South Africa: Two ...

South Africa: Two Business Concepts are Turning Trash into Treasure

Where the rest of the world sees garbage, Dudu Ntuli sees an opportunity. According to a 2011 study by the South African Ministry of the Environment, only 10% of all recyclable waste in South Africa is actually processed for reuse. The rest is sent to the country’s rapidly filling surface disposal sites. And in a country where only 61% of residents have access to curbside waste disposal, properly sorting and recycling garbage is a significant challenge.

“One of the greatest challenges South Africa faces is the rate at which our landfills are filling up,” says Ntuli, one of the directors of the South African firm Holystic Approach. “People are keen to recycle, but there is a lack of infrastructure. My partner and I realized that there was a need for assistance in transitioning to a sustainable waste management system.”

Given the scale and the significance of the issue, the South Africa Climate Innovation Center (SACIC) has promoted innovative solutions to waste management by supporting local enterprises that make it easier for South Africans to recycle at both the consumer and commercial levels. SACIC’s grantees include not only businesses like Holystic Approach, which has pioneered waste management solutions for local consumers, but also larger entities like Eco-Match that work with businesses to safely and effectively manage industrial waste.

 “My passion is concrete recycling,” says Craig Allen, founder of the industrial recycling service EcoMatch. “And we need a way to deal with this that works in a South African context, for South Africans, by South Africans.”

Ntuli’s entrepreneurial journey started eight years ago with a very personal experience. She grew up in a small township in Soweto, and just opposite her home was an open space, which eventually became a large dumping site. About eight years ago, with the help of some of the youth in her community, Ntuli took the initiative of converting the illegal dumping site into a park.

What that effort revealed to her, however, was just how difficult it could be to take an eco-friendly approach to trash. “One of the key challenges,” she notes, “was to get the youth to recycle and understand the economic value of waste.” And even when her young partners were persuaded, they found it hard to put these ideas into practice. The lack of recycling bins posed a challenge, and even when they acquired bins, they kept getting stolen.

Building on her experience with waste recycling, Ntuli and her business partners started a company—Holystic Approach—that produces and commercializes a new type of underground recycling bins, the ‘Underground Garbage Collection System.’ These containers are set underground and have aboveground components that clearly indicate how recycling should be separated. The bins and their components have been carefully designed to be aesthetically attractive and sturdy enough to resist theft and vandalism.

Holystic Approach also works with youth to educate them about the importance of recycling, and is developing more efficient transport methods for the informal network of garbage collectors of major South African cities.

To support Holystic Approach, the SACIC has provided training, working space, and other resources. But for Ntuli, the most important asset has been her SACIC-provided technical advisor. Ntuli credits her mentor with providing both extensive technical knowledge and assistance with business development: “She played an integral role in helping us to refine our customer value proposition and develop a strategy for localizing our technology.  Through her advice, we have managed to start opening up a market for our products and services.”

Craig Allen believes that buildings—even the ones that have been crushed into rubble—deserve a second life. And he thinks that recycling them can reap economic benefits.

“Recovered concrete is used as [foundation] fill and as a base for roads,” he says. “[But] little to no options currently exist in Gauteng Province for alternative concrete waste disposal.” And, he adds, that lack of options is costing cities money. “What’s actually more problematic is that illegal dumping is still widely practiced due to high disposal costs. Municipalities ultimately need to then spend unnecessary resources in order to collect and dispose of the dumped material.”

Allen’s company, Eco-Match, is designed to provide an alternative. Their services focus on both disposal and reuse: first the company helps contractors remove the concrete waste; then, after processing it into recycled concrete aggregate, it supplies the new product to builders. Rather than taking up space in a landfill, the recycled concrete can be used to build everything, from retainer walls to concrete pipes.

It’s a new business for Allen and his partner, Andries Olivier, but not a new sector. Both Allen and his partner have consulted in the environmental management sector for about 19 years. It was this experience that allowed Allen to anticipate needs in an emerging and increasingly vital sector of the economy: sustainable mining and construction. “Having a climate-friendly product [in this sector],” he explains, “puts you ahead of the pack.”

Having worked and dealt with the challenges of this sector for so long, Allen sees a clear need for services offered by the SACIC. “The potential for the CIC is huge,” he says. “They are uniquely positioned to provide significant assistance and business development to SMEs and start-ups within the South African economy.” Of the support he’s received, he, like Ntuli, appreciates most the ability to work with experienced mentors. “Any business start-up,” he points out, “needs to have honest feedback from someone who is not family or friends.” 

For Allen, the task he’s facing now—with the SACIC’s support—is educating both potential clients and the general public on the benefits of climate-friendly approaches to construction management. “People’s perception,” he says, “needs to be changed. Your product or service should always be coupled to a value added aspect...The economy is at a very fragile state at the moment and no matter your business, be it climate friendly or not, you need to able to justify to potential buyers why your product is superior. The challenge is to prove it.”

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