A thriving social and environmental start-up business is starting to make waves in Cape Town. Waste to Food has managed to show that there is real commercial value in recycling our food waste, and the business has been recognised with an award from the University of Stellenbosch’s Small Business Academy.
For co-founder Phumlani Dlongwana, winning the Academy’s Class of 2015 award for Business Most Likely to Succeed was a personal highlight. But professionally, it brings confirmation of the vision he has shared with partner Roger Jaques that the business of extracting nutrient value from the organic waste that we generate is not just a nice idea – it has real economic potential while con-tributing to food security in our society.
At Waste to Food, food waste that is destined for landfill sites are fed it to earth worms in order to generate high-quality vermi-compost which increases the fertility of the soil and facilitates plant pest and disease control. It seems such an obvious and brilliant idea, it is hard to see why it is not already being done on a much larger scale.
Entrepreneurs Jaques and Dlongwana are trying to make this happen on an industrial scale. At the Philippi Fresh Produce Market site their project has been piloted successfully using ten industrial scale earthworm composting systems – called Worm Hammocks – to process fruit and vegetable waste together with garden waste into rich vermicompost. The business model is commercially via-ble at a larger scale and more investment will see an exponential increase in its impact and suc-cess.
Waste to Food was founded in 2012 with the assistance of Closing the Loop, the City of Cape Town and Pick n Pay. Pick n Pay recognises the importance of reducing the load that we put on our land-fill sites and is a strong supporter of recycling initiatives. A R2m grant from the Ackerman Pick n Pay Foundation, and a commitment from the supermarket chain to divert organic waste from its stores that it would normally send to the landfill sites each week, means that the project has a se-cure source of food for the earthworms. The funding from Pick n Pay will be used to purchase shareholding in Waste to Food by an Enterprise Development Trust that will create opportunities for job creation and local entrepreneurs.
It is anticipated that when the Hotrot in-vessel composting system is acquired in the next few months, the project will be scaled up to cope with around 28 tons of food waste per week. The in-vessel composting equipment will allow the project to expand to accommodate a wider range of food types like meat, cooked food, pastry and dairy products. These are excluded at the moment because they are not food types that area easily consumed by the earthworms. The Hotrot will cre-ate a partially stabilized compost that is more palatable to the earthworms, and it will kill vegetable seeds and neutralise any pathogens while retaining the nutrient value of the waste. The improved process will create a premium product that can be used in a wider range of applications.
As the project gains momentum, Waste to Food plans to offer Worm Hammock systems to entre-preneurs who want to run their own businesses on a franchise model. This micro-franchise model has been developed for the earthworm composting component of the business, and the intention is to adapt the model for food production as well. The beautifully rich clean organic vermicompost produced by the eartworms will be packaged and sold in its pure form, some mixed into a premi-um blend of growing media and some for use as an organic plant pest and disease spray. Pick n Pay has indicated that it will sell vermicompost produced by Waste to Food in its stores. Ver-micompost and a nutrient-rich liquid known as vermitea will also be redirected to greenhouse vege-table production at Waste to Food’s site at the Philippi Fresh Produce Market.
Jaques believes that the patented Worm Hammock design is uniquely suited to function as a com-mercial option for entrepreneurs from local low-income communities. Earthworm composting has long had its fans. But there are drawbacks associated with upscaling traditional forms of earthworm composting. Conventional vermicomposting is difficult to manage as a commercial operation as methods are generally crude and it is difficult to make a consistent, high quality product. But the clever and efficient design of the Worm Hammocks means that small entrepreneurs can run five or more Worm Hammock units as a business. Each unit is constructed of a vertical stack of ham-mock-like nets filled with organic matter that the farmer cycles downward every few weeks through a series of positions.The hammock from the lowermost position is removed and the vermicompost harvested, and then the empty hammock is put back in the top position.
Waste to Food is passionate about the social upliftment possibilities,from the rollout of the project in its present form to value-add activities like food and ornamental plant production. Vermiculture is just one aspect of ‘Closing the Loop’, which looks to change the processes we employ in the gener-ation and consumption of food. Jaques argues that instead of sending large amounts of waste to landfills, systems can be introduced to identify and separate different sorts of waste that have in-herent economic value and can become inputs for other processes. That applies as much to plas-tics as it does to foodstuffs. It’s a view that suggests the possibility of a raft of new businesses and new jobs. In Philippi, where poverty levels are extremely high and jobs are scarce, this is an excit-ing prospect.
Dlongwana’s role in Waste to Food was recognised last week when it was voted winner of a Distell-sponsored award for the small business with the most potential in the 2015 class of Stelenbosch University’s Small Business Academy (SBA) programme. The exciting award came as Dlongwana completed the sponsored nine-month business development programme at the institution – thanks to the belief of others who saw potential in this resourceful and talented Philippi resident. Dlongwana was one of 20 small business owners from the townships of Greater Cape Town who completed the SBA course which is sponsored by the Distell Foundation and ABSA. As part of Dlongwana’s prize Distell will look at working with Waste to Food to process their organic waste.
Philippi Economic Development Initiative CEO Thomas Swana, who believes the business offers great potential for meaningful job creation, explains how Dlongwana’s study success came about. Swana recalls an approach to him by Nico van Aardt of the Public Investment Corporation who was hoping to identify a suitable candidate to sponsor to attend the course being offered at Univer-sity. When Swana was asked, it took all of a couple of seconds to recommend Dlongwana whose work alongside Roger Jaques he had been following closely. “Phumlani had been showing such ability as an entrepreneur and Roger had spoken so highly of his role in the business. When Nico asked me, it was just a no-brainer that Phumlani should be given the opportunity to study. We had something like three days to get the application paperwork done which put everyone under huge pressure but we are delighted that Phumlani has done so well and we congratulate him and Roger on the award.”