NAIROBI, March 11, 2020 – In Kenya’s capital city of Nairobi, an estimated 2,400 tons of solid waste is generated every day, 20% of which is in plastic form. Poor waste management, coupled with rising urban pressure, have heightened the risks of environmental degradation in the city of 4.4 million people.
Of the waste generated by the city, only 45% is recycled, reused or transformed into a form which can yield an economic or ecological benefit, a far cry from the 80% target set by the National Environment Management Authority.
Nzambi Matee, 29, is one of the change agents who are driving Nairobi’s—and Kenya’s— ability to realize the waste recovery target. She is the founder of Gjenge Makers Ltd., a social enterprise which uses plastics to develop alternative and more affordable building materials.
In 2020, Matee introduced her first product made from recycled waste plastic to the market: pavers, exterior flooring usually made of concrete or brick.
“I had seen this concept elsewhere in the world and thought that I could come and replicate the same at home,” Matee said. “In 2018 we had our first prototype and in 2019 we started the process of machine fabrication.”
explained Anne Muthoni, Programmes Coordinator of Mukuru Slums Development Project which trains an estimated 600 youth each year in technical skills.
“We had a challenge especially when it rained. The pavements would become very muddy,” Muthoni said. “Initially we were using gravel which was not ideal. We tried cement slabs which ended up cracking. Not until we tried the Gjenge recycled plastic slabs, which were pocket friendly, did we get a solution. Our pavements now are beautiful and durable.”
Matee sources raw material from both post-industrial, plastic waste from industries, and post-consumer, plastic waste from recyclers who aggregate waste disposed by consumers, Matee’s focus has always been to run a venture whose day-to-day operation dove tails with the eleventh sustainable development goal – promoting sustainable cities and communities.
“We make those pavers that you see in the Nairobi Central Business District’s drive ways, foot paths and sidewalks and the beauty is that instead of having waste plastics continue to clutter the environment, we convert it into an affordable building material,” she said.
Since her first product launch, Matee’s business has flourished, but it wasn’t easy to get the pavers to market. Matee remembers the struggle of being a woman breaking into a traditionally male construction industry, and the extra effort she had to make to help people understand the concept of using recycled materials. Now, like many small and medium size business ventures in Kenya, scaling operations stands out as one of the key barriers she faces.
“The challenge we face now is that the capacity that we have cannot meet the existing demand,” she said. “We would need larger premises, more machinery and more labor to meet the demand.”
Gjenge Makers Ltd is also working on increasing product offerings to include construction posts, plastic timber and building blocks, all made from recycled plastic waste, and geared to cement the company’s footprint in the market.
Matee views the creation of employment through Gjenge Makers Ltd as one of the measures through which the social enterprise completes the triple bottom line loop of planet, profits and people. She vouches for decent incomes and is committed to multi-skilling by designing jobs that enable young employees to perform two or more traditionally separate job functions as a way to enhance their socio-economic wellbeing.
“We have a staff size of 10; five full-time and another five on part time basis, who are between the ages of 21 and 30 years old,” she said. “The goal of Gjenge Makers Ltd is not only to create jobs, but more importantly, jobs with a decent income which allows employees to build on their competencies beyond manufacturing building materials.”
Abdu Muwonge, World Bank Senior Urban Specialist based in Nairobi, said Matee’s business of making pavers out of recycled plastic is at the cutting edge of the waste management hierarchy and the circular economy. And, while the company is not financed by the World Bank, it supports the building green and resilient cities, one of six priorities outlined in the Bank’s Next Generation Africa Climate Business Plan.
“We encourage partnerships with various stakeholders, including social enterprises to help the efforts to clean up the environment and mitigate climate change,” Muwonge said. “The circular economy is a proactive approach that calls for designing products to reduce waste, using products and materials for as long as possible and recycling end-of-life products back into the economy.”