Women in the informal waste sector are budding entrepreneurs

Waste pickers Abigail Kubheka and Adelina Nkopane sort recyclable material in Soweto. Picture: Reuters

Waste pickers Abigail Kubheka and Adelina Nkopane sort recyclable material in Soweto. Picture: Reuters

Published Sep 8, 2022


Johannesburg - The business landscape is very challenging to navigate as an entrepreneur, even more so for women in the informal waste sector.

The informal waste sector has the potential to unlock a myriad of job and entrepreneurship opportunities for women, but the division of labour in this industry is still based on archaic notions of gender roles and stereotypes.

According to Mpendulo Ginindza, President of the Institute of Waste Management of Southern Africa (IWMSA), women are the primary household waste managers in South Africa.

“This is a familiar territory for women as they have been traditionally more involved in the waste management sector, albeit primarily as free labour."

"In NGOs and the public sphere, women play a key role as volunteers in their communities. They also work in landfill sites collecting waste and creating crafts out of it,” she said.

She adds that this exposure if married with an intelligent waste policy, could present significant business opportunities for women in the informal waste sector.

There are several challenges faced by women in the waste management sector, chief among them is the issue of transportation. Transport is a significant barrier for women trying to break into the industry and being able to build thriving businesses.

"Men are typically the owners of small businesses and hired as the drivers of trucks and other large vehicles. Thus they are able to access greater waste loads, amounts, and even varieties than women otherwise could,” said Ginindza.

Another difficulty for women is that they frequently are compelled to bring their young children with them when collecting trash.

The majority of waste workplaces are characterised by terrible health, cleanliness, and sanitation standards, placing the health of women and children at risk.

This results in women staying away from landfill sites and therefore losing out on opportunities.

She said: “Such circumstances are unsafe for children and women, especially since the parent will be concentrated on the task at hand. Additionally, women might not have the appropriate personal protective equipment (PPE) to utilise at work. This also exposes kids to the health risks they encounter while collecting rubbish."

For women to truly reap the benefits of their work in the informal waste sector, they need to make the transition from free labourers to fully-fledged entrepreneurs.

According to Ginindza, there are several private and public programmes that support women who want to start or grow their businesses in the informal waste sector.

“Locally and internationally, women have started and grown waste management initiatives from the informal sector through cooperatives. There are a number of resources from producer responsibilities organisations (PROs) and NGOs that are available to those looking to start recycling or to start a recycling business, collectors looking for a buy-back centre/drop-off sites, and collections and training support. All of these are some enablers for entrepreneurs in this field.”

In regards to addressing gender inequality in the informal waste sector, intelligent waste management policies need to be adopted and implemented across many areas of the sector.

“Recognising and or formalising the informal sector may provide protection for vulnerable and marginalised informal labourers, in particular where processes and tools are in place to enforce implementation of access to social safety and benefits,” said Ginindza

When the time comes for the informal sector to be formalised, there should be a concerted effort to ensure that women do not lose their jobs as the field gains more respect.

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