Turning Waste into Profit: Ghana Visits Cape Town’s Recycling Programme

by James Tayler

Ghana & SA Waste Management Exchange

By Chantal Hildebrand, SDI Secretariat 

As part of their initiatives to improve the sanitation situation in the slums of Accra, Ghana, a delegation of four members of the Ghana Federation of the Urban Poor (GHAFUP) – Haruna Abu, Janet Abu, Imoro Toyibu and Naa Ayeley – participated in a learning exchange to Cape Town, South Africa to learn more about the waste management initiative underway in the settlements of Cape Town. Painting a picture of the waste and sanitation situation in the slums of Accra, Ghana, Janet Adu, a member of GHAFUP, described the discarded plastic bags and other trash littering the narrow pathways of Ghana’s slum communities, adding to the already poor sanitation situation. To begin addressing this issue, GHAFUP and People’s Dialogue Ghana began brainstorming about waste management programmes that will clean up the slums while simultaneously generating income for the Federation.

The Blue Sky Solid Waste Management Company is the business side of the waste-management facilities. The initiative operates out of the offices of Sizakuyenza, a small community based NGO that originated from the FEDUP health network’s cleaning programme. Starting as a small initiative, with volunteer slum dwellers sorting waste for a small income, the initiative has grown into a completely self-sustaining programme with about 400 volunteer community trash collectors, or waste pickers, from various informal settlements across Cape Town who sort through waste to collect recyclables.

The sorted waste is then collected through the initiative’s mobile buy-back programme in which two pickup trucks manned Blue Sky drivers pick up the collected waste from various settlements around Cape Town, paying the pickers cash upon pickup for their recyclables. After another sorting at the Blue Sky Solid Waste Management facilities, the waste is sold to buyers and recycling companies.  Using the profits made from these business transactions, the Blue Sky Solid Waste Management programme pays the pickers for their trash collection, salaries for the workers that run the company while also revolving the remaining profits back into the programme to sustain it and maintain its facilities. 

Over the two-day exchange, the Ghana delegates focused their attention on the business side of the Blue Sky Solid Waste Management programme: observing the market opportunities in waste collection and recycling, meeting with local pickers in the Bengali community, learning waste sorting techniques and how to build relationships with recycling companies. The days were split into two sections: 1) interactions with the buyers and learning the market and 2) interacting with the pickers and how this activity has helped slum communities around Cape Town.

Day 1:

Day one of the visit fell on the day Blue Sky Solid Waste Management meets with buyers to sell the recyclable material that the pickers collected throughout the week, giving the Ghanaians an opportunity to learn the values of various recyclable goods. As explained by Mr. John Mckerry, team leader at Blue Sky, certain companies are looking for certain types of waste, which is why it is so important to look at the market opportunities in your city before beginning a recycling program. This way the federation can be well informed on what types of materials companies are looking for in order to generate the most income. 

Ghana & SA Waste Management Exchange

Following a lively discussion inside, Mr. Mckerry and Mr. Gershwin Kohler, the project consultant for the Blue Sky Solid Waste Management programme took the group on a quick tour of the Blue Sky Solid Waste Management facilities. They described the structure of staff and participants in the programme and identified the various types of waste collected and how it is sorted and its value (per kilo).

After the tour, the Ghana delegates joined Mr. Mckerry, Mr. Kohler and two of the of the Sky Blue waste collectors. Together the group visited waste companies such as S.A.B.S., where the Blue Sky staff negotiated and sold the collected and sorted waste. Through these interactions, the delegates were able to witness the market opportunities for recyclable goods in South Africa and compare these prices to the Ghana values.

Ghana & SA Waste Management Exchange

Mr. Gershwin Kohler discusses the value of glass recyclables. 

Day 2:

Waking bright and early on a Saturday morning, the delegation met with the Bengali community where community pickers had begun the work of collecting and sorting waste. As explained by Mr. Kohler the day before, “their job is to collect garbage and they focus on what they want to collect.” Some participate in the programme once in a while to generate some extra income for themselves and their families; for others this is a full time job, picking and sorting daily in order to make as much profit as possible. Furthermore, there are some people who choose to only collect one or two types of waste (e.g. plastic bottles and newspaper), while others collect and sort whatever types of waste they know Blue Sky might be interested in. When the sun has reached its highest point the pickers’ day of work is complete, though there are some dedicated individuals who will continue through the afternoon.

Upon collection by the mobile buy-back truck, the pickers’ collections are weighed separately to determine payment  – paid by the kilo for paper, crushed glass, cardboard, plastics, etc. or paid by each whole plastic or glass bottle collected. Pickers are informed of the different rates for each type of waste collected and the importance of sorting waste before collection. Each individual’s collection is recorded to maintain accurate data collection and minimize conflict between people. Pickers are then paid for their collection, no matter how little or big the amount collected.  

Ghana & SA Waste Management Exchange

Mr. John McKerry describes the process of collecting, sorting and selling recyclables. 

Providing a job opportunity within the slums of Cape Town, the waste management programme motivates people to participate as pickers to sustain their livelihoods; however, this programme has also helped clean up the slums, creating a cleaner and healthier community environment. Simply put by Mr. Kohler, “[slum communities] become reverse supplier of raw materials.”

Throughout the exchange, the Ghana delegates brainstormed the aspects of the Blue Sky programme that would be applicable to their planned project in Ghana. This is not the first waste management programme for GHAFUP. Having started a waste project in Old Fadama, the largest slum in Accra, the Ghana federation has already begun to address the slum’s sanitation and waste issues. Thinking on a larger scale, GHAFUP began planning how to scale up the project in Old Fadama and create an income generating aspect of the programme in order to sustain the project and add to the general funds of the federation.

Using the lessons learned from the Blue Skye Solid Waste Management programme in Cape Town, the Ghana delegates took ideas from the process used in Cape Town to adapt to their situation in Accra. As stated by the team in their exchange report, “the system of waste management [in Cape Town] is different from Ghana because they buy the waste from the household/pickers.” 

The Cape Town programme’s mission is to mobilise slum communities around recycling and waste collection, demonstrating the benefits of clean communities and how participating in this programme can help generate income for individuals/families.

According to the delegation, GHAFUP is planning to manage and run the solid waste management programme as a service for slum communities in Accra, where federation members act as pickers, from the picking and waste collection to building relationships and selling to recycling companies in the Accra area so as to generate income and sustain the project.  The funds from this project can also help finance some of the federation’s other activities if possible.

Following Mr. Kohler’s advice to “start in your on house”, the Ghana delegates plan to begin the project amongst themselves. Collecting, sorting and recycling materials in their own households, GHAFUP will begin mobilising and educating other slum dwellers around recycling and waste management. While doing this, GHAFUP members will begin researching the recycling industry in Ghana; identifying the waste that has a market – keeping in mind that the market values will fluctuate – and beginning to build relationships with potential buyers. However, the main outcome highlighted by the Ghana team was that the exchange “encouraged [GHAFUP] to act as a community on waste management,” which is the main lesson the Ghana delegates plan to share with their fellow slum dwellers in Ghana.