Cape Town - Nokwanda Sotyantya sits among heaps of garbage
and patiently sorts through it, separating cardboard, plastic, glass, paper and
metal, piece by piece. The recycled piles of trash are then weighed and sold to
packaging manufacturers in South Africa that reuse the materials to create new
Sotyantya belongs to the country's first group of small
business entrepreneurs who have benefited from the government's move towards a
green economy. It is a strategy aimed at creating environmental sustainability,
social equity and economic growth; the government wants to create 300 000 jobs
within a decade in this sector.
For 48-year-old Sotyantya, who is a member of a local
recycling cooperative and lives in Imizamo Yethu, a slum outside Cape Town, the
move towards a green economy has turned her life around.
Previously unemployed and struggling to survive, she said
she now earns an average of $250 a month from her work - enough to care for
herself and her four children.
"The more people become aware of the benefits of
recycling, the more rubbish gets dropped off at the Hout Bay waste centre. For
me, that translates into more money," said Sotyantya.
The Hout Bay Recycling Coop to which she belongs is based at
the municipal waste drop-off site in Hout Bay. Here Sotyantya and other members
of the cooperative sort and sell the recycled material.
Her cooperative of six formerly jobless, poverty-stricken
men and women currently recycles 25 tonnes of waste each month. And this number
is slowly increasing.
The cooperative received a boost when Thrive, a social
enterprise incubator that helps green startups to become viable, competitive businesses,
decided to help the cooperative improve its business strategy and management
"We focus on creating jobs that help to minimise waste,
increase renewable sources, protect and restore local biodiversity, reduce
energy and water demands and create a local food network," explained
Thrive managing director Iming Lin.
It is much more than developing traditional business models,
she added; it is about incorporating social, environmental and economic
Although it has only been operating since July 2011,
Thrive's work has not gone unnoticed. The SEED Initiative of the (www.unep.org/)
United Nations Environment Programme (Unep) acknowledged the organisation's
work by selecting it for one of its 2011 sustainable development awards
presented annually to 35 African grassroots entrepreneurs in the green economy.
"On this continent, companies and countries, from small
communities to heads of state, are suddenly realising the importance of the
green economy," said Unep spokesperson Nick Nuttall.
Economic development and environmental and social
sustainability cannot operate in isolation, he said.
"Going green doesn't mean it's nice and fluffy. There
are some hard economic figures behind it, too." Creating a green economy
is no longer an option but a requirement, Nuttall said.
"We are living in a world of 7 billion people
increasing to over 9 billion by 2050. If we don't change the way we consume
goods and services and think about the environmental limits, then we're in
"But it's a world of opportunity too," Nuttal
said, adding, "there are more and more examples of small businesses
solving big problems and creating livelihoods."
It is an opportunity that the South African government wants
to seize over the next few years. In November, it signed a Green Economic
Accord that stipulates active national investment in the green economy.
"The green economy can create large numbers of jobs,
provide a spur for industrialisation and help create a sustainable future for
this and the next generations," said Minister of Economic Development
Ebrahim Patel after the accord was announced.
The agreement is part of a plan to shift towards a lower
carbon-intensity economy, while creating jobs and promoting industrial
But government alone cannot manage and fund South Africa's
transition to a green economy, said Patel. The business sector, trade unions
and civil society organisations must also play a role.
That is why organisations like Thrive have started talking
to and collaborating with different government departments, such as
environmental affairs, trade and industry, solid waste or public works, to
jointly develop ways of giving the local green economy a jolt.
"Social enterprises are a growing model. We want to
develop donor-independent, viable, scalable business models that link the
economy and the environment and that can be rolled out in multiple communities
or even nationally," said Lin.
"Government has been very supportive of what we're
Apart from supporting the recycling cooperative, Thrive is
trying to get a number of other innovative green economy businesses off the
One of them is TrashBack, a bicycle recycling collection
scheme that picks up reusable material from restaurants, businesses and
residential housing complexes, which are currently not serviced by the
municipality. For every eight clients - or 4 800kg of garbage - TrashBack can
create one full-time job, said Lin.
"We want to show people how it all links into each other:
waste, water, food, jobs and better livelihoods for all," said Lin.
"We can't afford not to have a green economy."