In Nairobi, Kenya’s capital city, over 500,000 tonnes of plastic waste is recorded in a place with a little over four million inhabitants. The figure for waste produced across the entire country is reportedly in millions, monthly. This is largely so because of the throw-away culture many plastic users have adopted as plastics are not only easy to come by but are cheaper and convenient to use.
Several attempts to get rid of plastics in Kenya have been met by resistance not only by the producers but by consumers who find plastic bags convenient and easy to use compared to paper bags.
Kenya did ban the use of plastic bags and other plastic products in 2017 as its major cities struggled to deal with the debris they were engulfed in. It was a decision that divided public opinion but whose fruits have been undeniable some years on. But it is difficult to completely fall on alternatives when the production of such alternatives cannot meet demand.
The Kenyan government may have challenges in its effort to control plastic waste but some entrepreneurs in the East African nation are providing solutions, albeit on a small scale.
One of such persons is Nzambi Matee, the founder of Gjenge Makers. The firm specializes in converting plastic waste into building materials. The building blocks she makes from plastic wastes are reportedly five times stronger than cement blocks.
She told Reuters that her factory processes waste that facilities “cannot process anymore, they cannot recycle. “That is what we get.” The factory produces about 1,500 blocks daily, in different sizes and colors, which is more than what some cement factories produce in Kenya. These include paving stones, paving slabs, and manhole covers.
The factory’s products are made from plastic that was originally used for milk and shampoo bottles, cereal and sandwich bags, buckets, and ropes. Since opening, Matee tells Reuters her factory has processed over 20 tons of waste.
The plastic waste is mixed with sand, heated and then compressed into bricks, which are sold at varying prices, depending on thickness and colour. Their common grey bricks cost 850 Kenyan shillings ($7.70) per square metre, for example, according to Reuters.
Matee decided to venture into a sector dominated by men after quitting her job as an engineer in Kenya’s oil industry. “I shut down my social life for a year, and put all my savings into this,” she said. “My friends were worried,” she said.
Her career path was also in protest of the failings of the Kenyan government in dealing with plastic waste. A materials engineer by training, she established her factory after developing a prototype of a machine that turns waste into blocks.
“It is absurd that we still have this problem of providing decent shelter – a basic human need,’ said Matee. ‘Plastic is a material that is misused and misunderstood. The potential is enormous, but it after life can be disastrous.”
The startup, which was founded in 2018, has so far employed some 110 people and hopes to add a much bigger manufacturing line that will triple her production capacity in the near future. She believes there is enormous potential in plastic waste
“It is absurd that we still have this problem of providing decent shelter – a basic human need,” said Matee, according to UNEP. “Plastic is a material that is misused and misunderstood. The potential is enormous, but it’s after life can be disastrous.”
In 2020, she emerged as one of the seven winners of the Young Earth Champions initiative instituted by the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP). The award provides seed funding and mentorship to promising environmentalists as they tackle the world’s most pressing challenges.
Matee wants young Kenyans and others worldwide to tackle environmental challenges in their small ways. The negative effect of plastic on our environment is huge, says Matee. “It’s up to us to make this reality better. Start with whatever local solution you can find and be consistent with it. The results will be amazing.”