One man’s waste is another man’s fertiliser

Zuka food wasteFor every product produced by the South African food and beverage (F&B) manufacturing industry, an element of waste has to be managed. As in all industries, waste management is a costly problem, which hurts the bottom line, and if unchecked, damages the environment. Food wastage in South Africa and across sub-Saharan Africa presents both a massive problem and an opportunity, for industry and farmers alike.

Increasingly, the industry is realising food waste doesn’t have to be a loss. Innovations in waste management look to turn waste into a commodity that generates revenue. The Global Cleantech Innovation Programme for SMEs in South Africa (GCIP-SA) is supporting a number of such innovations in South Africa.

The programme is implemented by the United Nations Industrial Development Organization (Unido) with funding by the Global Environment Facility (GEF). In South Africa, Unido is partnering with the Technology Innovation Agency (TIA) as the execution and hosting institution for the GCIP-SA, while the US-based Cleantech Open serves as the main knowledge partner of the global programme. The GCIP-SA calls for entries from businesses with innovations in water and energy efficiency, green buildings, renewable technology and waste beneficiation on an annual basis.

In 2015, one such waste beneficiation business was Zuka, winner of the GCIP-SA’s innovation for social impact award.

Founded by Sizwe Mnamatha, Zuka uses vermicomposting biotechnology methods to produce affordable alternatives to liquid fertilisers, made from recycled fruit and vegetable waste.

Waste collected from communities is fed to red wriggler worms, kept in worm factories. The worms eat the waste as it decomposes, and their urine – called leachate – is harvested. This can be used by farmers to use as a powerful fertiliser. Two elements of the Zuka products are completely new to vermicomposting. Firstly, the final product isn’t just a soil conditioner – it also acts as a pesticide.

Secondly, the company is doing extensive research in partnership with the Agricultural Research Council in South Africa to identify exactly which nutrients each food crop requires, so that Zuka products can be tailored for different purposes. This involves using the right organic waste ingredients in production to, for example, improve the iron content of spinach or ensure carrots are sweet instead of bitter.

Mnamatha was introduced to vermicomposting while studying at Rhodes University, and has established Zuka to maximise on benefits to communities, and to the private and public sectors.

‘Zuka addresses socio-economic challenges like unemployment, food insecurity and waste management,’ said Mnamatha. ‘We have partnerships with municipalities and the Departments of Agriculture, Public Works and Social Development to employ people to collect waste, and produce and package the product. Workers are trained in gardening, establishing nurseries and setting up seed banks.’

The company wants to help people who don’t ordinarily play a role in the mainstream economy. Mnamatha explained they want to change the perceptions of people who currently see leftover food waste as food for themselves, to rather seeing it as something with economic value. All it takes is training – teaching people to re-identify resources they didn’t see value in before, and teaching them vermicomposting techniques so they can provide for their families.

Aside from being a new source of revenue, food waste is taken out of the waste systems of communities, reducing ground and air pollution. The potential to upscale is enormous. ‘We’re looking for partnerships within the food industry where we can source large volumes of specific type of waste needed for a particular brand of Zuka,’ said Mnamatha. ‘If we can, for example, determine that potato peels improve the taste of carrots when used as a fertiliser, we’ll be able to buy this waste material on mass from chip-producing companies.’

According to a Unido study, waste water and solid wastes are the primary target areas for pollution control within the fruit and vegetable food-processing industry. Waste water is typically high in suspended solids, organic sugars and starches, and may even contain residual pesticides. Solid wastes include organic materials from mechanical preparation processes like rinds, seeds, and skins from raw materials.

A recent presentation by the CSIR’s Natural Resources and Environment unit estimated the food wastage by the processing and packaging industry in South Africa alone is as high as 2.4 million tonnes per year. This represents just over a quarter of the total food wasted during production.

As a portion of all the locally produced food from South Africa, about 30 per cent is wasted annually. Of this, the fruit and vegetable industry is responsible for about 44 per cent of wastage, and about 36 per cent of the estimated R60 billion the waste represents annually.

The road to building a successful company in waste management has been challenging, but Mnamatha explains how the GCIP-SA, which focuses specifically on Cleantech, has helped him along the way. ‘The GCIP-SA energised me to think differently, embrace and identify “hidden” value in resources that we as communities already possess that hold solutions to the challenges faced by humanity, while also helping to create a sustainable environment for all nature to thrive.’

The next step for Mnamatha is to upscale the Zuka project, which includes finding funding for more worm farms, sourcing equipment and securing patents and trademarks.