Ghana Social Enterprise Transforms Plastic Waste to Paving Blocks
The ASASE (‘Mother Earth’) Foundation has put the circular economy into practice through its CASH IT! social enterprise, aiming to establish a replicable, sustainable business model, formalizing employment, mobilizing volunteers, and creating a product desperately needed by the community from trash that formerly littered the streets. It’s sustainability in action. PYXERA Global Senior Fellow Laura Asiala caught up with Dana Mosora on a recent trip to Connecticut, where she squeezes in a visit to her granddaughter when she’s not generating value from the waste stream in Ghana or advising companies across Europe on sustainable packaging through her consulting company.
Laura: When was the first time you became aware of the issue with regards to plastic waste? Where were you? What struck you about the situation?
Dana: I was one of those people in the plastics industry who thought, “Plastics are great!” We were doing a great job making this amazing material more accessible and more affordable. It provides so many benefits to the customer through so many industries! But I was blind. I was not looking at the ‘end-of-life’ challenge of the materials. About five years ago, people in Europe began to talk more and more about a circular economy, and I had no idea what it was. Politicians started to consider legislation to force consideration and brand owners, getting pressure from consumers, started pressuring materials manufacturing. Like everyone else, I had been in denial, but with this pressure, I started to look at waste management in general. It clicked to me that it wasn’t only the brand managers’ job to do this. I realized that this was a business opportunity—not a ridiculous challenge—to lead the market by embracing the circular economy.
When I traveled to Africa, I could see the reality of the developing region where there is no notion of waste management. Because they had no waste management system in place, it seemed possible to set up a circular system here at the beginning and avoid the mistakes and bad habits from other places in the world.
We start with the recognition that plastic has value. Waste pickers already understood this; they were collecting and bringing it to the middlemen. There is no such thing as ‘waste’ if every part of the material can be used. How could we design things to put value in the hands of the people and create something that the community needs?
Laura: What is ‘CASH IT!’? How does it work?
Dana: We designed this approach to collect plastics, diverting waste from the environment, and setting up a small plant with equipment where the plastics could be recycled, with the material used by the company Nelplast, which makes pavement blocks from the recycled plastic mixed with sand. We have made collecting the materials more professional and more reliable. Women oversee the small plant we built where we sort, wash, and grind the plastic. This company is called CASH IT!. This is a social enterprise for profit.
We chose to start in Ghana, because I had connections and friends there, including former Dow colleagues. Shortly after my retirement from Dow, I went to Accra and met Hilda Addah, now a Ghanaian friend and co-founder of the ASASE Foundation. The first thing we did was connect with the waste pickers community, which is part of the informal economy. We looked for women, because we wanted to work with women and help them become part of the formal economy—where there is greater value—and train them to become entrepreneurs.
From the beginning, we designed the opportunity to team up with a group like Nelplast, because they had an end market for the recycled plastic. The community needs pavement blocks, which traditionally are made from cement and are more expensive. The community needed these blocks—for parking, for streets, for playgrounds, so it fulfills a need in the community.
I’m confident that we can eventually have one of the women who now works at the plant be in a position to own the plant. They will pay ASASE Foundation an agreed upon amount, which the company can earn through this profitable business, and then the ASASE Foundation will take those resources to establish a similar approach in the next community. In this way, we stay true to our mission to provide opportunities for women to earn and lead and to divert plastics away from the street.
Laura: Where did the original capital come from?
Dana: The money to start came from the Dow Impact Fund, which was the idea of a former colleague in Ghana. Between the initial grant of $105,000 plus $40,000, which I contributed from the consulting company I started after I retired from Dow, we had the funding to buy the assets, pay the rent, set up the formal operations, train the people, and finally launch the business.
This is very much a team effort. I found great people in Ghana with whom to partner, many of them through the chairman of the ASASE Foundation, John Tsaras from Dow, and we have people encouraging us beyond that. Without the people with whom we partner today, including our first customer (Nelplast), we could have done nothing.
Laura: Can this approach be replicated?
Dana: We are in the process to demonstrate that this approach can work, and through profitable operations of the plant, payments from the first will support the next, but that will be quite slow to spread. However, in Europe the industry pays an annual fee to the ‘Green Dot’ as part of the extended producer responsibility. With the fee, the Green Dot pays municipalities and sorting companies to recycle. If you have this kind of mechanism where the industry plays a responsible role in waste management, the industry can provide the seed money for a solution which then becomes self-sustaining and converts trash to income.
This should be possible to replicate across Africa, India, and Southeast Asia, in any place in the world where they have little or no waste handling infrastructure and big waste problems.
Laura: What lessons have you learned? What advice would you give?
Dana: The most important lesson I learned in Ghana is the fact that I can have a lot of ideas or concepts in my head, but it will change when I listen to the people with an open mind. People like me, we have a lot of experience to leverage—professional training and methodologies—and we’re ready to invent and create, but you can’t go with the answers and a fixed plan. You really need to understand the system in order to develop something that can be sustained in the community. You really have to stay humble. For example, we were originally thinking of replacing the ‘middle men’ who buy the plastic from the waste pickers. That turned out to be too big of an implication. It was not the right thing to do, so we have to find a way to bring them in—to include them in creating the new system. We have to find the right middle men to become business partners.
You also have to stay open to possibilities. Our initial idea was to work with a start-up in Ghana that was launching low-cost houses, but they didn’t get the funding, so it fell apart. Then I met Nelson (Nelplast). I was not really excited about paving blocks at first, but the community needs the products. Conceptually, it was very appropriate and can absorb the plastic we can produce.
Connections are everything. There are challenges every day, so every day we look to make a connection and make a solution for the day. I know there are other people around the world who are working on these problems at a community level, but I am not aware of them. It would be great to have connections with these people, to share our challenges and solutions. If we could get to a level where there is a database—a way to log in, get help, and make connections—that would really help to accelerate this. The technology is there to connect us now, we need someone to put it to work for our cause.