A future in recycling: from street waste collector to entrepreneur

    Young people on parts of the African continent sometimes turn to waste management as an ad hoc or extra job to make small money when they are struggling with unemployment, but often opportunities are scarce to learn how to grow in this sector and turn it into real business.

    Here’s an example from South African where supporting an entrepreneur pays off.

    Tshepo Mazubuko, a young person  from a Johannesburg suburb, started his business from scratch to build a recycling company that is today employing 17 people and engaging over 800 waste collectors, most of them women from poor communities.

    “I learned business in the street. After four years of unemployment, I decided to join waste collectors,” says Mazubuko. “I had to support myself and my family. At the beginning, I was making 200 to 300 rands (13 to 19 US$). It was not enough, but I knew that there was a lot of potential in what I was doing.”

    Starting was not easy for Mazubuko.

    “I was proud and happy with my first bag from the waste, but it turned out that it was full of rubbish without value,” Mazubuko confesses with a large smile on his face. “I had to learn how to differentiate between rubbish and waste to make money.”

    After joining trolley pullers—street waste collectors—he quickly realized that more opportunities abound.

    Mazubuko quickly saw the potential in waste and decided to start his business by building a small company to recycle plastic.

    “At the beginning, I proposed to my colleagues who were collecting waste that I could help them with transport. They supported me and that was when I decided to buy a truck,” says Mazubuko proudly.

    That was Mazubuko’s first step into real business.

    Mazubuko then went and procured a small area that his stepfather used to own for producing bricks.  He proposed the idea to his wife who supported him. Together, they took a loan to buy the plot. There was nothing on it. They bought few machines and started recycling plastic waste and created their company.

    Tshepo Mazubuko, a young person from a Johannesburg suburb

    Today, KI Recycling Company employs 17 staff and engages over 800 waste collectors. The company received support from Switch Africa Green, a United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP)-European Union project, as well as the Government of South Africa.

    Switch Africa Green helps medium, small and micro enterprises in South Africa and other countries in the region to achieve sustainable development by assisting the transition towards an inclusive green economy and sustainable consumption patterns and practices.

    “The transition to a green economy requires actions and significant technological, behavioural and systemic change in all levels of the society including citizens, public and private sectors,” says Patrick Mwesigye, UNEP Africa Office Regional Coordinator on Resource Efficiency. “We have seen more radical innovations come from the micro, small and medium enterprises. These enterprises play a key role in the transition to green economies and sustainable development. As UNEP, we support these enterprises in creating business models that are not only economically profitable but also boost environmental and social inclusiveness.”

    Waste is processed and turned into plastic pellets that the company exports to other neighbouring countries such as Mozambique and Botswana. The plastic pellets are used to produce water pipes and other products such as plastic chairs.

    “Switch Africa Green helped me to learn how to improve my business and grow. It supported me with networking and connected me to other businesses,” explains Mazubuko. “Switch Africa Green widened my horizon and opened my eyes to the real potential in this sector.”

    The segregation of waste is time-consuming and costly. After participating in various trainings that were supported by Switch Africa Green, Mazubuko decided to organize his business to make it more focused. He learned that he had to outsource a number of activities that his company couldn’t handle in an efficient way. He decided to outsource waste collection which ensures the waste collectors get more involved in the business. It also makes them happy.

    Waste collectors don’t only collect and sell waste but also segregate it to make it easy for processing. By outsourcing these activities, KI Recycling managed to cut on costs and created other parallel businesses for other people from poor communities.

    As the business grew, Mazubuko had to think out of the box and encourage householders to segregate the waste they generate. The company created incentives, as Mazubuko realized that people engage in waste segregation if they see the value in doing it.

    KI Recycling partnered with others, such as supermarkets, to create a simple system to buy waste from consumers, an initiative dubbed Packa-Ching.

    Packa-Ching is a mobile buy-back centre that travels into communities to purchase recyclable materials. Households are paid for materials onto a cell phone (e-wallet) which they can use to purchase airtime, withdraw cash, transfer money or pay at participating shops. Each type of waste is evaluated and bought at a different price.

    Pointing to a young man training two new young staff on how to use a newly acquired system for purchasing waste, Mazubuko explains. “He is our engineer, training our colleagues here on how to use Packa-Ching system and make sure waste is well segregated and households are paid the right price for their waste.”