Sustain Ability: Embracing a Holistic Approach to Waste Management 

The mindset of the younger generation of Lebanon is shifting towards a cleaner and greener economy. This is quite evident in the number of startups and initiatives that are continuously sprouting with the sole purpose of deferring waste from landfills.  

In the face of numerous challenges and crises that Lebanon has endured over the past five years, one undeniable fact remains: environmental sustainability has not been pushed aside. 

As more and more initiatives are coming into existence, innovative ideas that deal with the reduction and recycling of waste are evolving. This is the case with Sustain Ability, a Lebanese startup that is one of the three winners that are currently under incubation phase 2 of the DAWERR Innovation Challenge 2023, funded by the United States Agency for International Development (USAID) in partnership with Berytech.  

In an interview with the founders of Sustain Ability, Raja Abi Saab and Andre Mahfouz, we delve into the different channels through which they are recycling. 

Q: How did you come up with the idea for Sustain Ability? 

A:  Coming off recurrent waste crises, we started in 2021 as a small pilot project with a minivan to see if there was any interest in recycling, especially in the rural areas of Mount Lebanon. After being pleasantly surprised by the positive feedback we received, we recognized the potential of expanding the project into a full-fledged solution. 

We wanted a recycling system that reaches everyone and is equally effective with the different customer sensitivities because it’s imperative to include everyone in recycling. 

Q: Can you tell us more about Sustain Ability? 

A: Sustain Ability is mostly known for its active recycling arm, Green Mount Recycling (GMR). We provide a holistic waste management solution. Through our public-private partnership, we engage municipalities looking to divert valuable recyclables from bins and landfills, businesses looking to valorize their waste, and residents looking to contribute to clean and green neighborhoods. 

To date, we have partnered with 16 municipalities in Mount Lebanon. Our operations include residential and commercial recyclable waste collection, the operation of Yalla Return stores where we provide cash for trash or donation stores through our partnership with Nadeera Technologies, and street sweeping. All our operations are enabled through comprehensive awareness campaigns and technology. 

Q: What differentiates you from the other recycling startups in Lebanon? 

A: At Sustain Ability, we are deploying our waste management toolkit within our area of operation, and this type of solution is great a step forward towards achieving the goal of decentralizing waste management and making it as sustainable as possible on all fronts. The model can be replicated in other underserved areas of Lebanon, focusing on rural and semi-rural areas of Mount Lebanon. 

Q: What types of services do you offer? 

A: Our value chain includes awareness, collection, secondary sorting at our facility in Ras el Matn, and recycling of some materials. We have a waste-management toolkit that entails multiple collection streams depending on customer sensitivity: 

  • For households that want convenience, we offer a door-to-door collection. 
  • For people who need incentives, we offer monetization of recyclables through the Yalla Return Stores that we operate. 
  • For businesses, we offer bulk deals to valorize their recyclables. 
  • For the recyclables that fall through the cracks, we do street sweeping and cleanups to collect them. 

Q: What are some of the challenges that you have faced so far and how did you overcome them? 

A: Lebanon is a difficult environment for social enterprises, especially during the timeframe when we started. The cost-of-living crisis meant that some business expenses made no sense and were disproportionately high. That’s why we are currently bootstrapping, optimizing, tackling growth head-on, and partnering our way out of that rut. 

We also encountered a very common entrepreneurship pitfall, which is that we fell in love with our first business model. When we first started, we started with only one means of collection: door-to-door pickups. While energy and labor costs were low, this proved profitable for some months. However, as the financial crisis became ever more eminent, and costs overwhelmingly grew, we had to be agile and seek out another solution. This was a very challenging time, it felt like it could be the end of a very promising venture, but we found out that it was only an opportunity to understand the market better and redefine our approach. 

Q: What are some of your startup’s key achievements?

A: We learned along the way that the key to success in a volatile business environment like Lebanon is to adapt swiftly and abandon approaches that don’t work. We also attribute our success to engaging and partnering with as many stakeholders as possible to cover as much ground as possible. Yalla Return is a result of our partnership with Nadeera Technologies, door-to-door is grounded in the MoUs we have with municipalities and awareness is ever-reliant on the support of the third sector, including environmental NGOs and recycling champions in the areas we serve. This grassroots approach aligns our efforts towards a common goal and is a force multiplier in and of itself. 

One significant metric we take pride in is diverting the equivalent of 63,000 cubic meters of recyclables (1,200 Tons) away from landfills. When you look at such a substantial figure, it puts in perspective the volume of space our waste occupies and how important it is to stop relying on landfilling for waste disposal, especially in a country as small as Lebanon. 

Q: What’s next for Sustain Ability? 

A: We aim to develop our solution to become replicable. We firmly believe that a holistic, decentralized waste management approach that focuses on sorting from the source is the future for Lebanon and we’re excited to be contributing to that future. 

Q: What was your experience with the USAID DAWERR Innovation Challenge and what type of an impact did it have on your startup? 

A: We entered the program with ambitions ideas, seeking a clear direction and actionable plan to start making some meaningful changes and implementing new projects. 

We benefitted greatly from the coaching and workshops and were able to validate some ideas and turn them into action plans. We were also able, through the USAID in-kind grant, to design and deploy our phase 1 product, a cardboard cage to boost our B2B logistics infrastructure. Through the program and Berytech team, we were able to progress from idea to MVP swiftly and start testing our solution on the ground. 

The support we garnered through the DAWERR Innovation Challenge in the last 3 months has translated into the growth of our door-to-door service into 3 new municipalities, pipelining the deployment of 4 new Yalla Return stores in 4 different municipalities, and the deploying of the 4 cardboard cages as an MVP. 

Q: What do you think is the importance of these types of programs for Lebanese startups? 

A: Programs like the DAWERR Innovation Challenge are a great place to focus energy on actionable steps. They’re an excellent place to build the capacities of entrepreneurs and help them turn their ideas into reality. They’re especially beneficial for green entrepreneurs who want to balance impact and growth. 

Q: What advice would you give the social enterprises in Lebanon? 

A: Lebanon’s many problems are also opportunities for entrepreneurs. The waste management sector still needs a lot of work and there’s a lot of potential for up-and-coming entrepreneurs to find innovative solutions. If you encounter a program like the DAWERR Innovation Challenge, that aligns with the impact you are looking to achieve, don’t hesitate to apply. 

Picture of Raghid Jarrah

Raghid Jarrah

Raghid Jarrah joined Berytech in July 2021 and is currently a Communication and Outreach Coordinator. He supports the team on various ongoing projects such as ARYAF, DAWERR, REAF, SAFI, WE4F, and others.

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