A Community Approach to Common Challenges
From one’s undergraduate spent making recycled plastic bricks, to the other’s experience as an attorney and private banker, “The focus has always been on advancing eco-friendly practices and empowering communities,” say Wihan Bekker and Jean Pierre du Plessis, the Co-founders of African Data Technologies.
African Data Technologies (or AD-Tech for short) is a Stellenbosch-based social and green engineering firm launched just last year by university friends, Wihan Bekker and Jean-Pierre du Plessis, in partnership with Wihan’s postgraduate supervisor, Dr Patrick Okonkwo.
Initially, AD-Tech focussed on providing sustainability consulting, research and development, as well as engineering implementation services for the construction, waste, and energy industries. However, with the onset of COVID-19, the two entrepreneurs have since found themselves assisting social and environmental impact organisations too, where they collect data to help them manage and measure their efforts.
Circular Solutions to Societal Challenges
AD-Tech’s flagship operation is the Shared Resource Exchange(ShaRE), a refuse recycling service that connects waste producers with waste users, explains Wihan: “All waste has its uses when placed in the right hands. Through ShaRE, we are able to divert reusable refuse away from landfills towards productive uses. This means a reduction in greenhouse gas emissions and a more positive impact on the environment.”
Currently, the ShaRE initiative is operating in Klapmuts and run completely via WhatsApp. Wihan continues: “This was the easiest way to launch, however, we are in the process of developing and testing a phone app which will be used to help take the project further afield. We’re also building up an asset register and looking for more participants. As part of this, we’ve secured agreements with industrial waste producers, but for now, we’re just measuring their output to see how we can scale our programme to take on more waste in a variety of different forms.
“It was out of the ShaRE initiative that we launched our second programme, Farming for the Future (FFF) which is aimed at addressing food security. During our waste collection runs, we started to notice that certain items, like cardboard pizza boxes, were not being recycled. We found out that this was because there is an oversupply and recyclers simply can’t process it all fast enough. As a result, this waste gets stockpiled or sent to landfill.”
As part of the FFF programme, the company takes this recyclable waste and turns it into biodegradable seedling pots. These replace the plastic trays found at nurseries and can be planted directly into the ground to provide composting for improved soil fertility.
Says Wihan: “We are currently working with several local creches and schools, where we provide the seedling trays to assist with children’s nutrition. As an added benefit, we encourage them to sell any surplus produce as an additional revenue channel to help fund other needs. The idea is that households, schools and communities can now grow food to feed themselves, while also preventing any wastage.”
The entrepreneurs note: “To make sure that we are making a meaningful difference to the areas in which we work, we ensure that all our initiatives are community-informed. By knowing the needs and nuances of the people, we are able to co-develop programmes that directly address their most pressing socio-economic and environmental issues.”
Responding to COVID-19
For the past few months, AD-Tech has shifted its focus to COVID-19, having begun to work on several pandemic relief programmes. Wihan shares: “Our initial efforts were directed to the development of a digital database to help smooth local testing procedures, specifically the registration and record-making processes, while also making it easier for healthcare workers to store and access patient information.
“Shortly after this, we were approached by the Greater Stellenbosch Development Trust, which was running informal screening stations and handing out hygiene supplies through the StelCovid Action Group. They needed us to formalise the programme by reviewing the technical needs of each station. We did this and also streamlined their data-capturing methods by deploying our database and app, which is also sharing information with the Department of Health. Now, we’re developing blueprints for an emergency modular hospital unit to provide a quick implementation plan for isolation and testing facilities so that, if the need arises, we can mobilise our resources into an operationally effective system.”
“From here, our aim is to create sustainable social business models that can scale,” explains Jean Pierre. “If we validate those models through data, we can show funders the true impact of these businesses, as well as ensure that social enterprises continuously increase and understand the social impacts they create.”
He concludes: “As an African innovation hub, Stellenbosch is the perfect environment to create and test these solutions, and we invite all people, businesses and households in the area to take part in our projects. With your help and our data, we will be able to make a measurable difference to the communities and environments around us.”
To read more about Wihan, Jean Pierre and the work being done at AD-Tech, visit their website: https://www.africandatatechnologies.com/