Insight

Engineers Saving The Environment One Block At A Time

Kenyan engineers have taken advantage of the ever growing plastic waste to create employment while conserving the environment. They are making paving blocks from recycled plastic and their products are becoming popular.

Kenya, like many other developing countries is suffering the consequences of plastic waste. It has negatively impacted the environment, polluting water and land. When plastic is burnet it affects the quality of air.

According to the United Nation’s Environmental Programme (UNEP), globally, 1 million plastic drinking bottles are purchased every minute, while up to 5 trillion single-use plastic bags are used annually.

The Government of Kenya banned single use plastic bags on August 28, 2017. President Uhuru Kenyatta then issued a directive on 2019’s World Environment Day banning single use plastics in protected areas. This includes National Parks, beaches, forests and conservation areas.

This means visitors are not allowed to carry plastic water bottles, cups, disposable plates, cutlery, or straws into protected areas. The ban come into effect on 5 June 2020.

The ban on single use plastic bags has reduced the usage but they are still available as explained in our earlier article. Single Use Plastic Bags Still Available Years After The Ban

Tackling the menace

There are many organisations, youth and women groups that are trying to provide a solution to the plastic waste problem. RoGGKenya spoke to Nzambi Matee, founder of Gjenge Makers

Gjenge is derived from a Kiswahili word Jijenge which means ‘build yourself’.

According to Matee, she teamed up with four other youthful Kenyan engineers to promote environmental conservation. In their small way, they are trying to tackle the plastic waste menace by making paving blocks from recycled single use plastics.

The engineers, who are between 22 – 30 years old graduated from various Kenyan universities in Materials Science Engineering, Mechanical Engineering, Production Engineering and Petroleum Engineering.

The five engineers first met at the Gearbox, a Nairobi based initiative that helps improving the ecosystem by sharing their knowledge and sharing their flexible working space.

The facility that is based in Industrial Area, a part of Nairobi that is mostly occupied by industries, supports upcoming engineers. They share prototyping facilities, training in manufacturing, fabrication and design as well as mentorship, investment opportunities and community development.

The engineers who were jobless at that time, learnt ways of putting their knowledge to use by creating their own outfits. This has helped in employing them and others using their own innovations as they conserve the environment.

A space in a residential home covered with paving blocks made of recycled plastics. Picture: Duncan Mboya

Out of their creativity they started making the bricks in 2020 after developing and actualizing the idea that started in 2017.

“We were certified by the Kenya Bureau of Standards in January 2020 after a long wait and straight away moved to action,” Nzambi Matee, founder of Gjenge Makers says.

She explains that they make concrete pavement blocks from plastic pellet wastes, mixed with sand and colour, depending on the order.

Reducing toxic emissions

Matee says that using the pellets to make pavement blocks that would have otherwise been burnt, producing harmful smoke, they are saving our respiratory system.

Matee, a materials science engineer recalls when she first had the idea in 2017, but picked up in 2018 when they started a demonstration production in their plant.

She explains that they opted to start Gjenge Makers after realizing that there were alot of plastic waste that was coming from companies that manufacture plastic water tanks in the city.

Fortunately, she got a scholarship to study Social Entrepreneurship at the Watson Institute in Boulder, Colorado in the United States of America where she learnt how to transform plastic pellets into concrete paving blocks.

“I came back and discussed the idea with my colleague Hanington Ochieng, a mechanical engineer and lead technician, and embarked on fabricating a prototype concrete paving blocks machine, in earnest, courtesy of the seed money from Watson Institute” she adds.

Unmet demand

The fabricated machine, she explained, is cheaper compared to importing new ones.

Matee added that they started making blocks in late 2018. They then opened their workshop in Nairobi’s industrial area in 2019 as they get their supplies from Dandora, Kariobangi, Ruai and Njiru dumping spots in the outskirts of Nairobi.

To date, Gjenge Makers roll out 1,000 – 1,500 concrete paving blocks on a daily basis.

An incomplete coverage of a pedestrian path with paving blocks. Picture :Duncan Mboya

“We picked up slowly with fewer clients but with time, after many people came to know about what we are doing, the demand has been higher than supply,” said Matee.

They get plastic pellets on a weekly basis from five Nairobi based plastic companies that specialize in manufacturing plastic water tanks and containers.

“We have 32 clients that have ordered ordered our concrete blocks but due to low supply we are forced to spread out how to supply them due to low production,” she said. Put in direct speech

Lack of capital

She attributes low production to the lack of capital and a bigger space for their operations.

“We have unsuccessfully tried to acquire a bank loan using our machinery as collateral. The banks we approached have refused saying that they cannot accept machines as collateral to the loan,” she reveals.

Matee explains that the banking institutions argue that it is not easy to resale the machines if they default on payments.

The group also applied for a loan from the government’s Youth Enterprise Development Fund, an initiative that was started to empower youths in starting income generating activities. They are yet to know if they qualified or not.

Matee adds that they are currently in talks with the State Department of Urban Development. It’s a subdivision of the Ministry of Transport, Infrastructure, Housing and Urban Development.

She says the department has already prequalified them. They are now in the list of possible suppliers incase their products are needed.

“We are hoping that this engagement will enable us to meet our expectation of doubling our production.

Creating employment

Gjenge Makers, besides employing five engineers, also engage three engineers on contract basis and work indirectly with 112 youth who are mainly in the collection and installation department.

“In essence we have met three of our goals namely environmental conservation, creation of employment and developing a competitive brand in the market,” said Matee.

The UNEP in December 2020 named Matee, the firm’s founder as a Young Champion of the Earth. The award is their leading initiative to engage youth in tackling environmental challenges. According to them, the award provides seed funding and mentorship to promising environmentalists.

Matee urges the young people to develop ideas and start their own firms, starting small and create employment. She however warns that those keen on starting up should be patient, as it takes time to pick up and be accepted by clients.

Matee urges the government to invest in research and development to enable scientists to develop solutions locally instead of importing ready-made products.

The engineer reveals that Gjenge makers are not yet profitable, but hope to be stable in the near future, after increasing their production capacity that is currently low.

Matee is optimistic that they will get financing to be able to produce more.

What Journalists should do?

1. Visit knowledge generating hubs like Gearbox and iHub in Nairobi to unearth more stories on innovations that stand to make changes in the country.

2. Check the national budget to find out how much is allocated to the National Youth Fund and how many small scale businesses have benefited.

3. Highlight stories of small organisations that are working towards environmental conservation.

4. Talk to big organisations and government ministries that are involved in environmental conservation like UNEP and the National Environment Management Authority (NEMA), to get information and data.

5. Check our LIST OF EXPERTS for this and other topics.

 

 

 

 

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