Jay CabozBy Jay Caboz|March 31, 2021|9 Minutes|In Entrepreneur

Entrepreneur

The business that uses earthworm poop to make a profit

Entrepreneur Himkaar Singh left a cosy job as a civil engineer to dig dirt and create an army of earthworms to help save the planet. It may sound crazy but this eco warrior believes the earthworms and their poop can keep harmful chemicals out of the ground.  

It’s all about rubbish. It’s thrown away and out of mind in seconds. But, it’s a huge problem and an opportunity for an African entrepreneur. 

South Africa alone throws around 95 million tonnes of rubbish away every year – that’s more than a ton per person. Less than 40% is recycled. 

Others see a problem, entrepreneur Himkaar Singh saw opportunity. He saw the rubbish dump as a resource to help the country create food and water. 

“When you throw organic/food/wet waste into the bin, it ends up in a landfill where it gets covered by mounds of other junk. In this covered environment, the lack of oxygen causes the organic material to degrade anaerobically. This type of decomposition releases methane and hydrogen sulphide which are strong greenhouse gasses, and smell very bad.”

“However, if we divert the organics away from the landfill, and compost them in an aerobic environment, the process only releases carbon dioxide (which is much less potent than methane), and results in a valuable soil conditioner which is so important for the future of farming.”

He calls it the Compost Kitchen, and it’s now a thriving organic compost business in Northern Johannesburg.

“Organic waste is the most problematic waste stream because it produces methane in the landfill and can pollute groundwater when dumped in the landfill. We have a big dream to divert all South Africa’s organic waste from the landfill so that it can be properly composted, and thereby become a valuable soil conditioner.”

This is why each week you will find Singh out on the streets on a bicycle towing a trolley full of waste. He then recycles the waste in bins using thousands of earthworms that eat it and poop it out. The polite word for this is called vermicompost, which is both rich in nutrients, spongy enough to hold water, and ideal for organic farming.

We collect about 1 tonne of food waste per week from 140 customers and it produces about 500 kg of vermicompost per week.

- Himkaar Singh

“We collect about 1 tonne of food waste per week from 140 customers and it produces about 500 kg of vermicompost per week.” 

The earthworm poop is then given back to the customer each month, which they can use in their vegetable garden to grow the next crop. 

“I needed to figure out how to get organic matter into the soil on large scale, and thus developed the business’s organic waste recycling model,” he says.

“We will collect your organic kitchen waste and return it to you once our hungry earthworms have transformed it into ‘vermicompost’.”

The idea was born back in 2017 when Singh was still working as a civil engineer. At the time South Africa was experiencing one of its worst droughts in history and Singh visited Rand Water as part of a primary school field trip. 

“They warned us that severe water shortages would be coming in the future if we don’t conserve water. I thought ‘they warned us 20 years ago, but nothing has been done’. What we were doing didn’t seem to be hitting the nail on the head.”

So he upped and left, to study a Masters degree in Integrated Water Resource Management abroad. Along the way he gained experience working with farmers in Germany and Jordan and also volunteered to pick up trash in Vietnam, by chance. 

“I was hanging out at the Red River and then a group of young social impact entrepreneurs came to clean trash at the river. They have a programme called Everyday Clean-up Challenge where they clean up trash somewhere every day before work. I joined them in picking up litter and enjoyed it a lot because they were just doing it because they wanted to.”

“The garbage system in Vietnam is a bit poor so there is trash everywhere. I would say it is worse than SA except for in townships. However, they are aware of the problem and are trying hard to solve it. From all the trash polluting rivers there, I realized how waste management was connected to water security and that’s why we decided to show innovation in waste management through our business.” 

Soil is the most important component in the water cycle. However, that soil is being lost in urban areas without us realizing how it is affecting our water quality and quantity. My mission is to return soil to urban areas while reducing waste. How lucky are we that earthworms can solve both of these issues.

- Himkaar Singh

Along the way Singh decided he wanted his business to help save the soil by making it more organic so it will absorb more water and nutrients. 

“Soil is the most important component in the water cycle. However, that soil is being lost in urban areas without us realizing how it is affecting our water quality and quantity. My mission is to return soil to urban areas while reducing waste. How lucky are we that earthworms can solve both of these issues.”

Intense agriculture techniques and urbanization are slowly destroying the soil and damaging its ability to hold water.

“60% of land in South Africa has soil with low organic matter making it conducive to degradation and low productivity. [I realized] that the soil’s impact on the water cycle is the most significant out of any other factors related to water. Everything that happens downstream is determined by what happens when a raindrop hits the soil.”

The business has been so successful it has even been recognized by the United Nations’ Entreps programme, which Signh says is like the Oscar Awards for sustainability.

“I believe this is the kind of business that the world urgently needs more of, and I think it is up to startups to champion it, not try to convince existing business to change… When I was in primary school I learnt about how some businesses are destroying the planet, but 20 years later it is still business as usual. Businesses won’t change, but we can change business. This is the future of business and we need more South Africans to create these solutions.”

And he is doing all this with worms and the waste we take for granted.