Shwe Yamin Oo grew up along the Hmaw Wun creek, a tributary of the Yangon River in Yangon’s Kyauktan Township. There, she witnessed how people from the town regularly threw their trash directly into the river. “I felt pity, however, I was powerless to stop their behavior at the time,” she added.
A total of 10.5 million tons of municipal waste is generated every year in Myanmar, 40% of it coming from the country’s largest city, Yangon, according to data from the World Bank, as of May 2019. The same report estimates that just about 53% of that waste is collected and managed properly, due to several factors such as limited social consciousness of cleanliness, scarcity of containers along the streets, and inadequate street cleaning services. Due to all these factors, substantial quantities of waste are illegally dumped on the streets, which has caused occasional blockages of the city’s drainage systems, among other problems.
Waste management is usually a public service in Myanmar where the local municipal government is responsible for the waste collection, transport, and disposal, but pushcarts, tricycles, and small tippers also help to collect the trash in alleys and narrow streets, then transferring the waste to collection stations managed by the local municipal government. The final destination for most waste is in landfills, according to the World Bank report.
Once in the landfills, waste is disposed without enough environmental protections, which has contributed to groundwater and soil contamination, along with diseases for the nearby population. The World Bank highlights that legislation for municipal waste management is limited, and the country has not developed a waste catalog to help the population identify and separate the different types of waste.
As an answer to the fragmented and insufficient trash management system in Myanmar, computer science graduate and entrepreneur Shwe Yamin Oo, together with sustainable energy engineer Okka Phyo Maung, founded waste management and data analytics startup Recyglo in 2017.
The company has two business verticals. Recyglo’s business-to-consumer (B2C) application, named “Oh My Trash”, connects over 196 small junk shops scattered around seven major cities in Myanmar with users who want to sell their valuable waste like glass, cardboard, paper, metal, and plastic.
On the other side, the firm’s business-to-business (B2B) platform connects major companies that want to increase their recycling efforts with local waste management facilities, to transform trash into upcycled products such as glass bottles, books, or plastic products.
Recyglo also collects analytics data to inform companies about how much waste they have produced and the recycling efforts, while it also provides environmental impact assessment and extended producer responsibility (EPR) advising services.
The startup secured its first capital injection of USD 25,000 from local tech hub Phandeeyar in 2017, followed by a USD 150,000 investment from Norway-based Katapult Ocean in February 2019. The firm is headquartered in Yangon, and has offices in Mandalay and Myanmar’s capital, Naypyitaw.
“Initially, we did not have any revenue, some of our advisors even told us to change our company into a non-profit organization, or to find donors to support our work. However, we wanted to prove that we can achieve impact and profits at the same time. Fast forward to 2020, we reached an annual recurring revenue of USD 500,000,” Shwe Yamin Oo told KrASIA, adding that the firm is already profitable.
Despite falling short in reaching a USD 1 million revenue target in 2020, partly due to COVID-19, Recyglo maintains a USD 2 million revenue goal for 2021, according to the company’s recent annual report, said Shwe Yamin Oo.
She added that that Recyglo already occupies about 10% of Myanmar’s private waste management market. “While there are other Japanese companies that are working on industrial waste, they charge 10 times more.” Among its portfolio of over 100 clients, the firm counts companies such as PricewaterhouseCoopers, KBZ Bank, and Telenor.
Recyglo has also opened a plastic recycling factory in Yangon in June 2020. The facility is used to turn used plastics into different types of lumber, to be later used in furniture manufacturing or as construction materials. The factory is set to serve over 10 million residents in Yangon and Mandalay, according to the founder.
Becoming a regional leader by 2024
Recyglo targets other Southeast Asian markets where waste prevention and recycling rates are still “very low,” according to Shwe Yamin Oo. According to a report conducted by the United Nations Environment Program (UNEP) in 2017, less than 50% of the waste is recycled in countries like Brunei, Cambodia, Laos, and Indonesia, while in countries such as Malaysia, Myanmar, the Philippines, Thailand, and Vietnam, only a limited amount of paper, metal, plastic, and e-waste is recycled.
After setting offices in Singapore in November 2017, and Malaysia in November 2019, Recyglo has also partnered with the Surabaya Access Pad, a program that connects firms with local stakeholders in the waste management sector in Indonesia. Meanwhile, in Cambodia, the firm is eyeing a potential investment in a local waste management startup, the name of which has not been revealed.
The Yangon-based startup faces competition in the region by an array of other startups such as Indonesia-based trash tech Gringgo, Malaysia-based smart reverse vending machine startup Klean, Singapore-headquartered biotech startup RWDC Industries, and Vietnam-based upcycling startup Upp!
“People always ask me why Recyglo has to grow as fast as it can, because they are worried that a rapid growth might be risky for businesses. However, in Myanmar, our business model and services could be copied easily because of the lack of intellectual property rights (IP). That’s why we have to grow faster to fend off our competitors,” Shwe Yamin Oo said.
Recyglo targets to close a USD 900,000 Series A fundraising round in the third quarter of the year. “Our vision is to become one of the top three waste management startups in the region by 2024,” Shwe Yamin Oo said.
This article is part of KrASIA’s “Startup Stories” series, where the writers of KrASIA speak with founders of tech companies in South and Southeast Asia.