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Pioneering spirit

Karma Yonten, founder of Bhutan’s first waste management and recycling business, recently won Youth Business International’s Environmental Entrepreneur of the Year award. Andrea Lockerbie finds out more

Bhutan brought us the concept of Gross National Happiness (GNH), created by its fourth King in 1972. GNH is designed to be a measure of quality of life and incorporate Bhutan’s Buddist values, with environment and sustainability key elements of this.

With Bhutan’s government promoting the GNH philosophy and trying to raise awareness around waste, young entrepreneur Karma Yonten spotted a gap in the market - and an opportunity. In March 2010, he set up Bhutan’s first waste and recycling company, Greener Way in the capital, Thimphu.

Speaking to MRW in London on his recent trip to collect his award, Yonten is depreciating about what he does: “I do not claim to do something very special”. But he has clearly risen to the challenge of kick-starting recycling infrastructure in Bhutan – an area that others haven’t wanted to touch because of its dirty image and low returns on investment.

The need for waste management and recycling is a more recent phenomenon in a country with a population of just 750,000. “Compared to the last two to three decades, we have started generating huge amounts of trash in a very small city and there wasn’t much of an approach [to dealing with it]. All we used to do was to collect and dump it in landfill. Nothing was recovered from the process of collecting and disposing,” he says.

Yonten explains that the Government was trying to create awareness around waste but no one came forward to do the job. “Then I decided, why not, I see a gap, I can make my own living as well as contributing to the country and the environment as a whole.”

The business started out with just eight people, like-minded friends who quit their jobs. Today, Greener Way employs more than 34 people and indirectly creates employment for more than 180 people who collect recyclable waste and bring it to the company’s site.

It also provides waste awareness programmes, with Yonten visiting over 69 schools himself. “So we are not only about collection, we are about creating awareness - and we are the first people in Bhutan to do this,” he explains.

The business received a loan of $8,100 (£5,000) from the Loden Enterpreneurship Programme, a Youth Business International member, as well as mentoring assistance. It started out doing door to door collections for recyclable materials, but found this approach was not feasible.

So now the company pays for material supplied. The segregation of recyclables is a more recent move, which Greener Way’s promotion among schools, the elderly, its Facebook page, and so on, have helped to bed in. Yonten says segregation has made a difference to the materials it handles. “We do get a lot of better products now, better recyclables.”

To encourage people to segregate waste materials, it pays a higher rate for say, segregated plastic bottles than mixed waste. If people have small volumes of materials, they drop the materials off at the company’s site in Thimphu. For larger volumes, they request a collection. Greener Way operates a zone system, where it collects from different areas of the city on different days. When people hand over the material they get their payment.

Thimphu’s council does not tender out municipal waste contracts but Yonten says this will happen.  He hopes to take on such work in the future as Greener Way is currently the only such business that could do so.

But for Yonten, Greener Way is about more than just a waste management business. “Our focus was to educate people. Our project, we always sum up into the three E’s: environment, economic and employment.

“For me, I don’t think that the balance sheet will matter a lot more than that what I would like to contribute. I think waste generation is going to keep on growing and there isn’t anyone in Bhutan interested in taking this kind of job, so I think I am the only one and I have a lot to do and this project is definitely going to grow. I will make sure it grows also,” he says.

He attributes the current lack of competition to the fact that Bhutan is a very small city, with a population of only 120,000. “Big investors don’t want to invest because volumes aren’t high enough, and the rate of return isn’t high enough. But for young people like us, who want to start something of their own, we felt this was the right area.”

He adds that he has proposed to the Government that his company could recover materials from the city’s only landfill site – effectively landfill mining. And of course, he wants Greener Way to be capturing any recyclables before they go to the landfill site in the first place, in order to reuse the materials and extend the life of the landfill. Is the Government interested? “Yes, they are very much interested and we make sure they are interested, you know,” he says.

The main recyclables handled are plastic bottles, paper waste, tins, metals, aluminium and glass bottles. “We don’t have a lot of complex materials, ” he adds.

His company sells the recyclable materials within Bhutan where there is demand, for example to the steel factory. But otherwise it exports much of the material to India where it is reprocessed.

Five years from now, what would he like to see his business achieving? “I want to make sure that my capital city is clean first, within five years. I want to see Greener Way as a one stop solution for our waste in Bhutan, any sort of waste. I definitely want to see a recycling plant in the future for our company. Above all, we want to compile the right figures and the right data, about how much waste is being generated exactly, what the waste composition is – that is our main priority, to get the right figures first. And I definitely want to take over the city council’s work,” he says.

Currently all of the recyclables are sorted by hand but he hopes to introduce technology in the future – if he can get the funds.  “If we get support or the project does well in the future we would definitely like to get a conveyor belt, a very good transfer station effectively.” He is hoping this will happen in the next two to three years.

Having only been in existence for three and a half years, the business is still in start-up phase, where it is not yet self-sufficient. Yonten explains: “At this hour we have huge amounts of loans from financial institutions, so we are trying to repay them on time and as and when we would like to borrow to build up our factory.” He adds that securing loans in Bhutan is not easy and that interest rates are more than 12% per year. That said, his aim is for the business to become self-supporting in the next three years.

For Yonten ,the last three and a half years have not been easy and the journey has been a long one but he has been motivated by “one’s mind and one’s heart”.

“We have a very clear vision, we don’t want to divert from what we are doing - it just might take some time,” he explains. “What matters is the cause - and the satisfaction of doing something that you like.”

  • Karma Yonten received his award at the Young Entrepreneur Awards ceremony in London, the culmination of YBI’s Global Youth Entrepreneurship Summit.



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