Eco-friendly entrepreneur quits IT to declare war on plastic

Tina Beyer, an IT professional, left Kerala, India after marrying a South African engineer. Adjusting to a new country brought its own challenges - one of them being employment. Finding it difficult to get a job, she turned lemons into lemonade and followed her passion. She started selling eco-friendly alternatives to plastic.

What are these zero-waste alternatives, you might ask?

They range from reusable sandwich wraps made of beeswax and bowl covers made of fabric - as opposed to clingwrap plastic and foil. Other alternatives to plastic include stainless steel lunch boxes known as tiffins, glass and stainless-steel straws, bamboo toothbrushes, and even reusable sanitary pads made of bamboo or hemp and menstrual cups, to name a few.

In a telephonic interview with Fin24, Beyer recalled that she was at a party in 2017 when she first saw a steel straw. It was this moment that catapulted her into the business world.

"We went to a friend's house and we had some people there. One of our friend's showed us this steel straw and she was asking my husband if he can make it," Beyer said. "I was quite interested in the steel straw … so that was in the back of my head," Beyer said.

Why all the plastic?

Beyer wasn't always a businessperson. The trained IT professional confesses that she "never felt happy" in the IT world. "I knew from the time I started studying IT, I knew I was going to be in this industry [for long]. I never felt happy in anything I ever did," she said. Beyer said she was always interested and passionate about "natural living" and natural ways to heal the body.

Having moved to South Africa eight and a half years ago, Beyer said it bothered her that when she went shopping she saw most foods were packaged in plastic. In India she is used to having the local grocer wrap up fruit and vegetables in newspaper. "Or you give them your bag, and they weigh it [the fruit or vegetables] on a weighing scale and they put it into your bag," she said.

Too pricey

Beyer did more research on ways she could personally reduce waste, which is how she stumbled across eco-friendly products being sold online, in 2017. However, when she wanted to buy these alternatives, they were all "pricey" and she was not the only one who felt that way.

"Whoever you would talk to would say they would love to go the eco-friendly way, but they couldn't because of the price."

Thus, she started her own online sustainable store – Ecoelephant – to sell eco-friendly products at affordable prices. "We don't want to make sustainability expensive, therefore we try to be as affordable as possible for others to encourage a plastic-free, zero-waste lifestyle."

But soon after reaching out to suppliers, she found that the wholesale prices were pegged at the retail prices she wanted to sell at. Getting items sourced locally was also a challenge. Beyer said that if she sent enquiries to suppliers in China, she would get responses within an hour – a stark difference to her experience trying to find suppliers locally.

Strolling in parks to find a seamstress

Partly to address her supplier problem, Beyer decided to make some of the products – particularly the fabric bowl covers which are one of her best sellers. In her search for a seamstress, Beyer said she wanted to find people who were in need of an employment opportunity.

"I wasn't looking for someone who was retired or a well-established seamstress. I was looking for somebody who really needs help … It was hard to find. I literally would go to parks and if I saw someone I would ask them if they could sew," she said.

Reusable bowl covers can be washed, an environment
Tina Beyer says her fabric bowl covers are one of her best sellers. They are an eco-friendly alternative to plastic wraps. (Photo: Supplied).

"The aim is to empower work-from-home mothers, elderly women, upliftment projects and women entrepreneurs, by creating local employment opportunities," Beyer added. 

One example of these items is the crochet kitchen scrubs – these items last for six months and are compostable, she told Fin24.

Beyer said her husband lends a hand with the designs of the prototypes, and even sews some of them.

The straws had to be sourced from suppliers - although her husband can make them it takes a lot of time, especially family time, she explained.

Selling a lifestyle

Beyer has been at it for a year now, and her business has not yet turned a profit, as she has used her funds to pay the women who help make the items. She is in the process of paying back her husband for the loan he gave her to start the business. She also wants to sell the products to customers at reasonable prices.

"I am very passionate about this and that's what keeping me in this," she said. "Our business is about people, inspiring and educating each other to make better choices, creating jobs locally and touching lives. Living sustainably results in a more meaningful life."

When it comes to finding product ideas, Beyer said she thinks of the basic things she uses in day-to-day life. "Mostly, I want to encourage people to do this lifestyle rather than to sell my products," she said.

Apart from operating an online store, she also participates in some markets in and around Cape Town. Some of the products are also stocked in stores in Cape Town, Durban and Johannesburg.

Tina Beyer, selling ecofriendly, zero-waste items
Tina Beyer, selling eco-friendly, zero-waste items at a market in Constantia.(Photo: Supplied)

When asked about her future hopes for the business, Beyer said she wants to do more for communities – particularly more upliftment projects for women.

"I am a Christian. I just pray before I do anything. And wherever God leads me, I do it."

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