Grassroots circular economy talent celebrated

On 26 April 2022, international NGO WasteAid hosted a celebratory event, bringing together entrepreneurs and industry leaders from the across the city at an event branded “Making the Circular Economy a Reality in Johannesburg”.

The event was the culmination of a two-year programme to support innovators and business start-ups that help keep “wasted” resources in the loop, creating a cleaner city and sustainable livelihood opportunities. The Circular Economy Network programme, run by WasteAid, aimed to fast-track local solutions to a circular economy in Johannesburg.

A wide variety of stakeholders attended the event including representatives from the Foreign and Commonwealth Development Office, Business Finland, Tourvest, packaging recovery organisation Plastics SA and programme sponsor Huhtamaki, a global supplier of packaging solutions. Juan Mulder, OpEx Manager at Huhtamaki, was full of praise for the entrepreneurs, saying, “This was a fantastic event, and we need more like them!”

Launching the proceedings, Mr Mulder thanked WasteAid for bringing local innovators, entrepreneurs and circular economy business leaders together, and shared insights into Huhtamaki’s commitments to sustainability across the supply chain.

Michelle Wilson, Circular Economy Network Director at WasteAid then shared the achievements of the initiative, with 36 companies given business incubator support and 60,000 Euros of seed funding to expand their businesses. Ms Wilson comments, ““It was great to see so many entrepreneurs and innovators making connection here today!  It was truly the Circular Economy Network in action”.

Angela Ludek, Project Officer for Informal Sector Engagement at WasteAid, led a spotlight session on seven of the semi-finalists of WasteAid’s Zero Waste Cities challenge.


Boombadotmobi, who work in Diepsloot one of Johannesburg’s biggest townships to eradicate illegal dumping, were one of 2 winners of the competition.  They described the impact of winning the competition on their business; “Before we relied on a business model where 75% of the income went to the transporter but now we have swapped it around through the purchase of a truck”. Thanks to the Zero Waste Cities Challenge prize money, Boombadotmobi are now able to save and invest more of their earnings into developing their business.

Makhabisi Recycling and Trade, an all-female recycling outfit described the challenges they still face. Their buy-back centre, housed in a disused steel factory is without direct power which makes it difficult to operate their bailers/compactors to capacity. Life in the waste value chain is still very much hand to mouth with very little regulation of pricing of plastics which leaves waste collectors and aggregators very exposed to income fluctuations.

With many parts of Johannesburg still underserved with waste collections and recycling, these grassroots entrepreneurs are providing a much-needed value to society.

Following the spotlight session, a panel event was held with Douw Steyn from Plastics SA, Ceris Turner Bailes CEO of WasteAid and Sbusiso Shongwe and Nondumiso Sibiya from Boombadotmobi to explore the question “What is needed to support waste entrepreneurs?” Some of the key points raised included:

  • the need for tailored training for those working in the waste space rather than a one size fits all approach,
  • the need to select the right cooperatives to support in order to accelerate and scale good progress,
  • improving access to finance,
  • the ability to develop end markets locally as most of recycled content is destined for export, and
  • more collaboration and less competition between innovators.

Following the panel discussion, four innovators presented their businesses including Winnie McHenry from Upcycle, who challenged the view that upcycling had to be a small cottage industry. She described how she was able to fulfil an order from a corporate client for 3,000 glasses made of disused bottles through a dedicated network of producers. Ms McHenry’s aim is to build on existing skills in the community (such as crocheting and knitting) and to swap traditional materials for plastics that would otherwise become a waste.

The whole event was designed with circularity in mind. Branded gift bags were made by Upcycle, a local Circular Economy Network member that works across South Africa to build the skills of unemployed youth with products made from unwanted waste material. They also provided pens and notepads that were rejects from corporate branding exercises, that would have ended up in a landfill.

An exhibition gave the local innovators chance to promote their solutions, including Community Bin, Upcycle, Makhabisi and Bokashi Bran. The zero waste lunch was provided by Nosh Food Rescue and prepared by Celebrity Chef Citrum Thembinkosi Khumalo. Nosh Food Rescue regularly feeds hundreds of meals to the local community with delicious and nutritious food that otherwise would have ended up at landfill.