Alleviating Poverty and Waste in AfricaWith trillions of pounds of trash produced worldwide per year, it is safe to say that trash is a growing problem. While the average American produces 4.4 pounds of trash every day, many do not realize the immensity of trash built up in communities as it almost mythically disappears from curbs weekly. Comparatively, Africans produce considerably much less waste with only 5 percent of the trash worldwide coming from the entire continent. However, in less developed parts of the world like Africa, only 10 percent of trash is regularly collected. This build-up of trash becomes problematic as it pollutes the land and water, causing disease and environmental degradation. There are many creative entrepreneurs in Africa now exploring new ways to tackle both poverty and the growing waste problem. These entrepreneurs are using creative ways to reuse the waste in their communities to create quality products to sell. From bags to shoes to fence posts, here are three businesses alleviating poverty and waste in Africa.

Rethaka Repurposes Schoolbags

Two young South African women entrepreneurs, Thato Kgatlhanye & Rea Ngwane, designed a school bag that offers a creative solution to numerous problems. Their school bags are each made out of 20 recycled plastic bags. Their idea removes plastic waste from their communities while offering a sustainable, waterproof school bag. Additionally, the bags are reflective, ensuring that kids are visible during their walks to and from school. The cherry on top of this sustainable solution is the solar charged light attached to each bag. This light charges while a child walks outside to school, providing them light to study by at home after dark. With over 10,000 bags sold already, Rethaka created local job opportunities paying fair wages, ultimately helping lift employees out of poverty.


SoleRebels of Ethiopia boasts that it was the first ever fair trade certified footwear company back in 2005. Creating jobs for over 600 locals paid on average 233 percent more than industry averages, soleRebels truly prioritized creating an ethical job market in Ethiopia since its creation. Recognizing sustainability as a deeply ingrained cultural tradition rather than a contemporary trend, soleRebels made creating footwear with a low environmental impact a priority. The soles of the shoes are made out of recycled car tires. The company uses a variety of other reused and recycled materials like cotton for the rest of the shoe. This locally owned business promotes the importance of local ownership over charity. As wealth gets more evenly distributed, more people can escape poverty through job creation and ethical wages.


All while creating thousands of jobs for locals, EcoPost eliminated over 6 million pounds of plastic to create fence posts. Its fence post design mirrors the look of traditional wood fencing but is much more durable as it is not vulnerable to termites, mold or theft for firewood (a growing problem in Kenya).  EcoPost proved to be safer for local communities as it does not leach harsh chemicals into the water supply as treated timber does. This sustainable fencing option also reduces the number of forests cut down to create fencing from virgin wood resources. By recycling and reusing thousands of plastic bags, EcoPost helped reduce the amount of flooding in local communities caused by plastic bags clogging sewer systems. EcoPost is helping to build up communities from the inside out through the intersection of job creation and waste reduction.

As Africa continues to urbanize, the amount of municipal waste is expected to double by 2025. As growing waste negatively impacts those in poverty, it is crucial for new local businesses to take on this low impact business model. By removing waste from the waste stream and creating new jobs, sustainable businesses like the ones discussed here are effective options. With more businesses like these three businesses alleviating poverty and waste in Africa around, the path to escape from poverty becomes more accessible.

– Amy Dickens
Photo: Flickr

A new company in Ethiopia is revolutionizing the way people make and sell shoes. SoleRebels, founded in 2004 by Bethlehem Tilahun Alemu, crafts traditional Ethiopian footwear.

The company also provides employment opportunities for impoverished people within the local community and abroad. Alemu’s goal in starting such an enterprise was to help kickstart Ethiopia’s economy by creating well-paid and sustainable work.

In addition, the company ensures that all of its employees have access to on-site medical checkups and transportation. Africa-Middle East projects that the company will earn over $10 million in revenue this year. SoleRebels will also sell their wares internationally. The shoes will sell in flagship stores and in partnered organizations such as Whole Foods and Urban Outfitters.

Alemu decided to start SoleRebels when she noticed the poor living conditions of artists in her local neighborhood. It all began with nothing more than half-dozen of those struggling artists crafting shoes in a small workshop. However, she quickly expanded her enterprise.

In an interview with Wharton, Alemu said, “We aimed from day one to create, grow and control a world-class footwear brand right from our community that would create ever more jobs and growing prosperity for the workers, and to do this by leveraging the artisan skills of the community and the natural resources of the nation.”

SoleRebels currently remains the only Fair Trade certified footwear company on the market today. This means that they have undergone a rigorous auditing process to determine that all of their products are made in accordance with sustainable working conditions and environmental practices.

In the future, Alemu hopes to expand upon SoleRebels’s mission by building a full scale production facility. However, she assured Wharton, this will not change the organization’s artisan-driven model, which she cites as key to the company’s success.

She explained, “This model will not simply forever end aid dependency, but it will allow Africa to compete in the global marketplace of ideas on our own terms, and at full value for those ideas. And once we do that, then the images associated with Africa will be forever changed in a way that is real and meaningful and tangible.”

Sabrina Santos

Photo: SoleRebels

Charitable footwear brand TOMS has become a sort of gold standard for companies working toward being ethical. On their website, they boast of having improved maternal health, education and a variety of other areas in life through their “one for one” giving model, which supports these programs for each pair of shoes purchased.

But is this model followed by TOMS and a variety of other companies enough to break the cycle of generational poverty?

Although the model provides aid to those in need, it also does nothing to deal with issues of widespread unemployment and unfair wages. In an interview with GOOD Magazine, international aid expert Saundra Schimmelpfennig described TOMS as “quintessential whites in shining armor.” Critics have accused the one for one model of enforcing stereotypes of the developing world—portraying them as helpless—and as a part of a marketing ploy with a deeper focus on pity than active empowerment.

It is why many top brands, such as Warby Parker and soleRebels, have transitioned to a model of social enterprise, focusing on empowering local businesses and providing fair wages to workers. These brands focus on the idea that breaking the cycle of generational poverty must include the creation of well-paying jobs and greater opportunity for the next generation.

This is not to entirely dismiss the one for one model. This Bar Saves Lives, for instance, is a brand that provides life saving plumpy’nut to children suffering from malnutrition. There is an importance in education that requires similar levels of action.

Still, despite the need for certain programs, the increase of brands focusing on social enterprise perhaps represents a new attitude toward the nature of the charitable business, focusing on empowering as a quintessential part of one’s business model, and not a later effort.

– Andrew Michaels

Sources: TOMS, GOOD, SoleRebels, This Bar Saves Lives, Warby Parker
Photo: Huffington Post