After sending out his CV with no luck securing a job for six years, a man ignored the raised eyebrows of friends and family by opting to become a waste picker.
Now, Tshepo Mazibuko, 40, from Katlehong in Ekurhuleni, is the renowned owner of K1 Recycling, a township-based waste management company.
Mazibuko recalled how he used to depend on other people to make ends meet as a jobless 29-year-old. “I was frustrated,” he said.
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. He said that instead of sitting at home unemployed, at least he would be doing something and earning some money. 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 could not find it, and now I was doing something – even though many did not approve.”
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 said 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 realised it was a guy he used to go to school with. “He nearly cried and offered me food,” Mazibuko said.
His first pay cheque was about R150 after a hard day’s work. “We would walk about 10km to go sell. I did not make much money but the passion was there.”
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. He began applying for enterprise development programs 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 learned to draft a business plan.”
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 to become more structured and also offered mentorship.
His establishment could now compete with other buy-back centers and his staff increased to 10. His dream has always been to become a plastic processer and he fought to achieve his goal.
Mazibuko had his break when the department of environment, forestry and fisheries (DEFF) awarded him an R5m grant in 2016. Thanks to the DEFF, K1 Recycling could now afford to buy processing machines from China and its business has been growing in leaps and bounds.
K1 Recycling now employs 21 people and has an indirect workforce of over 1,000 waste pickers on its books.
Volumes improved and the center collects over 80 tons of waste per month, while turnover went up to R2m 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 Mazibuko has since collaborated with and who have a footprint overseas as part of the SWITCH Africa Green, a European Union-funded program implemented by United Nations Environmental.
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 is exciting because there is a lot of potentials. More jobs can be created, especially for us black people. We grew up not knowing much about waste, we did not know we can benefit from it.”
Possibilities are endless for this entrepreneur who has introduced technology where waste pickers can be paid via cellphones, which is safer and more 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 are going to increase the job count and keep our environment clean.”