From trash to riches!

Tuesday, November 3, 2020

After sending out his CV with no luck of securing a job for six years, a Katlehong man ignored the raised eyebrows of friends and family and decided to become a waste picker.

Now, Tshepo Mazibuko, 40, is the renowned owner of K1 Recycling, a township-based waste management company.

SAnews met Mazibuko at his Buy-Back Centre where men and women in their overalls are hard at work. The centre is home to heaps of boxes, plastic materials and other waste materials. The sound of the washing plant rings in the air. This is where all the magic of transforming plastic scraps to plastic pallets happens. However, this is not where the story begins.

Mazibuko recalls how he used to depend on other people to make ends meet as a jobless 29-year-old. “I was frustrated,” Mazibuko says.

He was volunteering at an organisation that helps the needy when he had an encounter with the owner who was originally from Brazil. “We saw the waste pickers passing with trolleys in town and he explained that part of Brazil is clean because of these guys.”

Little did he know that a seed had been planted.  

“One day I approached [a waste picker] and he told me how they pick up waste to go and sell it. That just made me crazy because the township is dirty.”

He then started researching recycling and collecting trash for resale.  

“The first challenge I had was to convince my wife because she’s educated and she went to university. The first question was: ‘What are they going to say at home?’”

He explained that instead of sitting at home unemployed, at least he would be doing something and earning some money. The couple was raising their one-year-old boy and Mazibuko was determined to make sure that he did not go to bed hungry.

He still remembers how excited he was when he bought his first trolley for R200 in 2009. “All along I was looking for work and couldn’t find it and now I was doing something - even though many did not approve,” he says.

For three years, he went through people’s bins looking for any recyclables he could find to trade for a small amount of cash to feed his family.

“Some people thought I was losing it,” he says with a chuckle. He recalls a day when he was looking through a bin when the owner of the house came outside. When he lifted his head, he realized it was a guy he used to go to school with. “He nearly cried and offered me food,” Mazibuko chuckles.

There was also the hurdle of waking up at the crack of dawn to the danger the job posed.

His first pay cheque was about R150 after a hard day’s work. “We’d walk about 10km to go sell. I didn’t make much money but the passion was there.”

The meagre pay did not deter him; in fact, it made him think about how he could innovate. “I then asked myself, why can’t I be a transporter?”

After some convincing, he and his wife, Thando, took a chance and bought their first bakkie to transport reclaimers to sell their trash in 2011 and more people demanded his service.

Mazibuko then saw another opportunity to buy the recyclables from the pickers. “That’s when the idea of becoming a Buy-Back Centre came in.”

He registered his business the same year and employed two people. “I didn’t have a place. This is where they were manufacturing bricks and the owner let me store my material. “A Good Samaritan lent him a baling machine to compress large amounts of recyclables.

He began applying for enterprise development programmes and luckily scored an opportunity to study a short-course at the Gordon Institute of Business Science (GIBS) after a tough selection process. “This is where I learnt to draft a business plan,” he recalls.

Mazibuko’s company was still not on the level where he wanted it to be and he knocked on all the doors to acquire funding to expand it. “I was rejected left, right and centre. I was told that this thing of mine wasn’t going to fly,” he says.

Despite many setbacks along the way, his passion kept him going.

“I believed in what I was doing, even though it was scary and didn’t make much sense even to me at times. I could see the big companies doing it and I said, if they can do it, I can do it too.”

In 2014, he received his first funding from Anglo Zimele, Anglo American’s SA enterprise and development fund, which assisted in buying bigger baling machines, trucks and forklifts. This assisted the business become more structured and also offered mentorship.

His establishment could now compete with other Buy-Back Centres and his staff increased to 10. The dream has always been to become a pelletiser or plastic processer and he fought to the bitter end to achieve his goal.

Again, he gathered courage and put out his proposals to take his operation to the next level.

Mazibuko had his break when the Department of Environment, Forestry and Fisheries (DEFF) awarded him with a R5 million grant in 2016. Thanks to the DEFF, K1 Recycling could now afford to buy processing machines from China and his business has been growing in leaps and bounds.

K1 Recycling now employs 21 people and has an indirect work force of over 1 000 waste pickers on their books.  

Their volumes improved and the centre collects over 80 tons of waste per month, while the turnover went up to R2 million per year. “We were now paying people much more, meaning people were collecting more [recyclables]. That changed our business.”

He also hired a university engineering graduate to operate and maintain the machines.

K1 Recycling has also received recognition from big companies he has since collaborated with and who have a footprint overseas as part of the SWITCH Africa Green, a European Union-funded programme implemented by United Nations Environmental.

“There are a lot of channels that were opened for us through the grant.”

He travelled as far as Italy through the International Labour Organisation and has a few awards under his belt.

The businessman is optimistic about the green economy, which President Cyril Ramaphosa believes is one of the sectors that can aid job creation and boost the country’s finances. “It’s exciting because there’s a lot of potential. There are more jobs that can be created especially for us Black people. We grew up not know much about waste, we didn’t know we can benefit from it.”

The vision was to make an impact in the township and make it clean. However, he has gone well beyond that.

Possibilities are endless for this entrepreneur who has introduced technology where waste pickers can be paid via cellphones, which is safer and convenient than carrying cash.  His next adventure is to manufacture end-user products from the recyclables collected in the township and is looking forward to the challenge.

“We believe we’re going to increase the job count and keep our environment clean.”

There is no limit to what is achievable, he tells us. “It starts smalls and not losing hope. Yes, we have a lot of challenges as a country but there are a lot of positives that are happening,” he smiles.  –