhaps their most important success has been dignifying the job of garbage collectors, who have been included in a formal and decent employment system with social and pension payments. Here, Albina shares her entrepreneurial experience and she has succeeded in improving the living standards for many people.

What are three strengths that make a change agent successful? Perseverance, ethics, and a certain dose of craziness. And above all, you must love what you do, because you need to be a little crazy and truly love what you do in order to achieve changes within the system.

What led you to be successful in your work? What specific tactics or strategies have you applied?
It’s important to believe in people. You may have problems, and sometimes people may not respond, but you have to insist and believe in it. We have managed to work with many actors and we believe that the State should play an important role.

We also work with companies and the civil society grass root organizations, recyclers, and other entities. The specific strategy has been, and continues to be, to work on public policies. This is what allowed us to expand the model. We advocated a law to regulate recyclers’ activities, promote economic and social inclusion, and dignify this work. It was passed in 2009 and it was the first law of its kind in the world.

What is your superpower?
I believe in what I do. I love my job. I have been offered other positions with the possibility to earn more money, and I have always said “no,” because I am happy doing what I do.

What super power would you like to have?
I would like to have the ability to make corruption disappear in the world. I am convinced there would be less poverty without corruption.

Tell us how the work you are carrying out is generating changes in the lives of women, at the personal, family, and societal levels.
One time, we invited 59 women to join this project . . . and 700 women responded! Some of them were already working with garbage and other informal activities. The first day, we asked them how they were feeling about their lives. The overall response was that they were feeling badly, and they didn’t even make eye contact while speaking because they were ashamed of their situation.

One year later, we asked them the same question, and the responses included: “I am an enterprising woman,” “I am business woman,” “I am happy,” and “I feel I am a good mother.” In addition, they not only looked us in the eye, but they also smiled and hugged us.

The fact is that this change also brings dignity at the family level, because similarly, when children are asked about their mother’s job, they answer: “She is a micro entrepreneur.”

What is the role of collaboration among social entrepreneurs? Is there collaboration?
Collaboration is crucial. When we go to another country, we always look for a local entrepreneur because we start from a shared foundation of ethics and values. Plus, it makes replicability happen faster, and the results are always better. You have to be open-minded and willing to learn, because the other person always has a different perspective. This is why, every time a model is replicated, it continues to improve.

What are the barriers to achieving collaboration, and how can these be overcome? What kind of impact would larger collaborations have on the transformation of systems and sectors?
We live in a world where people has been deceived many times and they do not trust; so it is necessary to take time to win their confidence. It implies a process until they believe in you and take ownership of the proposal.

It’s essential to be transparent, and this means not keeping quiet, or just saying nice things when this is not going to help people to develop. It it is important to have the ability and the courage to say things, because sometimes we become enablers when we remain silent.

What piece of advice would you give to other women who want to innovate and generate a social change?
Keep trying! If a door is closed, look for three other doors. I would recommend that they go to sleep thinking about what they are going to do the next day, and write it down. It is not true that there are no ways out—there are slower paths, but if you are on the right one and you believe in it, you have to keep on trying.


Albina Ruiz Ríos is the executive director of Ciudad Saludable and a Peruvian social entrepreneur. She specializes in environmental issues and solid waste handling.