As part of the Young Minds Programme, Joshua Fillmore is hosting a series of conversations with some of South Africa’s most successful young entrepreneurs. Chad Robertson is unquestionably one of the best social entrepreneurs in South Africa. Chad is the co-founder and CEO of Regenize – an extremely innovative waste management company. Regenize has won numerous awards over the past few years and is making a difference in the lives of thousands of South Africans on a daily basis.
Can you give us a short overview of what Regenize does?
Our whole business is about making zero waste services accessible, inclusive, and rewarding. We are a recycling solution and we perform recycling services, using two business models – one in paid or upper-income areas, and a free model that focuses on lower-income areas. For both of them, it’s about making recycling accessible.
We’ve worked on a new type of model within the lower-income side – integrating formal waste collectors and setting up decentralized recycling hubs in these communities. Our service is free to residents of these communities, as the majority of people who live in lower-income areas didn’t recycle before. We do this through our virtual currency called “Remali,” or “Recycling Imali” (i.e. money in isiXhosa), which encourages and rewards environmentally sustainable behaviour, which residents earn each time they perform recycling activities.
Regenize is a for-profit company, which is focused on creating both environmental and social change. You’re playing in the people, planet, profit model. Which of these three elements were you most focused on in the beginning? Has this changed over time?
In the beginning, personally, my drive was very much planet-focused and environmentally driven: fighting climate change, seeing the impacts of climate change on the planet, as well as the impact of waste on the planet. As I got into solving the problem, it shifted entirely to people, as it’s a human-created problem. I saw that, if you can get the people on board, you can make the changes necessary.
That shift came after about a year of operating when we realised the role of informal waste collectors in the South African economy. Research says we have about 90,000 informal waste collectors in our country. They are responsible for collecting up to 80% of all paper packaging waste that we recycle. And they save the government up to R715 million land a year from landfill efforts. For us, it begged the question, why are we not working with this big market? They are already doing the work. We try to do the same work, so let’s work together. And that’s how the whole integration process started. But what came from that was so much more. We started working with these guys and in doing so, realised that we needed to start thinking about so much more than just our business and operations.
It involved another dimension of thought for our business. All of a sudden you’re working with people who might have a substance abuse problem, who might not have a bank card, who might not know how to work a smartphone. Automatically, we had to start training the guys about how to use a smartphone, how to deal with customers, and assist them to open bank accounts – and if they needed any other assistance, providing that. That’s the best way to look at it because if you can’t get people on board, you’re not going to get the impact or the behavioural change that you want to see with it.
Profit is obviously important for business, but it is probably the least important out of the three for us. If you don’t have a planet, you’re not gonna have people and you’re not going to have people who can give you the profit. So, our theory is that by focusing on impact, the planet, and our people, then the result is profit. And if you can solve an issue that’s going to impact millions of people, then it is easier to make a profit than focusing on making a profit from the start. That’s at least my theory. For us, our focus now is primarily on people, especially with what we do in the informal space.
On your website, it specifically states “recycling for South Africa.” Can you elaborate on the importance of local entrepreneurs, stepping up to build solutions that solve local problems?
Local entrepreneurs are so important because we have very special problems. Our context, as South Africans, is unique. You can easily just take a concept and try to adopt it or adapt it, but at the end of the day, it needs to work for your users, your context, and your location.
In South Africa, we are a nation of complainers. There is a lot to complain about. So, when I hear people are leaving South Africa, looking for opportunities, I am very confused. I see all our problems as potential solutions. In every community, there’s a problem that needs to be solved. Finding problems in our country is quite easy. It’s up to you as an entrepreneur to decide what size problem you wanna pick. If you pick a big problem that is impacting a lot of people, your market is really big and you can obviously scale your solution.
For us, it was about trying to rectify what has generally been done in the recycling space – which is something that is usually just adopted from first-world countries. But we have different stakeholders in our value chain, we have different users. So, it was important for us to develop and design according to that. In the beginning, we didn’t know about it. We had to learn it. As we developed our solution through various trials and errors, we had to do a few pivots in our business model as we learned what is important to our users, what is important in our country, and what is gonna work here. We have to build for our context, and this is a phrase that we use often in our company.
What is one of the biggest leaps of faith that you’ve taken on your journey?
As an entrepreneur, you are committing so much. Every act you do is a leap of faith in some way. It’s difficult, but if I had to pick just one, I’d say it was when I was starting out and I made the decision to leave my job. Coming from the Cape Flats, I didn’t have a rich background. I had studied for four years, I had put in quite a big effort to get the job that I had and, all of a sudden, I was saying goodbye to that safety. I didn’t have a salary, so I had to sell my car. Starting out was a big risk, but at the same time, it didn’t feel like it at the time because I was young and didn’t have many responsibilities. Leaving my job for what I wanted to do was the biggest leap of faith.
What would you recommend to aspiring entrepreneurs to be able to identify and understand both the problems and potential opportunities that are out there?
Align the problems that are out there with your interest and your passion – make sure that the problem you are solving aligns with something that you truly care about. We are currently in the recycling space, looking at zero waste solutions, but where we started was a totally different area. I’ve always been an environmentalist, so that was where my personal interests live. My skills are in software and I managed to find a sweet spot between my passions and my skill sets.
That said, my business partner and I had backgrounds in software as we studied information systems. Our journey into the entrepreneurship field was through an excitement around the concept of 3D printing. We went through a journey from wanting to use 3D printing, to designing 3D, to printing people’s 3D designs. From there, we went on to pivot into using plastic waste to make 3D printing material.
It was through those pivots and research that we learned what the really big problem is. We discovered that, at that time, only 3% of South Africans were recycling plastic waste. (That number is now sitting at 7.5%). So we started moving in a totally different direction, and we came to learn about the more pressing issue at the same time.
We entered the recycling space as a potential software solution. All we wanted to do was make recycling more accessible to residents – we wanted to incentivise them to recycle. So we came in as a solution for existing recycling companies to try and get them to use our solution. But that didn’t happen right away– and that kind of forced us to get into the recycling space ourselves. We had to get our hands dirty and we had to get into the operations of the industry to bring in our own vision, which was really interesting – especially as our skills were in software and building in tech. But in some instances, to find out where the ecosystem or existing infrastructure isn’t working, you have to go and get your hands dirty and sometimes build that value chain that you want to solve.
To watch the full interview, click here.
The Young Minds Programme, certified by Stellenbosch University, is a 9-month career-focused gap year programme that helps school-leavers and young adults prepare for the next steps in their life and career. The programme focuses on, among other core themes, business management, entrepreneurial thinking and personal mastery – the key ingredients necessary to explore the real world of work and help participants discover who they are, as well as what they want to achieve in life.
To find out more about the Young Minds Programme, click here.