02 Oct 2018
Casablanca, Morocco
Resource efficiency and sustainable waste management

Valenvi, a recycling startup business based in Casablanca, melds a high school dream with the infinite resourcefulness of Morocco’s trash pickers. ElMehdi Habib, Valenvi’s founder and CEO, employs these informal rubbish collectors — who comb rubbish dumps for value — to ensure that recyclable materials do not go to waste. Valenvi also produces sorting bins that show regular citizens how to sort garbage more effectively.

Valenvi stimulates social change not only by bolstering Morocco’s eco-friendly credentials, but also through empowering local trash pickers, many of whom have limited education and employment opportunities. Yet Habib sees the intrinsic value of trash pickers’ work to Morocco, a country that would do well to embrace small-scale recycling more enthusiastically.

Back in 2009, a high school entrepreneurship challenge sowed the creative seeds of Valenvi, a Moroccan waste management startup focused on small-scale recycling. Habib, then a bright-eyed teenager, proposed a business that would help Moroccans recycle paper more effectively.

From this idealistic beginning, Habib built upon his twin passions of sustainable waste management and business innovation. “I wanted to combine entrepreneurship and the environment,” says Habib. Since 2016, Valenvi has been manufacturing sorting bins and, for some clients, arranging recyclable waste collections.

Valenvi aims to improve small-scale recycling in Morocco by harnessing the informal “trash pickers” who scour rubbish dumps for recyclable materials. The World Bank acknowledges the important, often unseen role of trash pickers in developing economies, generating small profits from giving a second life to waste. Morocco has plenty of these pragmatic recyclers on hand, with 600 illegal trash pickers operating at the Mediouna landfill site outside Casablanca alone. Yet trash pickers suffer from social stigma surrounding their work, and sometimes endure police harassment.

Valenvi empowers Morocco’s trash pickers by giving them safer work conditions and greater employment prospects for the future. At the same time, everyday citizens learn how to divide rubbish more effectively with Valenvi’s sorting bins, ensuring that Morocco’s overall recycling process becomes smoother. Habib still faces typical challenges for a startup business — profitability and storage space — while also striving to raise public awareness about small-scale recycling.

The power of micro-recycling:

Habib’s brand of environmental entrepreneurship took shape while he worked at a Casablanca bank, years after completing his high school project. The bank generated an enormous amount of discarded paper, but did not have a functional waste management system for it. “I asked myself, ‘what can I do to solve this problem?’” says Habib.

Valenvi has been addressing this concern with its dual offering of producing sorting bins and removing waste for its customers. The collections applied only to discarded paper at first, but the business now handles more diverse forms of waste. Valenvi takes the materials it has amassed and sells them to professional recycling factories.

Valenvi relies upon local trash pickers as another source of recyclable waste, employing four collectors on a part-time basis. Habib plans to cast an even wider collection net with Trivalo, a planned initiative that will pick up garbage from households for free. Trivalo will launch once Valenvi can overcome transportation costs and make the program financially sustainable.

Habib speaks with pride about Valenvi’s “social impact” in facilitating the work of Moroccan trash pickers. Valenvi ensures that its collectors are decked out in protective outfits and equipped with proper tools, allowing them to earn money in a safe environment.

According to Habib, Valenvi prioritizes recruiting staff from difficult circumstances — many of whom have a very limited education — and providing opportunities beyond salvaging recyclable material. “We try to get them a better job by teaching key skills, so they can have a [permanent] job and work in a more sustainable way,” says Habib. Former employees of Valenvi have successfully moved on to stable employment in restaurants and universities.

“In this way, our workers leave Valenvi with more knowledge and [social] recognition,” says Habib.

Getting more buy-in:

Plenty of startup entrepreneurs could relate to Valenvi’s most immediate challenges. The business is not yet profitable, a situation that Habib hopes will change if Valenvi can purchase equipment like a garbage compactor and a collection vehicle. These additions would allow the company to handle more waste and increase storage efficiency.

The lack of space is a pressing issue for Valenvi, which has a limited area in which to run a bulky business. The company stores collected waste and manufactures recycling bins at the same facility, leading to very cramped conditions. Habib hopes to negotiate a storage deal with a large industrial client that will benefit both parties.

Beyond these specific issues, Habib reports that Valenvi must do more to change prevailing attitudes about small-scale recycling in Morocco. The company’s sorting bins are only effective if used correctly, and Habib’s employees still find that people have not properly separated out different types of trash. “These attitudes stop us from having a 100% score in terms of recycling,” says Habib.

The same criticism applies to many Moroccan businesses, which Habib believes do not take recycling as seriously as foreign companies do. All of Valenvi’s current clients are multinationals such as hotel chain Four Seasons and escalator manufacturer Schindler, whom Habib says are “simply more aware about the importance of recycling.” These large corporations tend to follow global industry practices about sustainability, while local businesses do not meet the same standards.

Yet Valenvi’s story shows that Morocco already has seeds for a micro-recycling revolution — the business’ very ethos rests on a teenager’s dream and the weather eyes of local trash pickers. Now Habib wants more of his compatriots to join the challenge. “We are showing people in Morocco why they need to make a small effort — because they can save the world.”

 

Learn more about Valenvi through its website and Facebook.

Photos courtesy of Valenvi

Since getting his MA in Middle Eastern Studies last year, David has worked as a freelance journalist based in Accra, Ghana, and Cairo, Egypt.David Wood
Treasure from trash: Breathing new life into Moroccan small-scale recycling | The Switchers
Valenvi Resource Efficiency and Sustainable Waste Management
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