DICKSON KWESIGA is the owner of Aquila recycling plant based in Kiteezi. He beat several odds in the complicated business to become a successful exporter while at the same time saving the environment, writes Baker Batte Lule.
While working as a transporter, Dickson Kwesiga crisscrossed the country supplying Rwenzori bottled mineral water.
Among the places he often visited was Nakawa industrial area, where he picked raw materials. At one of the plastic recycling plants there, he would find a crowd of mostly women waiting for payment after supplying plastic materials for recycling.
As a mechanical engineer, he thought he could come to the rescue of the women while also creating competition for the Nakawa recycling plant.
Kwesiga went down to work; asking whoever had any knowledge about the business; how much it would cost him. By the time he had finished the prospecting, he realized that there was a big opportunity to also rid the environment of dangerous waste.
In the late 2000s, Kwesiga took a loan and added it onto his savings to get part of the $50,000 needed to buy the equipment for recycling plastics. That is how he started his Aquila recycling plant in Kiteezi.
“I had an understanding with the suppliers that I will pay the balance over time when I start working and they agreed,” he says.
While prospecting, he realized that it would make economic sense if he had the plant near the source of the raw materials.
Most, if not all plastic recycling plants get their raw materials from Kiteezi, the KCCA landfill found on the outskirts of Kampala. He rented land there and put up a semi-permanent structure workshop. Kwesiga says instead of crushing the plastics, the economic realities that confronted him in the beginning almost crushed him.
Initially, he had put a lot of emphasis on bringing the equipment thinking that, it was the main hurdle. Maybe it was; but to be able to run smoothly, he had to have a steady flow of income so as to buy the raw materials.
The little money they had, would only enable them to buy only 30 tonnes of plastic from which they would get 23 tonnes, enough to fill a container and then export.
From the time the container is exported to when the money finally comes, it would take a month. Meanwhile, no work would take place within that time.
“After loading, we would close the factory and everyone goes home until the payment comes. There was no way to keep it running because people who sell to us the material are people who live day by day; they would want their money to be able to have what to eat; so, without the money, there was no way we would operate,” Kwesiga says.
When he narrates that financial ordeal, one would ask why he wouldn’t go to commercial banks and get a loan. He thought of it too and indeed hit the ground running but his efforts bore no fruits. Everywhere he went, the response was the same, ‘we regret to inform you that your application has not been successful.’
“Banks don’t recognize this business because it’s informal. The land was rented; they don’t know anything about these equipment whether they can sell them and recoup their money if I fail to pay; I had just started, I had no history; they couldn’t trust me,” Kwesiga says.
To keep the business afloat, Kwesiga had to look elsewhere for funding. Moneylenders, despite their very unfavorable terms, came to mind.
They would provide him with quick cash to keep him flowing and he would pay when the money comes. But he admits they almost sunk him. For all the time he worked with them, he never got a profit. His fortunes were turned around when he gained capacity to export more than one container.
HOW IT WORKS
“Now we do three containers; as we load the second container, we are working on the third to keep us busy as we process the payment. We don’t have to send people home,” Kwesiga says.
Kwesiga buys a kilogram of polyethylene terephthalate [PET] plastic [water and soda bottles] at Shs 400 per kilogram. Because he is at the landfill, the suppliers bring it direct to his factory which is a stone’s throw away from the huge mountain of Kampala waste.
The bottles are then sorted according to colors; blue goes together with white, then green. The buveera on the bottles which normally bear the labels of manufacturer of the soft drinks together with the seals and caps are removed.
At this stage, the workers must make sure that no metal is included in the assortment for, if it does, it crashes the machine. The assorted bottles are then poured in the machine that crushes them the way milling machine crushes maize.
Throughout the conveyor, there is water that keeps on washing the bottles that are normally very dirty. Finally, they come out as flakes which are then dried and packed ready for export. Kwesiga says all their products are exported; previously to China but now to India as the former’s government put a ban on the importation of ‘waste.’
Kwesiga says he spends at least Shs 20 million on every container in terms of labour, water and electricity. In a month, he says, his electricity bills are in the excess of Shs 4 million.
“If you are talking about four containers, that is Shs 80 million you must have in cash. Of course, I get a profit at the end of the day but you must be heavily financed,” Kwesiga says. The other big issue is the competition, especially from foreigners who are heavily capitalized.
“The Chinese in Kasangati has a capacity to process over 50 containers and he hoards them waiting for better prices yet his company is still running. They used to also come here and buy a kilo of PET at Shs 600 instead of the Shs 400 that we offer ; this disorganizes the market because everybody wants to sell to them,” he says.
When they were beginning, they got an investment license which helped them to get tax waivers on the importation of the equipment. Currently, the plant employs 10 people on permanent basis plus more than 50 casual labourers who are paid on a daily basis depending on the availability of work.
“I saw an opportunity to help people, make some money and also save the environment. I always tell people that if we close this place today, all these plastics will be in the drainage; you have seen it when it rains in places like Bwaise; we give value to waste,” Kwesiga says.
Because all that is produced is exported, Kwesiga says they rely heavily on external buyers to the extent that if they stopped buying, his business would have no alternative but to close.
“Nema [National Environment Management Authority] has a feeling that we are making a kill out of the garbage; so, they see no reason to help us. But ideally, they should be involved in this trade,” Kwesiga says.
DON’T FEAR TO START
He advises those who want to join business to always leave room for failure. He says many people who start businesses give up prematurely hence becoming part of the statistics of the 80 per cent businesses that don’t get to celebrate their first birthday.
“I have done transport, I ran a Facebook page that buys and sells cars, I had a motor garage, I have dealt in produce but all of those businesses are not there right now. But the beauty with statistics is; if they say one in every five businesses will fail, it means if I try five times, one will succeed and this is the one.”
Dickson Kwesiga was born in 1979, went to Mengo primary school, Ntare School for both O and A-level and then joined Makerere University in 1999. He graduated with a degree in mechanical engineering.
He is married with three children.