A fairer deal for waste pickers

How we’re trialling a digital approach to eliminate fraud and exploitation of low income waste collectors in the global south

18 min readOct 20, 2022

Anibal’s story

It is 8am, Anibal Muhate is waiting for a truck to arrive. His yard is full of neat piles of solid waste, separated by material type. It’s not a bin truck sent round by the municipality like those of us in the UK are used to. It’s a truck sent by a factory that reprocesses waste to make pellets or flakes that can made into new products.

Anibal is, amongst other things, a waste collector. He makes an income from collecting, sorting and selling waste he finds in his neighbourhood. Over the past few years this has helped supplement his income. He relies on sporadic collections by local waste trucks which turn up unpredictably every two or three weeks. He doesn’t know when he’ll sell his waste, and he doesn’t know what price the truck is going to barter him down to for what he’s collected.

Today is different. Using the Wastebase DEAL app, Anibal has arranged a sale for specific quantities of waste with a local factory. A couple of days ago, he used the app to tell the buyer that his waste was ready for collection. The buyer notified him that he would send a truck which will take the waste to be weighed at the factory. It will take all the waste that Anibal has — in this case, he has three types of plastic (PET, HDPE and PP), corrugated cardboard, and even a small quantity of aluminium cans— and Anibal can see in the app how much he’ll be paid per kg for each material.

Once the weight is confirmed, both the buyer and Anibal can see the total amount due in the app and Anibal can get paid a fair price for his waste.

Examples of different types of plastic. PET shows plastic soft drinks bottles. HDPE shows empty bottles of household cleaning products. PP shows yoghurt pots and other plastic products.
Plastic types commonly collected by waste pickers in countries where Unwaste operates. Image: Unwaste,io

But for now he’s waiting, not sure yet whether to trust this new app. Standing with him are Danilson Macita from Unwaste.io and Deonísio Ussaca from AMOR, a Maputo-based NGO. AMOR acts as local delivery partner for Wastebase in Mozambique, supporting the recruitment, training and onboarding of waste pickers to Wastebase DEAL.

Like Anibal, they’re a bit anxious and a bit excited. Anibal is the fourth user of their app to complete a waste delivery and so part of the trial that will tell them if this app can actually do what they want it to do — help waste pickers get a fair price for their waste while enabling plastic reprocessors to get a reliable supply of plastic waste to make into new products. This will, they hope, facilitate local, circular markets for this waste, helping to reduce imports of virgin plastic while also tackling the growing and highly visible problem of plastic waste in their city.

Plastic pollution in Mozambique’s urban neighbourhoods

Anibal and his family live in the town of Marracuene (pronounced Ma-ra-kwe-nee) in southern Mozambique. It lies about 20km to the north of Mozambique’s capital, Maputo, along the main road that connects Maputo to the rest of this vast country. Over the last 20 years, Marracuene has become part of the greater Maputo area, gradually connected by rapid urban development along the country’s main highway.

Mozambique is, for the most part, a long narrow country. The capital sits over 1,100 km to the south of Beira, the country’s second city in terms of size. Maputo is a coastal city built around a bay where four rivers converge.

A map showing part of the African continent including Mozambique. A line points from the map to a larger scale map, showing the area around the city of Maputo. Marracuene sits along the coast to the North East of Maputo.
Location map of Marracuene in relation to Maputo. Source: worldatlas.com/JICR

Plastic pollution is a highly visible and critical problem for both the population and the environment. Plastic waste, if not collected, finds its route to the ocean through the water ways that flow through the city to the sea. On land, plastic and other uncleared waste clogs drainage systems. When the sub-tropical rainy season comes each year, blockages contribute directly to urban flooding and associated water-borne or sanitary-related health issues.

Like many cities in the global south, municipal waste authorities are not equipped to manage the volume of plastic waste in their environment. A growing culture of consumerism alongside inefficient, underfunded and under-resourced waste management services means that informal waste pickers — people who make a living from collecting, sorting and selling recyclable or reusable materials — are effectively an essential part of waste management.

Two old skips, overflowing with waste. The ground around them is covered in waste including many plastic items.
Municipal waste containers in Intaka 1 Bairro, Maputo. Image: Unwaste.io

In Marracuene, most housing is developed in ‘bairros de expansão’ or ‘expansion neighbourhoods’. These are areas where the local government has mapped out plots of land for people to purchase, then build their own houses along sand or dirt roads. These are not the shanty towns or favelas that some readers in the developed world might imagine, where tiny, loose shacks press up against each other, fighting for space. Rather, these are houses built bit by bit over some years, often with a yard or a plot for growing food or carrying out some other economic activity.

For many people, this is their way of saving the money they earn. The drastic devaluation of the national currency (metical — MZN) over the last seven years has made banks seem like less than a safe bet. By adding a wall here and a new bit of roof there, people can invest their savings directly into their home.

As these bairros develop, so too do the municipal services. They might start out with no piped water or electricity, but over the years the municipality will invest in these services. Before they arrive, local operators might take matters into their own hands, drilling a bore hole that can supply water to several hundred local households.

In the area where Anibal lives, the bairros sit on a gentle slope rising up from the sea, to the landward side of the main north-south highway. A sprawling network of roads extends from the main highway. Without sound local knowledge, it would be easy to get lost.

The life of a part-time waste picker

Like many others in his neighbourhood, Anibal makes a living from various activities. His family have a ‘machamba’, a sort of smallholder farm where they grow things to sell at the local markets: lettuces, kale, cabbages, tomatoes.

A dirt yard with waste sorted and piled in one corner. To the front of the yard is a netted off plot where green vegetables are growing.
Anibal’s front yard showing plastic piled to the left and vegetables growing to the right. Source: Unwaste.io

A few years ago he started to supplement his income by collecting waste from the streets around his home. He picks up what he finds and collects at his home over a period of weeks.

“I started a few years ago, well before the pandemic — around 2015. First I collected the tops of cans because there was demand for them in South Africa. It was just a side-hustle at first, my main activity was fishing, I was a fisherman. Nowadays, my main income comes from waste collection — fishing was very unpredictable, sometimes we could go days without a good catch.

Recently, waste collection has got more competitive — I have to get up really early in the morning to collect rubbish from the streets — and even then I will come across other collectors.”

In Marracuene, waste that is collected by the municipality or by private operators is almost always sent to landfill or incinerated.

Waste that is left on the streets ends up washed or blown into waterways, most likely finding its way to the sea where the recovery is almost impossible and highly unlikely.

Many waste pickers operate a more formal operation, systematically collecting from large landfill sites like the Hulene Municipal Landfill on the outskirts of Maputo’s original city centre — now surrounded by the expanding city.

An image taken from a satellite showing a large rough area of land surrounded by many small buildings in a city.
Hulene municipal landfill site as shown on Google satellite. Image: Google Maps

Some may work their way up to become ‘aggregators’, collecting and reselling waste from other waste pickers without doing all of the collecting themselves. Others, like Anibal, work mainly on the streets, collecting whatever materials they find and then selling on through a third party.

In Anibal’s case, this was a truck that would arrive every month or so to pick up the waste. He would bundle all his materials together and sell as mixed waste at whatever price the middleman (typically the owner and driver of the truck) will give him.

In the bairros de expansão, petty household crime is quite common. This might be theft of fixtures or furniture, bricks or parts of a fence. Things that are easy to take apart and carry off. A neatly sorted pile of waste becomes an appealing target for potential thieves the longer it sits in a back yard. It also takes up valuable space which could be used for gardening or another enterprise. So the longer that Anibal has to wait for the truck, the more urgent it is to sell his waste. Not only is he waiting for the cash, he also has to protect his ‘stock’ of waste.

This works to the middleman’s advantage — he can sense how desperate a waste picker is to sell and uses this desperation to barter down the price.

Wastebase DEAL, a transaction platform for waste

To rewind a bit, Wastebase DEAL was conceived by Unwaste.io’s MD, Cameron Smith. Having lived and worked in Mozambique for nearly 20 years, Cameron wanted to use his experience in both software and business operations to do something about plastic pollution the global south.

“Watching the city grow over two decades, it was obvious that official municipal waste collection services couldn’t keep up with the growth in demand, especially outside of traditional urban centres. Plastic, which has boomed here as a packaging material over the last decade, was particularly hard to deal with as it doesn’t biodegrade. My eyes really opened when I started to do some research — I realised that informal waste pickers are hugely important in making the whole system work, alongside municipal services . But time and again these informal collectors would complain of getting a raw deal in the overall value chain.”

After a lot of talking and meeting with waste pickers, NGOs and business owners, Cameron could see there was an opportunity to reduce fraud and exploitation within the waste transaction cycle, while addressing buyers’ concerns about a lack of reliable supply of waste plastic to keep their machines running.

“I wanted to create a solution that connected market demand with domestic supply. There is a big gap there, mainly to do with a lack of trust between buyers and sellers. If we could give both parties more assurance about the transaction — that the deal is actually going to be fulfilled — then we can stimulate a market for waste plastic.”

Alongside Unwaste.io’s CTO, Martin Pllu, Cameron built a cloud-based app that allows buyers to post ‘buy offers’ for certain quantities of waste at a specific price per kg. This can be any type of solid waste, not only plastic (PET, HDPE, PP), — although plastic is probably the waste stream with the largest volume in Greater Maputo.

Sellers (waste pickers) can see these offers and respond with a ‘sell offer’ to fulfil all or part of that request at that price. The buyer then accepts the offer, effectively entering into a contract with the seller to buy their waste. This gives the seller the security of knowing they can invest time in collecting waste, safe in the knowledge that they will be paid for it. The rest of the transaction all takes place through the app, including pick up, delivery, weighing, payment and, finally, rating of the other party.

Sounds simple. Yet it was crucial to test each feature with real people in real transactions. Fundamentally, we needed to understand if both buyers and sellers could get enough value from the app to make them want to use it.

Testing our approach with waste pickers

We got in touch with Anibal as we were looking for waste pickers in his area. We’d already carried out a few (successful) transactions with waste pickers who collected from the large landfill sites in Maputo. We wanted to trial it with different types of waste pickers who had different experiences of selling.

Two men standing next to five people who are seated and listening to them.
Unwaste’s Danilson and Deonísio from AMOR speaking to waste pickers near the Hulene landfill site. Image: Unwaste.io

When we arrived at Anibal’s home for our first meeting, the organised piles of bottles in his garden immediately told us that he was in the waste picking business.

He told us how he sold his waste to the truck whenever it came by. He would get about 5 MZN per kg for mixed waste. At the time of writing, one US Dollar is worth about 65 MZN, so this payment is equivalent to less than 8 US cents per kg.

A man stands in front of four people who are sitting in chairs outside a small breezeblock house with a rough corrugated iron verandah. The standing man is speaking and pointing to a display board.
Deoniso from AMOR training Anibal and his family to use Wastebase DEAL. Image: Unwaste.io

This is one of the challenges for smaller operators — it’s hard to find someone who will give you a good deal on small quantities of waste, especially mixed waste. The middleman might arrive and offer a decent price for one material type, but then make a big show of offering to take the other materials away while they’re there — normally at a price well below the market rate. He might also tamper with the scales to reduce the weight. The seller is so keen to convert what they’ve collected into cash, and unsure when the middleman will pass by again, that they’ll take the deal.

“The truck-driver [middleman] would give us a low price per kilo. Then he would fiddle the scales and underweigh things big-time. I knew it but there was not much I could do about it.”

We explained that Anibal could get a better price for his waste through the app. He’d have to do a bit more work to separate plastic from other materials but the app would help him find sellers who would take all his waste at once, for a decent price.

We told him that he’d need to use a smartphone and take part in a short training session. He didn’t use at smartphone but told us that his daughter, who is in high school, had one that he could borrow. Sharing phones is common amongst waste picker families, and we’ve had to factor this into our transaction flow. Whereas many of us are used to having our phones with us at all times, these families might pass the phone around for different purposes.

We set up a training session for Anibal, his wife and daughter. One of the points we make in training is that collectors need to gather quite a lot of waste for the buyer (factory) to justify sending a truck. This is important for many families who live hand to mouth, as they can’t collect waste over a 2 or 3 week period and wait until they have enough. They need to sell something every day to get cash in their hand.

For families like Anibal’s, their other income means that they can invest the time in gathering and sorting their waste in order to get a better price. For those who need to sell more often, Wastebase can help by facilitating a more active market for the local waste aggregators who buy from them. If aggregators can sell on to reprocessors more frequently and more reliably, they will drive better drive better cashflow for the local pickers they buy from.

Getting a better deal

Yet any seller needs to be convinced that it’s worth the effort. We did some basic arithmetic with Anibal on a piece of paper. We estimated how much Anibal could collect of each material type in an agreed time period. Then we used the app to add up how much he’d get for that waste at that day’s prices.

We then compared this to how much he was getting for his waste now. In the future, sellers will be able to do this whole comparison in the app. At present, the app has a wizard helps them decide where they are going to get the best price based on the volume and mix of materials they’ve got. Some buyers might pay more per kg for larger volumes, whereas others are happy to take smaller volumes. Some will pay more for certain materials and others less, so it’s a complicated calculation. You also need to add transport fees — some buyers build this into the price, while others add it on at the end.

A smartphone screen showing text boxes and icons in Portuguese. An example buy offer from the Wastebase DEAL app showing quantities request and price per kilogram. Wastebase DEAL uses local terms that we know our buyers and sellers actually use. This view is in Portuguese as a user in Mozambique would see it.
An example ‘buy’ offer on Wastebase DEAL. Image: Unwaste.io

The app makes this calculation easier, quicker and more accurate. One of the main aims of Wastebase DEAL is to give sellers price transparency and security. The price they see is the price they’ll get. There won’t be any sudden extras or special ‘fees’ when they arrive at the seller’s yard.

Based on this calculation, Anibal was keen to go ahead. He used the app to put a sell offer into the system. He was selling PP, HDPE, PET, aluminium and corrugated cardboard.

The next day, a buyer checked the sell offer and approved it. This means he agreed to pay for that amount of waste if Anibal could provide it, giving Anibal the assurance that it was worth his time to collect the waste as he was guaranteed payment.

Over the next two weeks, Anibal and his family gathered waste from their neighbourhood. When it was ready for collection, he notified the buyer within the app. The buyer asked to see a few photos as Anibal was a new seller and he wanted some reassurance that the volumes warranted sending a truck. We used WhatsApp to send these over (we’re building a feature that will allow sellers to do this within the app).

Six photographs of waste collected into piles in an outside yard. Two photos show plastic bottles bagged in nets. Other photos show bottles collected in a large pile, cardboard flattened and folded, and other materials sorted by type.
Photos of Anibal’s waste sorted for collection. Image: Unwaste.io

The importance of logistics in developing world recycling

The buyer’s hesitation about sending a truck is not uncommon. The cost to his business of having a truck return half empty is significant. It’s worth taking a moment to explain why.

Logistics are massive challenge in recycling, particularly in the global south. No buyer can justify sending a 2-tonne truck to collect 2 kgs of anything. The cost of fuel is the main reason but from an environmental perspective, we’d like to help buyers maximise the benefit they get from burning that fuel and releasing CO2 emissions into the atmosphere.

For sellers, having the truck come to them is important. It gives them access to a wider range of buyers. Unless they are quite a successful aggregator who can justify hiring a truck, most waste pickers can only transport what they can carry on their heads or on a small cart. This means lower volumes + more time to transport = less cash per kg.

The cost of the truck itself is also important. You can’t use any old truck to transport waste. You’ll need to get a licence from the municipality to carry certain materials. Then you need to modify the truck to hold waste, which is bulky and light. Whereas you can throw sacks of cement onto the back of a flatbed, big sacks of plastic bottles or cardboard don’t weigh much but take up space and need to be held down.

In Mozambique, waste trucks are usually standard flat-bed trucks with a metal cage attached to the back.

A flatbed truck with a metal structure attached to the back. Netting around the sides of this cage prevent waste from falling out. The truck is in front of a landfill site with bags of waste behind it. A man stands in the back of the truck.
A typical waste collection truck in Maputo. Image: Unwaste.io

So having a waste truck requires an investment by either a buyer (reprocessor) or a middleman.

As most sellers (waste pickers) rely on the middleman to collect the waste, it’s easy for this third party to offer a lower price at point of sale, then make their profit by reselling at a much higher price after transporting the waste to the factory. In our experience, this can be 2 or 3 times the price they pay the waste picker. Even with the cost of fuel and investment in the truck, the middleman can make a good profit.

For waste pickers, the option to hire a truck is risky. The truck owners can charge a hefty fee. On top of that, there’s a risk that the deal will fall through — the buyer at the other end might have got his waste from someone else or has changed their price.

These are some of the issues that we’re trying to tackle through our platform — security of transaction (the waste picker has a confirmed deal) and transparency of pricing (transport costs included).

If you are trying to sell several types of material, such as cardboard, PET and aluminium, it’s even harder to find a buyer who will take all those types of waste.

What we’re trying to do with the app wizard is show the seller the best price they can get for the bundle they’ve got, whatever material that happens to be.

Delivering the waste

So let’s get back to Anibal.

We sent some photos over and the buyer was happy. In fact, Anibal had collected so much waste that he couldn’t even fit it all on the truck (a rare occurrence, as drivers are good at jamming everything in to get maximum capacity).

Anibal went with the truck to the factory where the waste was weighed. At this point, the buyer can adjust the total payment amount in the app — not the price per kg, as that has already been agreed — to match the actual weight showing on the scales. The seller (Anibal) can check this and confirm in the app that he is happy with both weight and total amount.

Unfortunately, Anibal hadn’t arranged for his daughter to come with her phone. But we’ve accounted for this happening — it’s partly why we accompany sellers on their first transaction so we can learn about what can go wrong. He wrote the figures on paper then went back the next day with his phone and picked up his payment.

Was it worth it?

“I can feel the difference in my pocket, but I also feel like I’m the one in control now. In fact, the truck-driver [middleman] phoned me the other day wanting to know when he could come and collect my stuff. It was a good feeling to tell him that I had sold it all to someone else! “

Anibal was one of our first happy customers, as was the buyer. Anibal is looking into buying a smartphone with the money he’s earned so he doesn’t have to rely on his daughter.

While the app still needs a lot of minor changes, we can already see that there is potential to unlock real financial value from the waste that clogs Anibal’s neighbourhood, for both him and the buyer. Buyers invest a lot of money in their machines and a more reliable supply means they can keep them running a high capacity.

Environmentally, we hope to see more waste being reused and repurposed, and less virgin plastic resin being imported by plastic product producers. The value of the waste plastic is realised within the local, domestic economy.

A pile of large bags or nets full of plastic waste.
Bundled plastic waiting for collection from a waste aggregator at Hulene municipal waste site in Maputo. Image: Unwaste.io

Why security of transaction is important

A final point to make about why we’re doing this. For sellers, the knowledge that they are definitely going to be able to sell the waste they collect is critical in deciding whether to invest time in collecting it. Often, a waste picker (usually a woman) will hear of someone buying PET, for example, spend hours or days collecting, trek several kilometres over to the site, only to find that it was rumour, or it’s already been fulfilled, or that the gate guard (usually a man) wants to extract an ‘entry fee’ (otherwise known as a ‘bribe’) which she can’t afford.

When a buyer agrees to a deal in the app, they effectively enter a contract with the seller. They have to honour the deal.

If sellers know what the offer is and they know what quantity they can collect, they can make their own decision whether to take it. Their agency within the transaction is greater as every step of the process is transparent to both parties. When they hit ‘start delivery’ in the app, they know that a truck will definitely arrive within 2 days. It will take the waste. The waste will be weighed and the seller will get paid.

At the end of each transaction, both buyer and seller can rate each other. Both can start to build up a transaction history and seller/buyer profile, helping to build trust and confidence in the other party.

By using the app, waste pickers can manage their economic activity better and gain more financial independence. Many of the waste pickers we’ve spoken to talk about getting some control over their finances — not just being at the mercy of whoever wants to exploit them that day. It’s hard to express what a difference this can make to someone in terms of their ability to plan ahead, to make decisions, to invest in their home, business and their family’s future.

It’s a hugely important factor for people like Anibal. We hope that Wastebase DEAL can play a decent role in changing this.

Get in touch

If you’d like to know more about Wastebase DEAL or are interested in partnering with us, get in touch at community@unwaste.io

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