The tale of two cities: turning waste into a profitable business

February 25, 2020

While finishing up our first learning cycle with an experiment, we are exploring another one of our focus areas, urban solid waste management. 

Three retired air force servicemen work as part of a cooperative at the municipal composting site in Bishoftu, a town close to the capital Addis Abeba, historically known for hosting Ethiopia’s air force and more recently earning a reputation as a resort town.  

Curious to learn about composting and wanting to make extra money, the men come every day to the site to do the physically grueling work of turning the compost piles and sieving it though to extract any impurities. They are proud of the work, but they have faced a lot of problems in the past three years as they struggle to become a sustainable business.

The biggest issue is controlling the amount of non-organic waste that finds its way to the composting site. Despite the best efforts of the city administration, it has been difficult to get households to sort properly and to keep the collected waste segregated at transit stations.

In some cases where households have successfully segregated the waste into organic and inorganic waste, the work is practically undone by the collectors that dump the segregated waste into one container because they are only paid to collect and have no interest in organic waste.

At the transit station, the combined waste is sorted through for items they can sell for recycling like metals, plastic bottles, bone; and they attempt to sort the organic waste as well.

Once they have extracted what they can sell, the “organic” waste is transported to the compost site and the rest to the landfill. However, once the “organic” waste gets to the compost site it has to be sorted again adding to the already cumbersome work of creating the compost.

From left to right: men turning compost, Packed sample compost, Municipal nursery using the compost to grow plants for city parks

40km from Bishoftu, the city of Adama has a municipal composting project with much better control of the organic waste they receive. The municipal official tells us “we can’t control trash once it gets to the compost site, so we keep it out”. They have been able to achieve this by directly sourcing their organic waste from the large fruit and vegetable markets where they are guaranteed quality, or in some districts they directly send vehicles to collect only organic waste from households that sort their waste. By doing this they reduce the risk of any non-organic material from being introduced into the organic waste.  

However, effective sorting at households has only been successful in two of the five districts where the cooperatives have a strong connection with the community. The waste collectors tell us that in lower-income communities where owners are the ones dealing with the household trash, it is easier to get them to sort, but in higher-income households, where there is commonly hired help dealing with the trash getting them to sort is harder. So, they are more successful in collecting organic household waste in lower-income communities. Because the city of Adama has been able to control the quality of the waste in various ways, there is a marked difference between the compost produced in the two sites.

Value chain for waste is illustrated above by the Accelerator Lab

Adama and Bishoftu, along with four others in Ethiopia, are engaged in municipal compost production through the support of the NAMA COMPOST , a UNDP and Global Environment Facility (gef) project that aims to integrate solid waste management and urban greenery by composting. There are many benefits to creating compost from organic waste in urban areas. Aside from the production of a valuable material, it reduces the amount of waste that goes to landfills where decomposing organic materials release methane, a potent greenhouse gas. Therefore, turning municipal waste into compost reduces the carbon footprint of a city and supports green areas by enriching the soil to become more productive. To create good quality compost, you need to have organic material that has not started to decompose, this means collection must be frequent and no foreigner material (non- organic) that could potentially release chemicals into the compost that will affect its composition. 

Adama composing shed in Adama

What we learned 

We picked waste management as one of our focus areas because it is a key issue of urbanization and in the 21st century, waste management must be environmentally conscious and sustainable. On this trip, we learned that turning waste into a profitable business is not an easy task. It requires mindset change from the community, infrastructure investment from the municipalities and a profitable business model for small and medium enterprises to voluntarily engage in it. To accomplish this, mechanization of waste sorting and compost preparation is needed to ease the cumbersome activity involved and attract women to be engaged in the business who currently only participate in the sorting and recycling. Also, there needs to be a better market linkage model to make composting business sustainable. In this regard, there is a lot of opportunity for creating links with agricultural cooperatives that could use a cheaper alternative to fertilizers and commercial farms that have been exhausted with chemical fertilizers to start using compost.

What is next ? 

We want to explore further how institutions such as hotels and restaurants manage their waste inhouse and how their waste is collected. We believe that there is a big opportunity here for effective sorting and large quantities of organic waste that could guarantee good quality of compost. They could serve as an alternative, until household sorting and segregated collection become a reality.

Another area of exploration and possible experimentation is looking into the best product placement and promotion for compost. We have noticed the trend of looking at it as a fertilizer which runs the risk of the users expected it to increase yield in a short time, but in reality, using compost it a much slower increase in soil quality and improves yield over a longer time timeframe. So, as a lab, we want to find out what is the best possible way of positioning compost and even look at what a business model would look like for Composting cooperatives. 

Stakeholders engaged in waste management

This was the first dip of our toes into the issue of waste management and we are excited to explore more. If you are interested in this topic and have any ideas or suggestion, we would love to hear from you throughout email address . 

This blog is written by the following members of the UNDP Ethiopia Accelerator Lab team 

Wudasse Berhanu (Technical Expert), Okelo Fekadu (Head of Experimentation) and Amanuel Tadesse (Head of Solutions Mapping)

* Germany and Qatar who have partnered with UNDP to set up accelerator labs in 60 countries, most of them in Africa. 

 Rethinking Development - Ethiopia Accelerator Lab