When Zimbabwe recorded its first COVID-19 cases, economic experts projected a spell of gloom for businesses in the country. The whole world was effecting non-pharmaceutical responses to the Coronavirus and Zimbabwe, like many countries implemented a national lockdown to contain the transmission of COVID-19. The country also implemented other restrictions to keep the proverbial invisible enemy at bay, which included, closure of national borders, curfew or home confinement, prohibition of gatherings and the closure of establishments and premises among other measures.
With these raft of measures put in place to contain the rise of COVID-19 came a plethora of unintended consequences— a global economic downturn and decimation of work opportunities. Zimbabwe has not been spared from the unforgiving economic effects of COVID-19. Finance Minister Professor Mthuli Ncube in the 2021 National Budget Statement said the country’s Gross Domestic Product contracted by 4.1 percent. Major businesses in the financial reports communicated a year of hard lifting as they had to dig deep to manoeuvre the operational maze brought by COVID-19.
The pandemic and associated lockdowns led to financial stress, and the blow has continued hitting hardest in countries such as Zimbabwe where many small to medium businesses have closed because of the pandemic. However, there is a Shona proverb, Nhamo yemumwe hairambirwe sadza, which can be loosely translated to another person’s misfortune does not warrant skipping a meal for. The proverb, derived from the age-old trove of indigenous wisdom captures the essence of the idea that at any given time, people have different circumstances and struggles are not universal.
Opportunity in the midst of a global health crisis
In the face of the biting COVID-19 recession and economic bleeding, one medical waste management startup in Harare has shown great resilience, exploiting opportunities opened up by the pandemic. When Stuart Nyakatswau (28) started WASTiNNOVA in mid-2017, he had not anticipated that a global health crisis would change the fortunes of a company he co-created. “In May 2017, I started a side hustle where I would hire a truck and used it to collect medical waste at small medical facilities for disposal at Parirenyatwa [largest referral hospital in the country],” said Nyakatswau explaining the start of his journey to This Is Africa.
The early days and teething problems
The start of the business opened the University of Zimbabwe Medical Laboratory Science graduate to a market opening he felt he could plug.
“As I did this, I realised that the City of Harare incinerator did not have enough capacity to handle the amount of waste which was being delivered there. This is when the idea of WASTiNNOVA was conceptualised and I set it up. The key idea was to provide sustainable and simplified hospital waste management solutions, which include training, waste collection, safe disposal and the production of by-products.”
The business operated under the radar for almost six months, before being registered with regulatory authorities in December 2017. During these early days Nyakatswau would direct 60 percent of his earnings towards financing the startup. He was also working as a lab technician at a local laboratory. The young entrepreneur juggled the two roles for a year, before he tendered his resignation to wholly focus on the growing business.
With exuberance, Nyakatswau imagined an immediate upward ascension, but the business world had harsh lessons parked right by the entrance. “It has been a learning curve. There were times we misled ourselves thinking we were on the right path, only to fail to meet client expectation”. “We once bought equipment that we did not really need. After introducing the new service to clients, we realised there was no interest in the new equipment and what it did,” said Nyakatswau.
COVID-19 — a business game changer
In 2018 and 2019, WASTiNNOVA managed to secure services of five workers servicing 20 regular clients. At this point, they were hiring vehicles for waste transportation and they were struggling to break-even. The two long years were frustrating for the young entrepreneur who contemplated quitting the company after a string of frustrating challenges and failures. Then came the pandemic.
“The COVID-19 pandemic has increased waste generation. Health facilities are using more protective clothing (PPE) than ever,” he explained. As infection and transmission rates across the country increased, masks became mandatory to curb the spread of the virus. Medical health practitioners, the frontline defence against COVID-19 needed more PPE and in the disposal of medial waste lay Nyakatswau’s breakthrough.
Medical health practitioners, the frontline defence against COVID-19 needed more PPE and in the disposal of such medial waste lay Nyakatswau’s breakthrough.
“The COVID-19 situation has brought in a lot of clients and business for us. We used to have 20 clients, but our clientele grew to 100 facilities and we had to pause at that number because we did not want to be overwhelmed”. The team has also grown from five employees to 11. While COVID-19 has brought an increase to waste collection and revenue for WASTiNNOVA, it has also increased the company’s expenses. “Our profits have remained tighter but it is much better than before when we struggled to break-even. Right now our funds are tight because we are making capital investments,” Nyakatswau noted. The company also faces huge expenses on PPE, special transportation and disposal. On average, WASTiNNOVA is handling around 10,000 kilograms of medical waste.
Consolidating the business
Despite Nyakatswau’s attempt to remain modest, the growth of the business has been meteoric, beyond his wildest dream. The company recently purchased one Toyota Hiace and two Toyota Quantum vans to improve and boost transportation of waste. When This Is Africa visited WASTiNNOVA business site, a van was being branded, while two other vehicles were reportedly in transit from Durban port in South Africa.
At the company’s office, a humble precast building located in Graniteside, an industrial area located five minutes from Harare Central Business District, there was an atmosphere of productive chaos. The administration team, comprised of five employees including a marketer and a logistics officer were having their morning meeting, setting targets for the day. The daily routine for the marketing and logistic team involves speaking to medical facilities to understand their needs then they dispatch a collection team their way. When the collection team returns, depending on the nature of waste collected, they either take it straight to the incinerator for immediate burning or they autoclave waste materials they deem recyclable.
At the back of their office, is a refuse collection centre where different types of medical residue such as expired drugs, syringes and IV bags or drips are held temporarily before incineration. Nyakatswau indicated that for the past eight months he has not taken a day off and the team has also been putting in long hours.
“Due to the delicacy of the work we put in, there is not much room for abdicating duties or too much delegation, we have to be hands-on. It comes with a risk, but there is gratification in knowing that with each collection we make, we are reducing the risk of someone getting infected from medical waste,” Nyakatswau who is the co-founder of the company said.
Commitment to environmental concerns in waste management
Despite the rapid growth, WASTiNNOVA has remained committed to the realities of waste management and environmental concerns. “Our goal is to reduce burnt waste and we come up with other alternatives. 75 percent of the waste we get is no longer being burnt. We are now using other methods, which are cost effective. The method is called autoclaving, it uses pressure, steam and temperature to kill microorganisms. The waste will be safe for recycling and production of by-products at that point,” Nyakatswau noted.
WASTiNNOVA has also been experimenting with new technologies to ensure they reduce burning waste as the process has negative effects on the environment. The company intends to focus more on recycling to reduce incineration, which is a source of greenhouse gas emissions. The company indicated that it collects gloves from non COVID-19 centres and the idea is to acquire a machine that turns latex gloves into rubber tiles. They have also been researching on vermicomposting and bio-digesters as options for waste management, and the company is now saving resources to purchase the required machinery.
Awards and recognition
Since inception, the business has won regional and global accolades, which include 2018 Green EnterPRIZE Outstanding Business in Waste Management in Zimbabwe. The US$5,000 prize money Nyakatswau won funded the building of the facility they currently use. In 2018, WASTiNNOVA was recognised by AMREF Health Africa as one of the six emerging health startups in Africa. The company was also listed among the top nine Global Startups in Medical Waste Management in 2019 by an organisation called Recycling Startups.
Those who have used their services and supported the company from its inception are impressed by its growth and track record. Renowned Harare surgeon Dr Johannes Murisa who has been using the company’s services from 2019 applauded its professionalism. “WASTiNNOVA is a good and efficient service provider. I am happy with their service and I have no complaints so far,” Dr Murisa said. Garden City, a health facility in Harare shared similar sentiments about the company’s professionalism. “We started working with WASTiNNOVA from mid-2019, and the service has been very good. The team is organised, they have good communication skills and their reception is positive,” Garden City representative told This Is Africa.
Nyakatswau hopes to spread the company’s wings to other countries on the continent. As he makes projections on the future based on the current progress, he has not forgotten the hard times he endured to bring the business to fruition. Just like other businesses, WASTiNNOVA faced numerous barriers to entry from high license fees to lack of funds, but despite the early dry patches, they have soldiered on. Little did the founders of the company know that a global pandemic that would ravage the world would turn out to be their oasis and a silver lining.
The series is a creative storytelling collaboration between This is Africa and the Open Society Initiative for Southern Africa (OSISA).