Interview with Thabang Sekete, Business Development Manager, Buhle Waste

In 1997, South African Medical Doctor P.D. Sekete recognised an urgent problem: He saw more and more household rubbish piling up throughout the townships of the country. Compelled to act, Dr. Sekete founded Buhle Waste and set out to fulfil his vision of bringing efficient waste management solutions to Africa. Today, the second generation has joined the business and Buhle Waste is growing rapidly in South Africa and across borders, providing specialised services in general as well as medical waste management.

Thabang Sekete talks to Tharawat about his family’s successful waste management business and how South Africa’s black-owned businesses are transitioning to the second generation.

Your father started Buhle Waste in 1997. Tell us how that came about.

My father saw more and more household rubbish piling up throughout the townships around South Africa. People would just throw waste outside and there it would stay, particularly in underprivileged neighbourhoods – those not considered to be important economic hubs. Dumping was illegal but these places were pretty much allowed to fall by the wayside. My father saw a way to dispose of waste in an appropriate and environmentally conscientious manner – and a way to clean up the environment for the communities.

What kind of services did Buhle Waste offer in the beginning?

My father started out going from door-to-door with a truck collecting household waste, picking up rubbish. He would then take it to the landfill site to be appropriately managed disposed of. Quite early on, he saw another important avenue for the business to explore – medical waste. As a qualified medical doctor he had experience and expertise within the medical sector which he brought across to the business and formed our medical waste division in 1999. It picked up pace dramatically in 2001 when we won our first big contract with the Gauteng Department of Health. Today we specialise in all waste streams: general, industrial, commercial, hazardous and medical.

When did you and your brother join the family business and why?

I joined in 2010 after my degree. And I joined to learn! I was certainly thrown into the deep end, starting out at ground level as junior logistics manager, mainly looking at keeping costs down and managing growth efficiently. I wasn’t quite driving the trucks but very close to the front line. Then I moved into a key accounts management position where I looked after our big Department of Health client, working very closely with nurses, doctors and cleaners. I’ve worked in Key Accounts ever since. My brother Nkoko joined the business in 2012 in the logistics position where I started out. He also moved in to Key Accounts Management in 2014 with the Department of Health but recently moved over in to manage our expansion into the Free State, a neighbouring province.

Buhle Waste – A South African Family Business
Buhle Waste collectors, courtesy of Buhle Waste

Buhle Waste now serves five out of nine provinces in South Africa. How have you achieved this growth?

Growth has been exponential. In 2001 we started in just one province, Gauteng. In 2003, we took on two, by 2009 we were serving three and now we cover five provinces. We are one of the best quality waste management service providers in the country and certainly the best value for money. That’s essentially how we’ve done it. But waste is an expensive business to get started in. The infrastructure and technology investment costs are huge – we’re talking millions of dollars. So if you’re in it you need to be a market leader or a very good follower in order to recoup that. Even then it takes years. We’ve got our sights set beyond South Africa too. We already have a partnership in Botswana and we’ll be doing the same in Zambia, Ethiopia, and Kenya by 2018.

What was the major turning point for the business?

People talk about pivotal moments in a business – those moments where crisis hits and you can either rise up and perform some kind of miracle or you watch the business fail. Our crisis came in 2001, just after we started our big Department of Health contract. The company we used to treat and dispose of the waste we collected were in fact also our competitor because they had a collection and transport arm too. They suddenly decided to raise their treatment facility prices by 100% within the space of 24 hours. We had hundreds of clinics, hospitals and other healthcare facilities relying on us to collect dangerous waste from them. But if we could no longer afford to get the waste treated and disposed of, our business was not going to survive.

How did you overcome the crisis?

My father went into crisis mode and set up a round table with the Department of Health and the treatment facility. The Department of Health were sympathetic. They were keen to support us as an up-and-coming young business and as a black-owned business. Under apartheid, blacks were entirely disenfranchised and excluded from the economy, not considered as business owners, citizens or even humans. We now have broad-based black economic empowerment (B-BBEE) which is designed to empower black companies and address injustices of the past. Our crisis happened only years after the end of apartheid so the Department of Health were happy to provide negotiating muscle and eventually they agreed to increase the amount they paid us by about 15%. This didn’t cover all the costs of the price hike but it was enough to keep us afloat.