Young people within South Africa have a rich history of tackling issues such as waste generation and youth unemployment and converting challenges and obstacles to thriving startup businesses. These thriving and sustainable businesses can provide employment opportunities for their peers whilst addressing a need within their respective communities.
Case in point is Gcwabaza Holdings which trades as Nathi Africa. The fact that the World Bank’s What a Waste 2.0 report estimates that waste generation across Sub-Saharan Africa will more than double by 2050, implies a substantial threat for most, but this threat inspired Nthabeleng Thoabala to start her own recycling business.
“We founded our company, because we had always wanted to make a meaningful environmental and social impact within the recycling space and with the support of Nampak Glass (now Isanti Glass), we started trading back in May 2017,” says Thoabala.
Thoabala, who was 38 years old when she and her partner started the business, wanted to turn the social entrepreneurship drive she had always felt into a tangible way to impact her community and make a positive difference to the environment.
“The business came about as a result of the concern we shared around the recyclable tonnages of waste which still end up within surrounding landfills, as well as a concern for the plight of the waste reclaimers/collectors for whom the collection of recyclables is their only source of income. Glass recycling was particularly interesting because it could be recycled again and again,” Thoabala explains.
Started at the bottom
When they first started out, the two entrepreneurs worked on all aspects of the business, ranging from sourcing suppliers (informally contracted reclaimers/collectors), loading the trucks at landfills and growing the business for 18 months, before being in a position to employ permanent staff. During this period, they were able to learn and gain invaluable on-the-job experience around how to manage their costs, get to grips with the ins and outs of the business as well as the industry, and also managed to forge lasting partnerships with their suppliers.
“We were fortunate that Isanti Glass supported us and assisted us by paying invoices in advance and as a result the business made profit after one year of operation. Some of our biggest learnings include the fact that obtaining access to funding is a huge hindrance to small businesses, whether it’s working capital or asset finance. So, like many operations, we’ve had to rely on family and friends as well as other partners such as The Glass Recycling Company (TGRC) for non-financial forms of support. Another vital learning for us was that your monthly projections are a moving target as things outside your control such as vehicle breakdowns or strikes, and yes, pandemics such as COVID-19 do occur and cause you to adjust, review your strategy and find a new operational normality,” says Thoabala.
Now we’re here
To date, the company has three regional offices in Johannesburg, Durban and Bloemfontein. Its glass recycling footprint extends across five provinces namely Gauteng, Free State, Mpumalanga, KwaZulu-Natal, and Limpopo. The business employs no less than ten full time employees, as well as approximately 1200 secondary income earners that consists of reclaimers that supply the company. The business which owns three trucks and rents a big crane from third party service providers, procures recyclable waste, mostly from reclaimers at landfills, informal settlements, township and establishments.
“Starting the business has made it possible to uplift the communities around us and provided us with the ability to add value in ways I couldn’t imagine. This includes seeing reclaimers that initially used to collect about a ton per month, grow to reclaiming on average 20 tons a month and helping to empower them to create employment within their respective communities. Other memorable events over the course of our venture thus far includes the first month that we delivered 1000 tons, testimonies of our reclaimers being able to send their kids to tertiary educational institutions because of their recycling jobs, and being able to assist reclaimers to receive food vouchers during the COVID-19 pandemic,” Thoabala concludes.