How The ReTrade Project gives the community a hand-up rather than a hand-out

Jared Kruger

18 Sep 2019

Reading time: 10 min Startup stories

We’ve always believed that entrepreneurship has the power to make our world a better place. What we hadn’t realised was just how enormous this power could be. We discovered this and much more during a recent interview with Maria Grewar and Jessica Ronaasen of The ReTrade Project.  

Meet the socio-environmental agenda that’s filling tummies, hearts and minds in Africa

Born out of a church outreach programme in 2014, The ReTrade Project has transformed into an inspirational non-profit organisation with far-reaching impact. Leveraging entrepreneurial thinking and a community of passionate people, they’ve achieved the perfect symbiosis between social and environmental agendas. 

This is their story. 

1. When your business model is trash, and it’s a good thing!

2. It started when a community believed in a bartering system

3. How The ReTrade Project became so much more than a barter

4. Getting personal: Jessica’s journey as part of a startup

When your business model is trash, and it’s a good thing!

The ReTrade Project follows a simple process. Families and individuals in need of food and basic resources collect recyclable waste like tins, cardboard, glass and plastic bottles. Then, between 9 and 11am every Friday, they exchange what they’ve collected for points. 

When a person has earned enough points, they head over to the Trade Store and exchange their points for essentials like canned food, toiletries and blankets. In the meantime, a local recycling company collects the bags of trash, and the proceeds from this are used to restock the store. 

And just like that, the environment is a little cleaner and the community is a little less cold and hungry than before. We asked Maria how they came to arrive at this unique business model, and this is what she said. 

“Although well meaning, a ‘hand out’ food pantry enables an attitude of entitlement rather than empowering people to move forward with dignity. The ReTrade model is an exchange of goods that takes place between parties, rather than one hand constantly giving and the other taking. Dignity and mutual respect can be restored.”

After a few brainstorming sessions, it became clear to the ReTrade team that one of the most accessible commodities in South Africa is rubbish. So, they started a project where people could exchange recyclable items (what they call “a new currency”) for essential items like food, toiletries, clothes and blankets. 

It started when a community believed in a bartering system

The ReTrade Project was born out of belief; belief from a modern community that bartering was not outdated, but rather one of the most important mechanisms we could use to improve our world. Maria tells us more.

“The ReTrade Project began operating on nothing but donations from the local community, to exchange goods and to promote the idea that bartering is not dead, but fully alive and capable of restoring dignity, promoting good work ethic and helping others with a hand-up in life rather than a hand-out. The project and business has grown from strength to strength.

And Maria ain’t joking! The ReTrade project has been making leaps and bounds as a non-profit organisation. They’ve recently celebrated their 5th birthday, which every entrepreneur knows is a big deal. Plus, they were recognised as finalists in the 2019 TOPCO Youth Employment Award and have recently been nominated for the Vision 2030 Awards for the Fast Growth Business Of The Year Award.

We have a number of special achievements. We recently renovated our recycling depot and commenced our community centre building project. We’ve also grown our team and are thankful for years of investment into the business model.”

All of this success is despite a few challenges – because every startup has those! 

For example, The ReTrade Project continues to seek sustainable funding for growth and expansion, they’re competing as new entrepreneurs in an established non-profit sector, navigating the usual financial and HR issues that come with being a startup, and battling (can you believe it!) community resistance to environmental and social changes. 

How The ReTrade Project became so much more than a barter

The ReTrade Project is passionate about restoring hope and dignity to the poor and marginalised by building strong relationships and making basic resources accessible to all. But they’re also super passionate about educating and training our community in environmental issues and good stewardship of the earth in which we share.

Jessica adds that…

“It also raised an important aspect of educating the local community about rubbish and recycling, and encouraged further proactivity in caring for the earth and looking at ways of greener living.”

So, The ReTrade Project also engages in recycling education and environmental awareness. This includes community talks, school outings and participation in events like the Shoprite Africa’s Biggest Clean Up Event, the Get to Know your Bay Talk at Bayworld and the World Wildlife Foundation Annual General Meeting. 

Getting personal: Jessica’s journey as part of a startup 

Jessica and the ReTrade team aren’t short on passion (obviously). Still, entrepreneurship isn’t always the easiest path to walk. So, we asked her how she keeps her sanity when stress levels rise. 

“Exercising regularly and maintaining a healthy diet has been crucial – although we don’t get it right all of the time! Open communication with our team, sharing the load and allowing our team to be humans rather than expecting perfection on every front has been key for us. I mean, we strive for excellence, but also to be people who care for each other.”

Beyond this, Jessica and team take inspiration from the Yellow Door Collective podcast, Brene Brown books which encourage them to accept vulnerability as a strength, motivating stories from the Springboard Initiative MAIDCAST Blog. And of course, Jessica also finds her job to be immensely rewarding. 

“What I love most about being a part of a startup are the opportunities for collaborating with other innovative individuals and organisations for business growth, and the exciting projects! We love turning our passion for people and the environment into a reality.”

If you ever have the chance to chat to Maria or Jessica, you’ll know that their faces light up when they talk about entrepreneurship in Africa. These women believe that there’s potential and opportunity all around us, and we can’t help but agree!

“Africa is alive with people striving to create a livelihood for themselves and their families. We love being a social enterprise because of the social call and passion we’ve combined with our business strategy. The future of Africa depends on taking ownership, being accountable and finding ways to partner for the development of business and growth.”

Maria urges young South Africans to dare to risk, and to be resilient as they strive for their dream of owning their own organisations. 

“I would say to others – to think creatively and don’t expect everything to happen overnight. Many of the best business models take years and years to refine. We enjoy learning from others, as well as the process itself,  as we grow as a startup.”

Do you have any thoughts or questions about Maria, Jessica or The ReTrade Project? Make sure to drop them in the comments below! Also, head on over to to check out their new website and to keep up to date with their blog!


Karen DeAngelo

I am Maria's Mom and we are so pleased with her leadership and accomplishment in South Africa. Her love for South Africa is evident. May God bless her in her life and continue to be a leader in helping people work to improve their lives!

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