Kenyan Youth Bags UN Award for Recycling Plastic to Building Materials

Nzambi Matee

Nzambi Matee is still basking in the warmth of the latest feather in her cap. The 28-year-old materials engineer was recently crowned among the seven global winners in the Young Champions of the Earth 2020 organised by the UN Environment Programme (Unep).

This was courtesy of her company – Gjenge Makers – which manufactures affordable, beautiful and sustainable building materials such as paving tiles from recycled plastic waste.

The win in the Unep challenge came with a seed money of Sh1 million to support expansion of her venture.

The Young Champions challenge fetes young people between ages 18 and 30 who have demonstrated strong potential to create a positive environmental impact.

In an exclusive interview with Africa Sustainability Matters, Nzambi shares more about her ecofriendly venture as well as future prospects.

Here are the excerpts:

Congratulations. What does this award mean to you?

For sure it is a huge boost to our morale and a vote of confidence in what we do. In addition, it has offered us good exposure and publicity, meaning we now have to double down on our effort and impact as many people as possible.

This recognition has also put us closer to realising our dream of partnering with UN in scaling our work.

Tell us a little bit about your venture and the nuts and bolts of building with plastic waste

Gjenge Makers is a social enterprise whose aim is to address the need for sustainable and affordable alternative construction materials in Kenya and the continent at large. Our vision is majorly aligned with four sustainable development goals (SDGs) numbers – eight (decent work and economic growth), nine (industry, innovation and infrastructure), 11 (sustainable cities and communities) and goal 13 (climate action). We produce paving blocks/road pavers, paving tiles and manhole covers from recycled plastics. The eco-friendly materials are made of a composite of recycled waste plastic and sand.

What inspired you to move into this space?

Initially, we started as a plastic waste collecting company where we would collect, sort and sell plastics to recyclers. But then we realised that there was still so much waste left around even after selling to recyclers. Simply put, there was more plastic generated than what recyclers could take up. That’s how we decided to venture into the construction space with repurposed plastic waste.

Fabrication machine/ Photo source: Gjenge

Paint for us a picture of the journey

In 2018, we started doing research and development (R&D) – finding out the types of plastic wastes available and their structural makeup alongside conducting market surveys that pointed us to construction.

A year later, we moved into the second phase, which involved capital accumulation, including establishing a production line and machine fabrication. We knew if we were to have a bigger impact, we needed machines for mass production.

Currently, we outsource plastic collection services, cleaning and sorting from suppliers based in Nairobi’s informal settlements such as Mukuru kwa Njenga, Mukuru kwa Yaba and Kariobangi South.

Additionally, we have opened another supply stream after partnering with packaging companies to supply us with used plastic. In Nairobi, for instance, we have a deal with Guala Closures who manufacture bottle tops for beverage and pharmaceutical industries.

Right now we can produce about 1000 – 1500 paving bricks a day, equivalent to recycling an average of 500kg of plastics waste daily.

According to Kenya Association of Manufacturers, about 22,000 tonnes of plastic bottle waste is generated in Kenya per year. How many tonnes have you recycled?

We have recycled approximately 20 tonnes so far. It’s important to point out that we spend the first two years researching and prototyping.

Our target is to recycle 50-100 tonnes this year.

Paving blocks at Gjenge in different colors/ photo by Gjenge

What is the value proposition for your recycled materials?

We have a number of selling points. To begin with, our paving bricks are stronger – able to handle three times more weight and pressure compared to concrete. Our 50mm brick can carry up to 150 newtons per square millimetre (n/mm2), whereas that of concrete can only carry 30 -50 N/mm2.

Also, our bricks are almost half the weight of a traditional brick. So our materials are not only stronger but lighter, meaning during transportation our costs are relatively lower and installation is much faster.

More importantly, we have very competitive prices compared to market rates.

Lastly, our home floor tiles come in a wide range of colors. Nowadays most homeowners are into bold colours, something we can easily offer.

Beyond producing paving blocks, paving tiles and manhole covers, do you plan to add other materials to you portfolio?

Indeed. Our vision is to be market leaders in alternative building products that are not only affordable but sustainable. We are now looking to venture into other waste materials such as rubble, and how best we can utilise them as far as urban landscaping is concerned.

One of your key objectives is jobs creation. Update us.

From our plastic collection, cleaning and sorting, we have provided 112 direct jobs to youth and women.

In our production line, we have 10 employees.

Has Covid-19 interrupted your operations and market?

In the early days of Covid-19, we were forced to slash our production by half since some of our staff had to work from home. This also meant that the amount of plastic we were recycling narrowed by half.

Our market was initially affected badly since most construction companies who are our main consumers closed down. We had to shift our model and sell directly to home owners and property developers – a strategy that has sustained us throughout this challenging period and kept us afloat.

On a bright note, we recently resumed our full production at the site. However, plastic collection has yet to fully resume.

Challenges?

To start with, being a startup with limited equipment, our production is still slow and sometimes not able to meet market demand. There is actually more demand than production, which is a good thing if you think of it.

Our goal is to modernise our production line with acquisition of cutting-edge technology, something that will allow us to scale and expand our workforce.

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