Turning your trash into cash

By Erick Maleko

Most university students spend time stressing over job prospects, but 22-year-old Zakir Hussein already operates a company with sales in the six digits.

Third-year University of Calgary petroleum geology and environmental management student Hussein won the western Canada Student Entrepreneur of the Year award this February.

On May 9, Hussein will go on to compete for the national title. The national winner will receive a cash prize of $10,000 and the opportunity to represent Canada in the world championships.

Hussein originally launched Organo Energy in 2009 as a biotechnology research company. For the next two years, the company did not generate any income until May 2011 when Organo’s research results led to the creation of a subsidiary company, Alberta Clean Technology.

Alberta Clean Technology offers free waste collection services to restaurants in Calgary. Its clientele list has rapidly expanded since the launch, going from servicing 10 restaurants to 139 in the span of five months.

After only 10 months in business, Alberta Clean Technology currently employs five people and is projected to finish its first fiscal year in good financial standing.

Alberta Clean Technology collects the waste and ships it to companies across Canada. The waste is then recycled into renewable products and fuels.

“We collect everything from plastics, cooking oil, cardboards, and much more,” said Hussein.

Coming from a non-business background, Hussein encountered obstacles from the start.

“I was always afraid of business, but then I approached Students in Free Enterprise Calgary. I had this idea for Organo Energy and was really fascinated by algae and biotechnology. However, I didn’t know how to go about it and turn it into a business,” said Hussein. “So I went to talk to one of the people at sife and they were very pivotal in turning that idea into a real business.”

This year Hussein is serving as president of sife Calgary.

Hussein is passionate about reducing companies’ ecological footprints and it is one of the major factors that led him to choose his current line of business.

“It was not about the money — it has never been about the money. Our three main pillars are to help reduce environmental pollution, create jobs and give back to the community,” he said.

Social entrepreneurship is a major part of Hussein’s business model. In February, Alberta Clean Technology helped donate four computers to the Calgary Homeless Foundation. In addition, for every gallon of cooking oil they collect, two cents goes to Calgary Homeless Foundation.

“Another thing that really motivates and inspires me is the pride and joy of being able to create something out of nothing,” said Hussein.

With a $4,000 loan from his parents, Hussein launched Alberta Clean Technology in May 2011. The early success of the business enabled him to repay his parents within two months. Trying to minimize costs at first, the company originally rented a warehouse in Acme, Alberta.

“Having our warehouse in Acme essentially meant that we were spending an hour and a half driving back and forth for a job that only took 10 minutes.”

Before winter, Hussein secured a warehouse facility in the city.

“I realized that rental costs would go up, but in the end safety was the number one concern,” he said.

Nicknamed “The Garbage Man,” Hussein regularly works with his employees to collect garbage.

“I want to be out there getting my hands dirty alongside my employees. I don’t want to be the guy sitting in the office,” he said.

Born in east Africa, Hussein’s parents moved to Canada with him and his sister when Hussein was young.

“When we got here we didn’t have a lot of money. I remember at one point my parents only had $20 and they could not afford to put food on the table for my sister and me,” he said.

Today, because of the success of his business, Hussein is financially able to put both his sister and himself through university.

Hussein’s vision of the company is to eventually take it public on the stock market and develop it into a major company in the waste services industry, such as Waste Management Inc. Hussein’s current target is to have sales around $5 million in three years’ time. Not having solicited investors, so far Alberta Clean Technology has been growing solely on retained earnings.

Hussein’s work ethic is something that his colleagues often praise.

“I don’t know how he does it. He puts in crazy hours. Basically it’s a full-time job running a company and he’s doing it while also being a full-time student at the same time, and he’s also president of sife too,” said sife project director Naomi Cheng. “He’s always super busy. I don’t know how he handles it or manages it but we all definitely look up to him in that way.”

The Student Entrepreneur Competition consists of a panel of judges who review each of the businesses presented based on four criteria — presentation, business fundamentals, the idea and future plans. The panel of 20 judges are business leaders from various parts of Canada.

“The biggest thing is that Zakir is a natural entrepreneur. He’s not a business student and nor does he come from a business background, but what he has is a natural passion for what his company does,” said Advancing Canadian Entrepreneurship Project coordinator Preston Aitken.