Rape survivor finds solace and success in waste-picking business

Bonakalisile Ngquba rose above a traumatic experience and runs her own buy-back centre which employs 11 people. Image: GCIS Vuk’uzenzele.

Rape survivor finds solace and success in waste-picking business

The article highlights the inspiring story of Bonakalisile Ngquba, who found an escape from the trauma of rape through waste-picking.

Rape survivor finds solace and success in waste-picking business

Bonakalisile Ngquba rose above a traumatic experience and runs her own buy-back centre which employs 11 people. Image: GCIS Vuk’uzenzele.

Surviving a harrowing rape ordeal that pushed her to a suicide attempt in 2016, Bonakalisile Ngquba found an escape from the traumatic encounter in waste-picking.

Eight years later, Ngquba, through her business Imbokodo Green Works, employs 11 permanent staff. The start-up also indirectly supports about 100 waste harvesters.

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Imbokodo is a recovery recycling centre that sorts, deals and bales waste. The bales are then shipped to processors.

Speaking to Vuk’uzenzele, the 28-year-old civil engineering graduate, was raped while studying in Durban.

After sinking into clinical depression, which led to a failed suicide attempt, she in early 2017, packed bags and returned home in Komani (formerly Queenstown) in the Eastern Cape where she enrolled at the Ikhala Technical Vocational Education and Training College to complete her studies.

“When my major depressive disorder started, I found an escape in waste-picking.

It was a chance encounter. I knew nothing about recycling until I started in 2017,” she said.

Reminiscing about her journey, she would take a family wheelbarrow and go around her neighbourhood collecting used plastic and glass bottles and containers, cardboard, paper and cans.

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“I don’t know why I was doing it, but for me it was kind of an escape. I can’t explain it. While doing this, I was able to think – put things into perspective. A lot of people thought I was crazy, at some point I also thought I was going crazy,” she recalled.

The business of waste

The next phase in her journey commenced while watching a programme on the television with her grandmother.

“This lady was talking about how she was a businesswoman (in waste) and that she started as a waste picker. She was just explaining her journey in recycling. I was like ‘wow, I have been doing this… I have not put any effort into it’,” she said.

From this encounter, she realised recycling was something she could turn into a business and began to research about the sector.

“I started googling recycling, watching YouTube videos, finding buy-back centres I could sell to,” she explained.

Supportive of her new-found ambition, her grandmother bought the budding entrepreneur six one ton waste collection bags to get the initiative off the ground.

“I learnt how to separate and how to sell. I remember I made R290 from my first sale,” Ngquba thinks back.

But because it was not about the money, she persevered.

“I got to interact with a lot of waste depositors. I built relations with them despite them being way older than me. When I was interacting with them, I found out that people had been making a living out of this for more than 20 years,” she said.

The energetic Imbokodo managing director said she saw the engagements as her way of doing market research and analysis.

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“I got to understand the waste harvesters. I got to see how they were treated by big companies,” she said.

From this, the goal was to improve the working conditions of waste harvesters, she told Vuk’uzenzele.

Rapid business growth

Fast-forward to early 2020, while attending a Small Enterprise Development Agency information session for up and coming entrepreneurs in Komani, she learnt of a company that was thriving in the waste management sector.

“I got in touch with them and we got into a partnership. Everything moved so quickly. I found myself in a factory site, with equipment, a vehicle and employees,” she said.

The rapid growth of the businesses almost overwhelmed Ngquba and she was struggling to meet the demands of running the business.

“We made very expensive mistakes. I knew that this was my passion but I really didn’t know anything about running a business. We started paying operating costs, paying employees, but then we found ourselves in a position where we were unable to pay employees,” she said.

“I went from being the most liked person to the most disliked person overnight.”

Thanks for her mother’s intervention, Ngquba was persuaded not to give up.

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The business’s growth was also partially due to the financial and resource support it received from the National Youth Development Agency (NYDA) in 2021.

The NYDA assisted the business with a R50 000 grant funding for personal protective equipment, office furniture and stationery.

For more information on the NYDA, visit the www.nyda.gov.za or call 0800 58 58 58.

If you need assistance from SEDA visit www.seda.org.za(link is external) or call 0860 663 7867

Did you know?

If you are a survivor of gender-based violence and need counselling contact the GBV Command Centre on the toll-free number at 0800 428 428

For support with mental health concerns, reach out to the SADAG for free telephonic counselling. Call 0800 21 22 23, 0800 70 80 90 or 0800 456 789.

Written by Sihle Manda for GCIS Vuk’uzenzele.