This low-cost zero-waste grocery bus in South Africa tackles food insecurity

Sanele Msibi assists a customer inside the Skhaftin bus in Johannesburg, South Africa. May 18, 2021.

Thomson Reuters Foundation / Kim Harrisberg

By Kim Harrisberg

JOHANNESBURG, May 24 (Thomson Reuters Foundation) – When Sidney Beukes got his bus driver’s license, he never imagined driving a 40-year-old school bus that has been turned into a mobile grocery store serving low-income residents of Johannesburg.

The bus is not easy to drive: there is no power steering and it works. But Beukes said every time a customer comes on board to buy groceries he couldn’t afford in stores, he’s reminded why he wouldn’t want to drive anything else.

“We’re there for them, when people are stuck with no food and it’s been a rough month … it makes me happy to see them happy,” said Beukes, 24, standing next to the shiny white bus in the South African city. working-class district of Bertrams.

The Skhaftin bus – named after a local slang word meaning lunchbox – was born at the start of the coronavirus pandemic, when activist Ilka Stein took to social media for social entrepreneurs to brainstorm ideas to help the community.

Last year’s strict lockdown, which began in March, had a devastating impact on millions of South Africans.

Members of the Skhaftin Bus Team, consisting of Ilka Stein, Sanele Msibi and Sidney Beukes, pose for a photo in front of the food bus in Johannesburg, South Africa. May 18, 2021.
Image: Thomson Reuters Foundation / Kim Harrisberg

By April 2020, 3 million people had lost their jobs and one in five suffered from hunger, according to a university survey.

In the fourth quarter of last year, government statistics showed a record unemployment rate of 32.5 percent, meaning 7.2 million people were out of work.

“I knew I wanted to look for sustainable solutions around food,” said Stein, from his offices at Victoria Yards, a former laundry factory in downtown Johannesburg that now houses art studios, community vegetable gardens and a clinic.

The bus seats were removed to make room for cabinets and shelves to stack fresh vegetables, beans, spices and grains. In January of this year, 90 days after Stein bought the old bus, it was reborn as a mobile grocery store.

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Three days a week, buses park in different areas of the city where the team explains to customers what the project aims to achieve, encouraging buyers to bring their own containers to reduce plastic waste.

“I have times where I look at this old school bus born out of a crazy idea and think: how did we get there?” she said.

Skhaftin 3.pngSidney Beukes, the driver of the Skhaftin bus, poses for a photo in Johannesburg, South Africa. May 18, 2021. Thomson Reuters
Image: Thomson Reuters Foundation / Kim Harrisberg

Make the change

Twelve people responded to Stein’s social media call in June of last year and joined her in a brainstorming session that would last nine months.

“We felt like we were part of the change in our community,” said Sanele Msibi, 34, who responded to Stein’s post after losing her job at a nursery during the lockdown and ended up becoming the coordinator of the bus.

Hunger is a pressing problem in the city center where many families are made up of unemployed migrant workers and refugees crammed into rooms and living hand to hand.

Pollution is another challenge, with residents complaining about inadequate waste disposal and collection which can lead to piles of trash on the streets and in parks.

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In the wealthier northern suburb of Johannesburg, stores like The Unwrapped Co. are pioneering zero waste consumerism, encouraging shoppers to reuse jars and glass containers when shopping for food in bulk.

Stein took his brainstorming team to the store during the lockdown, and they discussed why the concept didn’t exist in low-income areas.

They realized that the first priority was to provide people with healthy and affordable food and that the waste reduction conversation would follow this transaction.

“People keep getting on the bus and wondering: who came up with this? It was an idea the community really needed, ”Msibi said, after showing a customer the foods on offer.

Skhaftin 4.pngConsultant and host Ilka Stein poses for a photo inside the Skhaftin food bus in Johannesburg, South Africa. May 18, 2021.
Image: Thomson Reuters Foundation / Kim Harrisberg

Wherever it is needed

Desiree Ngcukana said she visits the Skhaftin every week because it is “fresh, clean and affordable”.

The second-hand clothes seller said it helped her save money as she didn’t have to go to a mall to stock up on groceries.

“If you have 50 rand here it goes a lot further than in the stores, I’m not going to go to bed hungry,” she said.

Msibi’s sister, Thuli, got on the bus to buy cereals.

“I’m getting everything I need here now, saving up to R500 ($ 36) per month on groceries,” she says.

But some people are still reluctant to get on the bus, saying it “seems too good to them,” Stein said.

“It broke my heart,” said Stein, who hopes that over time the community will realize that the bus is open to everyone, even if they only have a few rand in their pockets.

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For now, Stein is funding Skhaftin through his consulting firm, but hopes that it will soon become self-sustaining.

The city applauded his efforts.

“The city of Johannesburg welcomes, encourages and supports any initiative aimed at alleviating and alleviating food insecurity,” said Nthatisi Modingoane, the city’s spokesperson, in comments sent via email.

He added that the city was supporting small farmers by providing cold stores, electricity, water, seeds, farm equipment and training programs to fight hunger.

Stein hopes others will copy his idea and take it to schools, townships and villages.

“I don’t want to build an empire. I want imitators to take this concept wherever it’s needed,” she said.


* Old school bus converted into a low-cost grocery store

* The Lockdown initiative aims to fight hunger in the city center

* Customers are encouraged to reuse containers and reduce waste

Reporting by Kim @KimHarrisberg; Edited by Helen Popper. Please mention the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, which covers the lives of people around the world who struggle to live freely or fairly. Visit http://news.trust.org)


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