Whale swimming - photo by Guille Pozzi - photo by Guille Pozzi

Boa Gente Creates Sustainable Waste Solutions in Mozambique

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Rapid urbanization and population growth over the last century has placed extensive strain on the environment and human health as governments have failed to sustainably address the rise in domestic waste production. Marie d’Arenberg, founder of the Mozambican social venture Boa Gente, spoke to Voices for Biodiversity on how their business model offers some solutions to this challenge.

A paradise beach with glittering white sand and tall coconut trees is scattered with bottles. Thousands of them, glass and plastic, from beer, wine, spirits and soda pop, have been carelessly left behind and now serve as a reminder of the people from around the world who flocked to Praia Do Tofo, Mozambique, to celebrate a new year. My first adventure of 2024 is a walk through Tofo’s fruit market to buy a breakfast mango from Marta, a local fruit seller. I stroll along the beach and a plastic Coke bottle with the words “Recycle me” printed in bold runs under my feet to join thousands of others in the glorious Indian Ocean. That bottle is one of the 91% of all plastics that aren’t recycled, despite the assertion by big oil corporations like Shell, BP and Sasol that we can recycle our way out of pollution. The reality? Corporations are wrapping their environmental destruction in a thin green veneer, an intricate PR process commonly referred to as “greenwashing.” 

Bird’s eye view of a landfill on the banks of the Tofo wetland

The Mitigation Action Facility, which provides finance in support of economic decarbonization, estimates that only 20–30% of waste produced in Mozambique is collected, of which only 1–2% is recycled. The remainder is disposed of as litter or in unregulated dumpsites, which are frequently burned, consequently releasing toxic chemicals into the local and regional environments and posing major threats to human health, underground water quality, and ecosystem functioning.  

But the threat posed by waste and pollution in this small corner of Mozambique is only a microcosm of the larger issue. As the joys and sorrows of the old year were left behind and the new year welcomed with booze and fireworks, the world’s solid domestic waste output hit more than 2 billion tonnes, with developed countries accounting for the highest per capita waste production. That’s roughly 2.3 million times the weight of the Springbok rugby scrum, or the weight of about 670,000 Ford Rangers — and 80% of it is landfilled. Every. Single. Year. 

Clearly, there needs to be a shift in the way we do business — and the way we consume — to avoid situations like this, which pose huge threats to the Tofo wetland and its surrounding communities. Deep ecologists like George Monbiot might argue that in the current economic landscape, virtually every product produced is another nail in the earth’s coffin. 

Marie d’Arenberg, founder of the Mozambican social venture Boa Gente, strongly disagrees. Instead, she believes in the social and economic movements that are leading the transition to a greener economy. 

Milan Burnett interviews Marie d’Arenberg 

Reimagining waste with sustainability top of mind

A development studies graduate from the University of London, Marie works as an elections monitor and facilitator for the United Nations. She fell in love with Mozambique in 2007 because of what she describes as some of the world’s most open-minded and welcoming people.

“I had the idea for Boa Gente when I was working in South Sudan,” she explains. “Once I came back to Mozambique, I bought a piece of land from Comiche, a sangoma [traditional healer] whom I later became very close with. One day he asked me to drive his coconuts to the commercial factory in Inhambane, which at the time was buying coconuts from the community at very low prices. 

“So, I had the idea: How can we use these coconuts in the community with direct benefit to the community instead of moving them to factories to be transported overseas? After spending so much time with Comiche, this idea sort of clicked, and I set about looking for land.

The Boa Gente factory of dreams

“I knew I wanted to build the factory in the market area because people come from all the neighboring communities every Tuesday and Friday to sell and buy their produce.” Marie started asking around about land for sale next to the market. That’s when her dream hit a snag — she was broke. Luckily, she met Felicidad, whom she describes as a fierce powerhouse of a woman. The two struck a deal. Marie would pay her what she could and once the company was up and running, Felicidad could recoup the rest. Boa Gente, which means “good people” in Portuguese, was born. 

Today, Boa Gente’s business model promotes both social and environmental sustainability, from the coconut harvesting to the packaging. Coconuts bought from local residents are stored and processed by the 23 full-time staff employed at the factory. Transformed from fruit to products ranging from virgin coconut oil to soap, every part of the production process emphasizes minimal waste.

                                 The coconut collection station                               

The packaging room

Growing greener, more resilient communities

While the packaging may be unconventional, it’s also innovative and beneficial in many ways. By placing value on waste, Boa Gente aims to reduce the amount that ends up in landfills. Similar to the coconut buy-back scheme, locals can collect and sell glass bottles to Boa Gente. These are sterilized and used to bottle coconut oil. Marie estimates that over their six years of operation, this scheme has prevented the landfilling of roughly 60,000 bottles. What impact could this model for sustainable waste solutions in Mozambique have if expanded into the industry at large?

Many studies have documented the negative environmental aspects of the coconut processing industry, which are mostly due to the impact of plantations on biodiversity, its high transport and processing emissions, and the unequal distribution of benefits and profits. But Marie explains that her aim through Boa Gente is to bring the processing to the coconuts and ensure that the crop’s benefits are directly realized where they are grown.

Coconuts are heated

The drying station 

“There was never the objective of starting a plantation,” Marie explains. “That’s not the idea behind Boa Gente. It's about the people. We entirely rely on the community.” 

To reinforce this philosophy, Boa Gente founded a nursery regrowth scheme in partnership with a local NGO. It provides anyone from the community with one coconut seedling for every three coconuts they sell to the company. As a result, Marie ensures a sustainable yield of coconuts while also safeguarding the longevity of her company’s operations. 

Marie’s nursery: the next generation of coconuts

With an expansion planned for later this year, the company aims to install sales points at over 30 locations across the country. Marie believes that by expanding the reach of their business model, Boa Gente can get more people involved in the company’s mission to spread the importance of environmental and social sustainability in the economy. “My vision with Boa Gente is to make a product that has a positive impact throughout the whole chain — from the people who grow coconuts, to the people who process them, to the people who consume them.”

Follow Boa Gente’s progress on social media @boagentemoz for more stories on how Marie, Felicidad, the staff at Boa Gente, and the Inhambane community are creating sustainable waste solutions in Mozambique to inspire a greener economy, reduce their environmental impact, and uplift communities.  

All photos by Ben Mahon

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