After reading the WasteAid Toolkit, Chiku Chikoti from Blantyre in Malawi offered to share his experience of building a successful waste management start-up enterprise. 

Established waste management industries employ thousands of people and provide many interesting and valuable jobs. Typical roles include sales and marketing, collection and processing, and health and safety – to name just a few.

So it is always a great pleasure to hear from entrepreneurs around the world who are pioneering waste management where there is none, creating jobs and improving people’s lives.

One such champion is Chikumbutso (Chiku) Chikoti in Blantyre, Malawi, who got in touch after reading the WasteAid toolkit. Chiku is managing and developing a waste and recycling start-up company and kindly agreed to share his experiences.

A few years ago, tired of seeing unmanaged waste accumulating in his town and polluting the local rivers, Chiku felt compelled to do something to bring about long-term change. Through hard work and perseverance, Chiku has:

  • Informed the community about the value of waste management.
  • Provided ways for people to dispose of their waste safely.
  • Protected the local environment from waste-related pollution.
  • Generated employment opportunities for young people.
  • Created and sold useful products made from waste.

In Chiku’s own words, “We are using sustainable waste management to reduce our burden on the environment and to give something positive back to the community.”

Starting from scratch

Chiku had been running a small composting operation for a couple of years in his parents’ back yard, under the company name ComFert Ltd. In November 2017, he had the opportunity to relocate to the Zingwangwa Sanitation Centre, known locally as the Zing San Centre. It soon became clear that the previous managers had not been active or visible within the community.

With no system in place and no communication with local residents, waste had been left to pile up at the centre, causing an unsightly and unhealthy scene.

While the site had historically been designated for waste management, there was such little activity that locals thought it was a foreign-owned warehouse, and over time the site had become a dumping ground.

The first challenge was to address the mindset of the people; to change dumping habits and to find alternatives to their waste dumping.

Chiku says, “As anyone would know, nobody in a right mental capacity would want to live next to an unmanaged waste site and the same is true here too.

“Everybody here wants their environment clean and sorted out but without  available options to help address their needs, coming to them and telling them to stop dumping their waste in x, y, z spot will be returned with a negative reaction because of lack of options.”

To illustrate the point, Chiku recalls one time when he was explaining his goals and ambitions for the site to a resident, when a woman casually came and dumped her waste in front of them, with a look that said “Well, what can I do?”

Chiku says that funding is also a challenge. He has used his own money and entrepreneurial spirit (he is a chef by training) to build the company from the ground up, giving training courses to earn extra money. His fluctuating income, however, means paying wages and keeping equipment maintained can be difficult.

“Our pushcart is currently in need of repair,” explains Chiku, “and without it, waste collection has halted. Meanwhile the available space at the Zing San Centre severely limits how much waste we can process.”

Despite these growing pains, ComFert is a fine example of community-led waste management.

Step-by-step

“Our first priority was to get the community to notice that change was happening. First, we engaged the elders of the community to introduce ourselves and our ambitions. The well-respected elders in turn addressed the community, albeit on a small scale (see statement below from Mr J Matuta, Aide and Advisor to The Chief of Zingwangwa).

“Next, we set about getting our own house in order, implementing a three step process called Removals, Limitations and Replacements,” recounts Chiku.

“Removals: We removed all the trash we could from the Zing San Centre so the area became cleaner and more presentable. This meant we could to demonstrate to the community that we mean business, and we could use the extra space to start sorting and weighing waste materials.

“Next was Limitations: We fenced the area with low-cost materials to prevent further waste dumping, which had an immediate impact on people’s behaviour.

“Finally, Replacements: We installed low-cost bins (waste containers) at popular dumping spots. This gave people somewhere specific to dispose of their waste, reducing the amount of litter and improving the appearance of the area. This also made the process of collecting the waste much easier.”

The bins are currently for mixed waste, but once Chiku has the funds he intends to double the number of bins to six and introduce separate bins for plastics and metals, organics, and non-recyclable mixed waste.

The shortage of space at the Zing San Centre means Chiku continues to carry out the composting activities behind his parents’ home, but the business has recently acquired a piece of land for increased processing of waste and composting. ComFert uses their own truck to deliver the material to be composted, and returns the finished product to Zing San for packaging and sales. They are also experimenting with biogas and making charcoal briquettes.

Keys to success and future plans

“A great key to success,” says Chiku, “lies in the involvement of key stakeholders, uniting hands and tackling waste together. When we work as a community it is possible to make great change in a short time, and to maintain proper sustainable waste management systems.”

Chiku and his colleagues hosted 200 Form 1 students from Zingwangwa Secondary School. They took the time to inform the children of the serious long-term problems caused by a lack of waste management, before demonstrating the processes that ComFert undertakes.

Having proved their community spirit, work ethic, and the benefits that come from managing waste properly, Comfert are now seeking corporate sponsorship to expand their business.

Chiku says, “We invited 12 large companies in banking, plastic and food manufacturing, and telecommunications, to sponsor an ‘Environmental Drive’. The idea was to involve government schools in the area, community members and the established businesses… but we received zero response.

“That’s why we scaled it down to just a day of training involving one school. From this training, we noted that the kids were actively engaged, interested and seemed concerned about the situation but without the means to address the situation, they expressed feeling powerless to do so.”

To scale up, Chiku and his team recommend work in zones, as the whole area is huge. Zones allow for effective team and performance management.

“We would analyse the waste situation in each zone, to see which waste materials are generated and the most appropriate collection and recycling services. For example, we could set up a biogas plant where there is a high amount of sewage flow, and a charcoal briquette plant where there is ample woody waste.

“Each zone would employ four or five young apprentices to carry out the activities and liaise with HQ, from where the products would be sold.”

ComFert is still seeking corporate sponsorship or strategic partnerships to grow their waste management enterprise but are bullish of their chances of growth if none of those linkages arose immediately. This is due to the evidence they’ve seen from the nature of their composting operations and the doors that have been opened because of them with waste management now leading them into agriculture and landscape management.

With that being said, any company offering financial support would benefit not only from a cleaner environment (which is good for business), but also from increased brand recognition via signage on pushcarts, bins and uniforms, and mentions in promotional brochures, on local radio and via community theatre performances.

Chiku and the team at ComFert are leading from the front, and it is only a matter of time until more affluent and influential community members agree to support their worthy initiative.

When a community’s waste is managed properly, everyone benefits. From school children to shop keepers, residents of all neighbourhoods can improve their health and economy by sorting their waste and supporting waste-wise entrepreneurs.

Transcript of comments by Mr J Matuta, Aide and Advisor to The Chief of Zingwangwa:

“Hello. My name is James Matuta, aide to the Chief of Zingwangwa. I would like to talk about the work that the sanitation centre has done in this area since they started operations but I would like to start by talking about the state before.

Previously, our community just used to throw wastes within the river and surrounding areas because of no options. With the introduction of this organisation though, our attitudes have changed and we trust that we shall see a much more sanitary area.

With our president stressing for cleaner environments in all towns, we are confident that with the introduction of the sanitation centre, our area will be clean and because of that, we have welcomed the sanitation centre with both hands open as a community.

A big welcome in the community is the introduction of the bins which have helped in giving us an option with our waste disposals. With that, it is helping in keeping the river clean and in this rainy season, it will no doubt lessen the danger of cholera in this area.

We understand that at the beginning of any program challenges will be faced, but we as a community will try our best to make sure that the sanitation centre is a success and to get used to it.

As with the introduction of compost, our community is very happy with that addition as we aren’t able to afford much of these fertilisers and as such, we are ecstatic to hear and see about such manure.

But not just to think of Zingwangwa only, we wish to see more sanitation centres in other areas as well as they can be very fruitful to the community.

To finish, we hope that the environment changes such that we get back the waters that used to draw pigeons to the river everyday at 6am and 6pm. A sign of excellent water indeed!! Thank you.”

Chiku says: “And with that, I would like to conclude by saying that while we have faced challenges of which some are more manageable than others, the reaction from the community at large has been positive and spurs us on to continue undertaking the job we do, albeit that we lack support from those who can make big differences quickly.

With that said, we thank you for your time in reading this and wish that you have been updated of the operations being undertaken in the area. Thank You.”

Chiku Chikoti, Managing Director, ComFert Ltd

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