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Humberto Rodríguez can remember the shock he felt when he arrived in the US to study architecture at the Rhode Island School of Design. Compared with the fetid waterways choked with rubbish in his native Cartagena on Colombia’s Caribbean coast, the canals, streams and rivers of New England seemed blissfully clean.
“The contrast was startling,” he says. “Cartagena is bathed in water, it’s a city of little islands, and yet the Cartagena I grew up in was dirty. All the waterways were polluted.”
After moving back home, Mr Rodríguez decided he wanted to help clean up Colombia. In 1996 he took out a loan of $100,000 and founded Grupo Sala, the waste management company he still runs as chief executive. The acronym stands for Soluciones Ambientales para Latinoamérica — Environmental Solutions for Latin America. “I gave it a grand name but the truth is I started by working from a tiny office in Bogotá,” he says with a smile. “As an entrepreneur you always have to think big.”
Since then, the company has ballooned in size, even if it has yet to live up to the geographical implications of its grandiose name — it operates only in Colombia, save for a small operation across the border in Panamá. However, Grupo Sala’s 24 companies employ 3,100 people who collect 895,000 tonnes of solid waste as well as handling drinking water management and industrial waste disposal.
The company has attracted investors, the latest being Veolia, the French waste management group, which bought an 80 per cent stake owned by Acon, a private equity group, and Mr Rodríguez’s remaining 20 per cent stake at the end of last month for an undisclosed sum. Mr Rodríguez remains president and chief executive.
Grupo Sala collects tonnes of rubbish from Colombia’s streets, installs portable toilets in poor rural communities with no access to running water, incinerates hospital waste and disposes of effluents from Colombia’s oil industry.
For anyone who has lived in Europe or North America, its operations might seem quite mundane. Using wheelie bins to collect rubbish, for example, is hardly revolutionary. But in a country such as Colombia, where environmental awareness is in its infancy and where regulations governing waste disposal are lax and often ignored, it has been transformative.
Mr Rodríguez recalls how in Cartagena it used to be standard practice to leave bags of rubbish out on the street. Dogs would rip them open at night. Homeless people would rummage through them for food. “It was quite common to see kids playing football in the streets, barefoot, [surrounded by] bags of trash,” he says.
Grupo Sala introduced the concept of mechanised container collection. People were given bins that could be emptied directly into the back of refuse trucks. “We faced some resistance at first because people didn’t want the containers in front of their houses,” he says. “But we won them over.” These days, 40 per cent of Grupo Sala’s urban rubbish collection services are mechanised.
Mr Rodríguez’s latest passion is for portable toilets. He wants to install them in hundreds of villages in some of the country’s remotest areas. Again, it is hardly a groundbreaking concept, but in Colombia it could make a huge difference. In rural communities, many houses simply have no toilet. People dispose of their excrement in septic tanks or, worse still, bag it up and throw it over the back wall. Grupo Sala is running a pilot scheme in Bolívar state in the north of the country where it has installed portable toilets in a small community and is monitoring their impact. Mr Rodríguez hopes the project might serve as an example to the rest of the country.
He also highlights the need to import technology from elsewhere. For example, on a trip to Europe he discovered a system developed by AMB, a Belgian company that uses microwaves to decontaminate potentially harmful medical waste. Mr Rodríguez brought the technology to Colombia and installed it at two hospitals.
Sitting in his office in Bogotá, he says one of the major challenges of being an entrepreneur working in public services is dealing with local politicians. “You have to offer them a trophy — something that allows them to take some of the credit for a project and which will show them in a good light,” he says.
He is also increasingly interested in energy generation. He wants companies in Colombia to pay twice as much as they do at the moment to dump their waste in landfill sites, and for the extra money to be used to subsidise the generation of electricity from biomass. He estimates that 60 per cent of Colombia’s urban waste could be used to produce energy.
Although he acknowledges it has sometimes been hard to convince Colombians of the need to take their environmental responsibilities seriously, he says things have improved since he founded Grupo Sala.
“Back in 1996, people here had no concept of the need to protect the environment. They thought the planet’s resources were infinite,” he says. “Thankfully, that’s changed.”