Kenyan girl has developed a startup that is potentially a gold mine

    06 Sep 2021

    An energetic enthusiast from Kenya has developed a unique formulation of extra strong bricks and paving stones. An extraordinary girl from an African country managed to develop a mortar composition for paving stones (paving slabs), bricks and plastic utility hole covers. Nzambi Mati created a material 5-7 times stronger than concrete and even received a UN prize, Tuko reports.

    Matee worked for several years as an engineer in one of Kenya’s oil companies, but in 2017 she decided to quit to start her own company, Gjenge Makers, and to develop a new method of creating paving stones. With an excellent understanding of materials science and being resourceful, she spent some time selecting components, their quality and quantity, before making prototypes. In the backyard of her parents’ house, Nzambi, along with several friends, conducted experiments with different types of plastic and sand, changing the ratio and size of the crushed fractions.

    The mountains of plastic brought by the waters of the Indian Ocean have inspired the inventor to develop of a practical and helpful way for the country to tackle pollution.

    Nzambi nevertheless took plastic as a basis, which is absolutely incorrectly disposed of, because it can be reused, which will allow cleaning landfills and all the earth from material that has not decomposed for centuries. “Plastic is a material that is misused and misunderstood. The potential is huge, but its ‘life’ after use can really be a disaster if not taken action,” said Nzambi Mati.

    Nzambi’s invention was recognized as the best on the African continent by UNEP

    Thanks to her initiative, Nzambi Matee, after the first research, became the winner of the competition on the African continent Earth, held within the framework of the United Nations Environmental Protection Coordination Program (UNEP). The First Prize “provides seed funding and mentorship to forward-looking environmentalists addressing the world’s most pressing problems.” From all over the world, only seven people under the age of 30 are selected annually, which further emphasizes the outstanding abilities of the girl.

    UN Environment Programme Young Champions of the Earth Prize honors youth who dedicate their lives to a healthier, more sustainable planet. Speaking about the award, the entrepreneur stated it was a huge motivation for her young company. “Winning the Young Champions of the Earth award is a huge motivation booster for us as a team. It’s been a long three-year journey, and so this was like someone saying, ‘I see what you are doing, and I appreciate that.” “And with this platform, we are looking to see how we can get onboard partners to scale this solution not just in Kenya, but the whole of Africa, just to start,” said Matee.

    The victory earned her a scholarship to study social entrepreneurship in the United States. During her stay, the girl got the opportunity to study new technologies and do research in the laboratories of the University of Colorado at Boulder. It was there that she perfected her method and learned how to design equipment for the production of paving stones and bricks.

    Returning home in 2018, Matee started her own company, Gjenge Makers, dedicated to making sustainable, alternative, and affordable building products. The girl said that she receives some of the plastic waste from packaging factories for free; she buys some types of plastic from garbage processing plants or people who collect the necessary plastic on the roadside or the coast.

    The correct ratio of the three types of plastics and sand makes it possible to make a durable building material practically from rubbish.

    Recycled raw materials are used, which is a combination of three types of plastics:

    * high-density polyethylene (milk bottles, cans with cleaning, detergents, chemicals, etc.);

    * low-density polyethylene (bags, bags, awnings, geofiber);

    * polypropylene (ropes, lids, buckets, disposable dishes).

    Ordinary sand is added to the shredded plastic, then it is sent to the extruder, which mixes all the components at very high temperatures, and then the material is molded into a press.

    Facing bricks and paving slabs come in a variety of sizes, shapes, and colors.

    After that, the resulting products, the strength of which is 5-7 times higher than the strength of concrete, can be used for laying sidewalks, building social housing, as sewer covers, etc.

    The innovative material has been adapted for use in asphalt pavers, making it easier to cover dirt roads at Mukuru Skills Training Center, schoolyards, public sidewalks, and private backyards.

    Particularly durable and colorful paving slabs will be helpful both for urban needs and in a private household.

    During the one and a half years of its existence, Gjenge Makers ltd has recycled more than 20 tons of plastic waste. Thanks to the startup, the caring girl managed to create not only an innovative building material, the cost of which is much lower than any other ($7.7 per 1 square m of canvas) but also to organize 112 workplaces for low-skilled populations, including waste collectors, women, and youth.

    Gjenge Makers founded in 2018, obtains the waste for free for recycling into paving blocks, paving tiles, and maintenance hole covers. The company produces between 1,000 and 1,500 paving bricks daily and has recycled more than 20 metric tons of plastic waste.

    After getting tired of the plastic nuisance in Kenyan towns and villages, Matee felt enough was enough and swung into action. In a video shared by the UN, Matee talked about what motivated her to start Gjenge Makers, a social enterprise whose aim is to address the need for sustainable and affordable alternative construction materials. “For me, I was just tired of being on the sidelines of seeing plastic. I really jumped in, off a cliff without a parachute. I was building it as I was falling down but isn’t that how great things are done? So act for nature,” Matee said.

    Gjenge Makers converts plastic waste into building products, which in turn contributes towards solving the Kenyan problem and a global one. “Here in Nairobi, we generate about 500 metric tons of plastic waste every single day, and only a fraction of that is recycled. We decided what more can we do instead of sitting in the sidelines and complaining. Essentially, companies have to pay to dispose of the waste, so we solved their problem.”

    Matee said she is looking forward to tripling the amount by the end of 2022. “From the plastic waste we get from factories, we mix with sand as the plastic is like the binder. We have three machines. The extruder does the mixing of plastic waste with sand at very high temperatures. And then the press compresses it. So, therefore, we brick ends up having a stronger compression strength.”

    The 29-year-old entrepreneur said she hopes to impact and motivate other people and her peers to do similar things in different places. From paving blocks, her next focus is to make actual building blocks.

    Gjenge Makers uses plastic waste that can’t be processed anymore and would have otherwise been dumped, causing damage to the environment. The firm is based in Nairobi, Kenya, where plastic waste pollution has become a severe problem. A study supported by the National Environmental Management Agency (NEMA) found that more than 50% of cattle near urban areas in Kenya had plastic in their stomachs. To combat this issue, the Kenyan government outlawed the use of plastic bags in 2017, and imposed a ban on all single-use plastic in protected natural areas last year. However, these bans only address the issue of consumer single-use plastic. Commercial waste is still a deep-seated problem within the country.

    Matee told reporters she was “tired of being on the sidelines,” and decided to create a solution of her own for commercial plastic waste. With a career in materials engineering, she was able to design a brick made of recycled plastic and sand, compressed and heated to create a strong and sustainable alternative to concrete. The fibrous structure of the plastic makes it not only more lightweight but also less brittle than concrete.

    “Our product is almost five to seven times stronger than concrete,” Matee told Reuters about the current line of Gjenge Makers pavers and bricks. While she purchases some plastic from recycling companies, she also receives free shipments of plastic waste from local packaging factories. Currently, the Gjenge Makers factory can produce up to 1,500 bricks each day, according to Reuters.

    The company offers pavers for residential and commercial uses. The heavy-duty 60 mm paver is strong enough to be used for parking lots and roads, while the 30 mm light-duty paver can be used for household patios and walkways. The light-duty paver is twice the strength of concrete and comes in a variety of colors.

    The factory is only in its beginning stages, but it has already recycled 20 tons of plastic since 2017 and created 120 jobs in Nairobi. In addition, Gjenge bricks are also one of the more affordable options on the market. They cost approximately $7.70 per square meter instead of $98 per square yard for concrete produced in the U.S.

    However, it hasn’t been an easy road. Matee says about the founding of her company, “I jumped in, off a cliff without even a parachute. I was building it as I was falling down. But isn’t that how great things are done?”

    According to the World Bank Group, Kenya’s capital, Nairobi, generates an estimated 2,400 tons of solid waste daily, 20% of which is in plastic form. Poor waste management, coupled with rising urban pressure, has heightened the risks of environmental degradation in the city of  4.4 million people.

    Of the waste generated by the city, only 45% is reycled, reused, or transformed into a form that can yield an economic or ecological benefit, a far cry from the 80% target set by the National Environment Management Authority.

    Matee is one of the change agents driving Nairobi’s – and Kenya’s – ability to realize the waste recovery target. A woman-led social impact venture is helping Nairobi make strides towards its waste recovery target of 80% through manufacturing waste plastic-based alternative 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.”

    Products from Gjenge Makers Ltd are transforming the lives of some of Nairobi’s most vulnerable people, 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 of 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 driveways, footpaths 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 the 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 critical 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 employment creation through Gjenge Makers Ltd as one of the measures through which the social enterprise completes the triple bottom line loop of the 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 a 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 World Bank does not finance the company, it supports the building of 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.”

    With entrepreneurs like Matee, there is a beacon of hope for the worldwide plastic pollution crisis.

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