“Build Alternatively, Build Affordably, Build Sustainably” – the motto of Gjenge Makers in Nairobi
Between 1950 and 2017 the world produced some 9200 million tonnes of plastic waste, of which only 2700 million tonnes (29%) was still in use in 2015. Some 4600 million tonnes (50%) had been disposed of as landfill and 900 million tonnes (10%) had been incinerated, while only 600 million tonnes (6%) had been recycled. While there are health hazards associated with the use and disposal of plastic waste, perhaps the greatest concern stems from its mismanagement, particularly in the poorer countries and the oceans of the world. Unlike glass, it is not 100% recyclable and takes some 400 years for it to degrade resulting in an estimated that 8.8 million tonnes ending up in the oceans each year through rivers, drainage channels, and dumping, killing both sea and wildlife. However, plastic also poses a serious problem to human health, particularly through the food we eat, the water we drink, the clothes we wear and, even, the air we breathe.
In Kenya, the capital, Nairobi produces about 2,400 tonnes of plastic waste a day, of which around 60% is collected but only 10% is recycled. The rest is dumped with the result that the rivers are being polluted and many roads are becoming impassable. To address this, a new start-up company, Gjenge Makers (gjenge.co.ke) has been founded. The company, which was launched in 2018, aims to
- Solve the waste pollution problem by recycling and upcycling plastic, providing alternative construction products that are beautiful, strong, and durable (SDG 9)
- Provide jobs for skilled and unskilled youth in Kenya and Africa (SDG 8)
- Promote a culture of recycling and upcycling in Kenya and Africa(SDG 12)
- Support the next generation of female engineering entrepreneurs (SDG 5).
Initially, it started as a waste collection business that sorted and sold material to other recycling companies but found it was collecting waste faster than the recycling companies could deal with it. In 2017, the founder, 29-year-old Material Science Enginee, Nzambi Matee, gave up her job as a data analyst, put her social life on hold, invested her life savings, and set up a small laboratory in the yard of her mother’s house. Here she began creating and testing paving slabs made from a combination of waste plastic and sand.
When she won a scholarship to participate in a social enterprise program at the University of Colorado in Boulder (USA) she took advantage of the opportunity to work in the university’s material science laboratories not just to test the sand to plastic ratios but to invent the machine to produce the pavings. So, on her return to Nairobi, she was able to establish her enterprise, which produces daily some1000-1500 differently colored and shaped paving slabs out of bottle tops, cooking oil containers, and the waste that cannot be processed further or recycled. The plastic waste is sourced from private households, whom they pay, from packing factories, or is bought from other recyclers. It is then mixed with sand at very high temperatures and compressed into plastic paving slabs that are 5-7 times stronger than concrete, have a melting point of over 3500C, and sell for an average of $7.70 per m2. So far, since 2018, they have recycled about 20 metric tonnes of waste, employed 112 people, and have plans for a new factory that will triple production.
The idea for the venture stemmed from Matee’s frustration with the municipal authorities in Kenya and their failure to deal with the problem of plastic waste in the country in general and Nairobi in particular. However, while researching the problem she became aware of the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). In particular, she found appealing goal no. 8. “Decent Work and Economic Growth” because of the ongoing high levels of unemployment and poverty, especially among younger people, in factor-driven economies like Kenya. Hence her venture is addressing not just a serious and important environmental issue (ecopreneurship), but is creating jobs and helping eradicate poverty (humane entrepreneurship), tackling a waste disposal problem that affects the health and well being of society (social entrepreneurship), and is innovating and contributing to the growth and development of the country (traditional entrepreneurship).
In 2020, Matee was recognised as one of seven winners of the “Young Champions of the Earth” award by the United Nations Environmental Programme (www.unep.org). The award provides seed funding and mentorship to promising environmentalists that are tackling the world’s most pressing challenges of which plastic waste clearly is one.
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