By Priyanka Sippy
It was a high school assignment that first sparked David’s idea for a recycling business. The assignment was to create a product for the science fair, and it is this product that David is now selling across farms in Arusha.
David’s business – ‘Cutoff Recycle’ – makes fertilizer and herbicides. The twist? These products are made from recycled human hair. The idea behind this comes from David’s passion for science, where he learnt in his biology and chemistry classes that human hair is a protein - and, mixed with the right compounds, it could be manufactured into agricultural products, supporting the growth of Tanzania’s most valued crops.
But, the business also has an environmental impact. It was at the high school salon that David first noted how much hair was being disposed of, ending up in landfill sites, polluting the surrounding environment.
“Where I live in Arusha, there is so much waste. It causes health problems to communities. Seeing the waste from hair salons across the city, I was curious to see how human hair could be recycled, so I started speaking to my science teachers and experimenting in the lab.
“I wanted to create a product that I could also give back to my community.”
And so, it was at David’s science fair where he first displayed the innovation, and showcased herbicides, fertilizer and bricks, all recycled from human hair, collected from salons across Arusha.
After testing the product out with several farmers, David recognized that this idea had the potential to go further.
“We have a lot of arable land in Tanzania.
“But the fertilizers most of the farmers are using are imported, they are more expensive. They often cannot be used directly but need to be mixed with other liquids.
“We want to make things easy for farmers, our product can be directly used on the crops, and it is cheaper.
“We can provide this product at scale, while removing pollution. There is a lot of opportunity.”
From high school to the boardroom
David’s business has now been up and running since 2019, and he is currently in the process of getting the products officially certified for widespread use. The fertilizers are being tested with eight farmers in Arusha, on two crops: amaranth and sukuma wiki, and have been going rigorous testing for nearly two years.
It was this business idea that recently crowned David the winner of the Global Student Entrepreneur Award, a competition which was held at the end of January in Dar es Salaam.
The awards brought together Tanzanian student entrepreneurs, who are juggling full-time studies with managing a full-time business. David, currently enrolled at Ardhi University, says the drive to work and study simultaneously stems from his desire to become a leader in his field.
“I have always been a proactive person. I saw that many young people are struggling to get jobs, even those graduating from university. I have always been worried that this may happen to me, so I knew I would have to work hard and take risks. I believe being an entrepreneur is seeing the opportunities in challenges that others cannot see.”
Emir Karamagi, Chair of the Global Student Entrepreneur Awards (GSEA), says the competition is a chance to find the ‘diamonds in the rough:’ young students with ideas and passion to make change.
“The Entrepreneur Organisation, which hosts the annual awards, aims to empower entrepreneurs to become the change makers of tomorrow. It isn’t common to find students being able to manage studies and a business.
“We are trying to give them a platform and an opportunity to build, network and make their idea a real success.”
This is something that Dennis is aiming to do.
His dream is big, and within the next five years, he is aiming to break into new markets, regionally and across East Africa. Seeing the issue of youth unemployment, his business plans to also create jobs for people in Tanzania.
“Currently we have around 100+ employed directly and indirectly through Cutoff Recycle, mainly those who collect the hair from salons.
“But we want to increase this number. We are also looking to create machines to produce the fertilizer as this is being done manually right now.
“If we can get technology to do this, we can keep the workers safer, and produce at a larger scale.”
At the heart of David’s business – and the other four finalists that competed at the GSEA this year – is the passion to make a positive change in the community. Emir says these enterprises are not simply trade businesses, but that the youth are tackling real problems existing in society.
“The finalists of the GSEA all presented an idea that had come from a problem that they had seen or experienced themselves and creating a product that creates change.
“We saw entrepreneurs that created tutoring apps, audio-books for persons with disabilities, online libraries, and a mobile app for house workers which supports their safety.”
They are all incredible ideas, according to Emir, and it’s his desire to see all these businesses become national operations rather than being localised to a few cities.
Although David is at the start of his adventurous journey, he has already faced several challenges along the way.
“People did not want us to collect the human hair initially, they thought it was being used for witchcraft. So, I am still working on changing people’s beliefs around this.
“Another challenge I have experienced is the heavy legislation around setting up a business in Tanzania.”
He believes that policies must be changed to support more youth to get involved in entrepreneurship. The next event David will participate in will be the GSEA Global awards that will be held in Dubai at the end of April. For now, he can celebrate winning the finals in Tanzania.
“This competition was different from others. It was about spirit, drive and inspiration. And this is what I am bringing. It just comes down to passion.”