Reflection on a Field Trip to AeT’s Cardboard Recycling Project

Compiled by Tasmi Quazi

As part of its dissemination strategy, Asiye eTafuleni (AeT) has welcomed the challenge of presenting its project work to interested audiences, particularly students.  This is because of AeT’s belief that a young audience can influence and contribute significantly to the future assimilation of informal workers into urban environments.

Accordingly, close to 20 master’s students from the distinguished School of Development Studies, University of KwaZulu-Natal, came to engage with AeT’s Cardboard Recycling Project in August 2012. Subsequently, this is one of the considered and critical academic reflections written by one of the master’s students, Tendai Kurwa:

Master's students during the work place exposure. Picture by Glen Robbins.
Master’s students during the work place exposure. Picture by Glen Robbins.

“Perception does not always do justice to reality. During a class fieldtrip to a used cardboard trading point in central Durban, I was underwhelmed. After a brief presentation from Richard and Tasmi of Asiye eTafuleni (AET), we finally got to see the actual process that takes place when the middle seller weighs and buys used cardboard from collectors. The process was coordinated, clear-cut and simple. However, beneath this process is the hard work that AET has had to do, to overcome a myriad of challenges and ultimately bring different parties to the same ‘table’…

(…) The whole purpose behind AET is to espouse dialogue and negotiation around the inclusion of the informal economy into urban planning. The name of the organisation is an isiZulu phrase, which when loosely translated, means to come together to the table to negotiate. This highlights the use of the participatory development approach (…) 

(…) In its participatory approach to development, AET works with several groups. So in its cardboard recycling project, AET sits at the ‘table’ with iTRUMP (inner-Thekwini Renewal and Urban Management Programme), City Architects, Economic Development Unit, DSW (Durban Solid Waste), eThekwini Municipality’s Imagine Durban and Sustainable Cities as well as social work students from UNISA. The partnerships are necessitated by the need to be both practical and highly strategic. There are other people involved in the ecosystem, such as the cardboard collectors who are the main beneficiaries of AET, the police authorities and the middle sellers of the used cardboard, to mention a few (…)

(…) AET has registered success by gaining recognition within the central business district of Durban from council authorities, the police as well as local businesses. This was partly due to the creation of AET identity cards for the collectors (who in some cases did not have any form of national identification) and more importantly, the buy-in from the authorities to recognise the collectors as legitimate (…)

(…) AET itself had to learn from the rapid implementation of some of its ideas. AET designed several types of trolleys to assist the collectors in their business. Some of the designs have indeed been vital for the collectors, whilst others were just not practical in the opinion of the collectors.

The master's students enaging the Recyclers. Picture by Glen Robbins.
The master’s students enaging the Recyclers. Picture by Glen Robbins.

This interaction showed the need for consultation and not paternalism in participatory development. AET made efforts to learn from their mistakes. In some cases a little time was needed before some designs were adopted by the collectors (…) 

(…) Before the AET intervention, there was imperfect information, but now collectors can be informed of the best offer and also be aware, at least with regards to the market when they are being cheated. And so the markets worked well for the collectors as the average incomes rose (…) The collectors’ negotiating power was improved because of the tighter but still informal bond between the various collectors.

Markets usually “prompt institutional change from informal to formal” (DFID, 2005:12), AET thinks different and instead seeks not to formalise but to integrate and recognise the role of the informal economy (…) Therefore, unlike the conventional option of setting out a development initiative with either a top down approach or a bottom up approach, AET began to work alongside the existing processes. This allowed them to reach out to the top and the bottom in their collaborative framework. AET did not try to reinvent the wheel, but rather improve on what already existed before their involvement and maintain their role of advocating for the formal inclusion of the informal economy to urban planning. 

Much negotiation, planning and effort has gone into creating the simplified process we witnessed at the Palmer Street cardboard purchase point. Yet more still needs to be done by all partners and stakeholders to enhance the sustainability of the cardboard recycling initiative.”

To read the full version of the report by Tendai Kurwa with noted references, click here.

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