A worm farm rewards Diepsloot communities with food and clothes for their food waste

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Nondumiso Sibiya and her business partner have a "worm farm" that's turning food scraps into organic compost and they are bartering for waste with clothes and food.
Nondumiso Sibiya and her business partner have a "worm farm" that's turning food scraps into organic compost and they are bartering for waste with clothes and food.
  • "Wastepreneur" Nondumiso Sibiya began her green business by tackling the problem of illegal dumping in Diepsloot.
  • During the lockdown, she embarked on a bigger mission: to turn food scraps into an economic resource.
  • She and her business partner in Boomba.mobi now own a worm farm that produces organic compost, and give households food and clothes for their food scraps.
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Nondumiso Sibiya started by creating an Uber-equivalent platform for waste pickers when she co-founded Boomba.mobi, a business that her parents weren't convinced was a wise decision to drop out of her teaching studies at Wits for.

But she says she knew she was an entrepreneur at heart. Even though a degree from one of the top universities in the country would open doors for the Diepsloot-based Sibiya, her entrepreneurial mind saw bigger opportunities in tackling illegal dumping instead.

Boomba.mobi started by collecting garden refuse and building rubble previously dumped illegally. It garnered lots of clients who were happy to see evidence that it's not their waste lying on the side of Nicolway, she said during an event where Nedbank honoured women who are doing remarkable work in the green economy.

And then, during the Covid-19 pandemic, when many battled to stay positive and see opportunities, she embarked on a bigger mission: to turn food waste into an economic resource. She started learning about establishing a worm farm online during the lockdown.

The idea was to turn food scraps into compost using worms and leaves. Worm-assisted composting, or vermicomposting as it has become known in developed markets, is widely practised in countries like the US, Canada, Italy and Japan.

Sibiya's research showed that food waste worked like nitrogen to turn leaves into compost when mixed with worms. What appealed to her was that this mixture killed all the bacteria that are harmful to organisms on the soil. And she knew how big the problem of food waste – in the form of leftovers and food that's gone bad – was in Diepsloot.

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"It's a real problem because waste pickers cannot even collect simple plastic when rotting food is in the bin. Even if there are plastic bottles, they just left it, and that resulted in more waste going to landfills than being recycled," she said.

Sibiya approached her business partner with the proposal. He put on his salesman's hat and found a client prepared to pay for organic compost in no time. With a client secured already, Sibiya had no choice but to spring into action. She started her experiment in buckets at home. But when her first compost was ready, they realised that this was becoming a business, and they'd need to do it at a bigger scale to satisfy the client's demand. So, the worm farm was born.

"I only started using 300 worms and a box that was just half a metre. Now we have a metre of worms and a five-metre farm. That means they can take more food … And you can use the worms that you bought initially to grow because they multiply," said Sibiya.

She canvassed the community to bring their food scraps to her. It worked for a while. But in an area like Diepsloot, where many people are unemployed, they started wanting something in return for their waste. Now Boomba.mobi is piloting a bartering system in a small area in Diepsloot. The households bring their food scraps and collect points according to the mass of food waste they bring, which they can use to buy secondhand clothes and food that just passed its sell-by date from Boomba.mobi. Sibiya has found a few partners to provide those.

"You see people astounded by what they can do with their food waste. And you also see people happy because they realise they can benefit from food waste. It's becoming more like cans. People hardly throw them away because they know they can get some money from it," said Sibiya.

Boomba.mobi has now created 150 jobs, with more to come.

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