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Closing the loop for sustainable development through a circular economy

The circular economy is set to play an increasingly important role in years to come, as countries around the world seek to minimise waste and promote sustainable living. Funding from corporate social investment (CSI) initiatives, meanwhile, can indirectly help nonprofits support South Africa’s small business sector and uplift communities.

Food & Trees for Africa (FTFA) recognises the importance of developing circular economies, which offer huge potential for communities – particularly in rural areas – to become more self-sufficient and thrive in the long-term. Because of this, FTFA is committed to investing time and effort into nurturing these circular economies in the communities in which it operates. The organisation also channels the majority of the CSI funding it receives into making these self-sustaining systems a reality across South Africa.

“We support a circular economy particularly within rural areas because we think it’s the right thing to do. It’s part of our company culture to look at the bigger picture – CSI funds we receive are used to support small farmers and provide training on our market garden, tree planting, EduPlant, and other programmes,” says Rogan Field, head of procurement at FTFA.

Waste not, want not

A circular economy aims not only to reduce, reuse, and recycle raw materials but rather seeks to eliminate as much waste as possible in the first place from business operations. This is often far from a reality. However there are opportunities for businesses to repurpose this waste and drive economic growth.

For instance, Oricol Environmental Services is a longstanding partner of FTFA.  For over two decades the company has provided South Africans with a comprehensive approach to managing waste, improving its diversion of waste from landfill disposal from 20% in 2008 to over 70% in 2021. It does this by focusing on reuse, recycling and recovery: reintroducing resources back into the economy, contributing to economic growth and job creation, and reducing social and environmental costs.

Oricol’s green solutions for organic waste include composting, reintroducing suitable organic waste into agriculture, and vermiculture (worm farming) solutions for offices. In keeping with circular economy principles, recovered waste is reused in a separate manufacturing process. By partnering with FTFA, the company takes their commitment one step further. Planting trees and developing organic food gardens in underserved communities achieves the additional objectives of ensuring that natural capital is regenerated and fortified for future generations.

EduPlant school gardens and market gardens demonstrate the principles of recycling and the reuse of plastic bottles and tyres.

Bringing communities together

The circular economy is not only focused on eliminating waste: it also helps to bring communities together. “A large amount of the rural economy is exported to neighbouring towns or the nearest commercial centre. No economy is retained within the community, and this is one reason why communities suffer so much and become poorer; there is very little primary production,” explains Field.

He points out that while people living in urban areas can simply pop around the corner to an air-conditioned store and expect to get top-quality produce for very reasonable prices, most people in rural communities have to walk or take a taxi for as far as 40km to access the same quality of service. Often their only other option is to shop in the local community, which usually means a hot, unairconditioned store, full of poor-quality products at exceptionally high prices.

“It’s a bit of a moral dilemma – the inequality goes so far that it actually punishes those who are not as well off as others. At the same time, though, it’s important to recognise that there is an opportunity for people in those communities. They can grow those vegetables, set up a farm stall, bake some bread, fix bicycles… in short, communities have the power to evolve and develop their own internal economies,” Field says.

This is where FTFA puts a major emphasis on supporting small businesses and promoting a circular economy within communities. “If I can, I will identify a local hardware store where I can source all the materials for a project – often at an inflated price in order to support that local supplier rather than a large commercial store chain. I can justify paying 10% more in the community, because often I can make that back by saving on transport costs. More importantly, though, it’s about how we can support those local businesses when we can find them,” Field elaborates.

He spends a lot of time with FTFA’s facilitators across South Africa, trying to understand the context of a particular project and the best way to identify local suppliers, especially for products like compost, mulch, fertilisers (kraal manure), building materials, and irrigation supplies. “These are the sorts of things we’re using on our projects,” says Field. “Obviously, this requires effort on the behalf of the facilitators, but we do sometimes pass this on to the beneficiaries themselves.”

Making the right choice

Field is keen to stress that it’s not simply a case of paying over the odds for a local supplier, simply because there is one available. “It’s about finding what approach works best in each particular context, rather than focusing every single time on local suppliers,” he explains.

“We have a fantastic relationship with Starke Ayres, for example, for seed supply. They give us a significant discount on their wholesale price and an annual donation, as well as plant trees with us. All of this input gives us the chance to supply resources to projects for cheaper than we would otherwise be able to.” 

By minimising costs, FTFA is able to maximise the benefits going to projects. “We’re very conscious of this, and it’s an important focus for us. This is why the strong relationships we have with certain suppliers are so important to us,” Field adds. 

Sometimes, FTFA is able to take this idea one step further. “A project of ours in Lesotho, Action Lesotho, turned out to be growing seedlings, and has ended up becoming our official supplier of seedlings for the other four projects we run in the country,” explains Field. “Moving into next year, we have three new Lesotho projects coming online, and we will definitely contract Action Lesotho to supply seedlings to those projects as well. That’s a really great example of one of our projects actually becoming one of our suppliers. As long as we have projects in Lesotho, we will look to maintain that relationship.”

Action Lesotho has become a seedling supplier for FTFA’s Lesotho projects; FTFA Facilitator Tshediso provides training on seed saving.

Using CSI funds effectively

When it comes to funding, FTFA’s core mission is clear: to get out there and support as many food gardens, plant as many trees, and provide as much training and insight as possible. Consequently, most of the CSI funding the organisation receives goes towards performing that task.

Field points out that there are many aspects that need to be covered. “We remunerate our facilitators and pay staff, for example, but while there is an administrative fee attached to the donations that we get, as far as possible 100% of these go to their intended use, which is to promote farms,” he says. 

This is where incorporating CSI funding into the circular economy comes into play. “Because we understand that these farmers are not just operating in silos – that we’re dealing with a broader social development context – we’ve really taken that to heart, to look closely at what more we can do, beyond simply paying for our facilitators to run a project and provide the resources,” Field explains.

“By managing budgets and resources across projects, as well as an end-of-project review of what we actually spent versus what we budgeted, we can look at whether there is any remaining budget and allocate that money to somewhere that needs it,” he adds.

At the end of the day, the key to all of this is transparency. “Really, it’s all about getting as much bang from the donor’s buck as possible. We’re very transparent with our donors about how we spend their money, which is a major differentiating factor – there are not many organisations out there doing this sort of work that also offer very transparent reporting on how money is spent and where it goes,” notes Field. 

It is critical that donors are able to see the impact their money is making. FTFA’s social investment platform, Footprint”, is all about helping corporates to identify suitable beneficiaries and tangibly measuring their impact. “To be honest, this is a unique selling point at the moment in the non-profit sector – the best way to attract donors and investment is to show them how their money is being spent. We’re proud that we are able to do that,” Field concludes.

circular economy, CSI, funding, small business, , Sustainability
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