The four women carry the pride of their achievements like mothers who have given birth to newborn babies. Nozibele Mbasa, Nocawe Luphulwana, Nomandla Dokota and Zenzile Mdlokovana are a new breed of social entrepreneurs who have made it in sanitation in East London. They have serviced over 340 schools in sanitation, trained teachers and learners, run a campaign on menstrual health, operated and maintained toilets and turned sludge into biochar.
When the franchiser of Impilo Yabantu, Phil Maeko, asked them to stand up at a gathering held to close the initial stage of the project, it was as if an award ceremony was underway; they were smiling from ear to ear. The function marked the closing of a project that started contractually in April 2017, and has been in place since 2013.
Just a few years ago the women were in other fields: teaching, catering or other odd jobs on the side. Today, they brim with confidence, proclaiming that they are ready for the next step in their ventures.
The four see their work as an upliftment for the community, while at the same time it has created economic opportunities for themselves — they are commercialising social services. They bought into a franchise called Impilo Yabantu that was sub-contracted by Amanz’abantu to work on a programme that commercialises certain sanitation work in East London.
Impilo Yabantu develops the framework and management tools, offers training in occupational health and safety and other aspects that make the franchisees sustainable beyond the launch stage. Impilo works with government and funding agencies to select qualifying franchisees. They then train the franchisees in various areas including plumbing repairs, teaching learners health and hygiene campaigns and maintaining Construction Industry Development Board (CIDB) standards for the franchisees.
Part of the work in the Eastern Cape was to look into improving school sanitation facilities. The four women and one man are in charge of 340 schools, where they provide sanitation services as well as taking care of menstrual health management. They were each given 60 schools to work on. They started from scratch, with no knowledge of the sanitation sector. But today Mbasa says: “Give me any plumbing or maintenance work for sanitation, and I will do it for you.
“When we were trained we didn’t know much about sanitation. We learnt how to deal with health and safety, and mastered the art of desludging. We had 0 CIDB grading when most of our companies started, and now we have CIDB Grade 4. The training took us from elementary business practices to advanced elements of business management,” said Mbasa.
She added: “We were also trained on the financials — how to handle and manage finances — as well as keeping our workers healthy and immunised from contamination when working with faeces.”
The biggest and what seems to be the attractive feature here is that the women have learnt that they can now use sludge to make biochar.
Luphulwana said: “We are no longer just doing catering, but compete for tenders in related fields with men, including making sure that even if it is still relatively new, biochar becomes a marketable and profitable product.”
Luphuwana has specifically been given work at Mdantsane Waste Water Treatment Plant, where initial assessment on the biochar product is being done. She is managing the sludge provided by the municipality with the help of various researchers who, on a daily basis, assess how best to make the project work beyond the initial start-up. Enough sludge is allowed to dry and the researchers have kilns that dry at different heating levels until they produce quality biochar.
“The part that excites about this project is that there are many uses we can put the sludge to, especially its use as a soil enhancer. That for me creates limitless opportunities for growing the food industry,” said Luphulwana.
This kind of intervention and economic opportunities seem to have developed the mental strength of the franchisees. Dokota said: “I’m seeing a change in my mental setup because of my involvement on this project. As part of my work I do health and hygiene at schools and also assist in forming sanitation clubs in schools. It has changed my mindset, the way of doing things, and financially I am able to do things differently.”
Dokota did a baseline survey, cleaning of toilets, minor dislodges in rural areas, health and hygiene.
“Even after this initial contract is coming to the end I am confident that sanitation clubs formed in schools will contribute a lot more to the outlook of the whole project. We trained 10 learners (five girls and five boys) SGB members, Life Orientation teachers as well as the cleaners in doing operations and maintenance,” said Dokota.
The four women now have the ability to continue servicing villages and schools on a needs basis, as they have their own equipment for desludging. They have also created co-operatives that will work on various projects. Dokota has six people in her company.
A legacy for the project which the women have found useful is an app that helps them compile data from the areas they work in. Each time they make entries into the app to help determine the nature of the problem as well as to find solutions for it. This has proved to be a useful tool in the school water and sanitation operations and infrastructure management.
Dokota and her colleagues inspire so much hope; from this research they have found lasting wealth in the knowledge gained from their training, and they are determined to pass it on. – Ndavhe Ramakuela