Kenya's recycling queen

By Zachary Ochieng May 06, 2021
Nzambi poses with one of the recycled plastic blocks. Nzambi poses with one of the recycled plastic blocks.

The enterprising young businesswoman turning Nairobi’s plastic waste into environmentally friendly building materials. By Zachary Ochieng in Nairobi.

Above the din of roaring factory machines, I am greeted with a cheery ‘karibu’ (welcome) by Nzambi Matee.

Wearing a blue overall, and with a disarming smile, the 29-year-old ushers me into her sweltering office in Nairobi’s Industrial Area, where Matee’s construction supplies firm, Gjenge Makers, is based.

An environmentalist at heart, Matee quit her job as a data analyst at an oil company in 2016, after growing increasingly disheartened about the amount of plastic rubbish in her hometown.

‘I saw a lot of plastic waste lying around and that got me worried. I decided to use my expertise to make a contribution towards eradicating this menace,’ said Matee.

Together with a few like-minded individuals, she founded a plastics collection company that would sort and sell plastic waste to other recycling companies.

The idea was buoyed by a competition sponsored by the Kenya Climate Innovation Centre, which offered $750 to the company that collected the most plastic rubbish.

Matee and her group developed a mobile app that saw them collect tons of plastic waste and emerge winners, but they soon ran into headwinds.

With her team collecting the waste faster than local recycling companies could take it, she began thinking up alternative uses for the discarded drinks bottles and came up with a new idea: to make building material from plastic rubbish.

She spent the next year refining her idea, while studying social enterprise at the US-based Waston Institute, and upon her return to Nairobi in 2018, started research and development on the eco-friendly paving blocks and manhole covers.

Matee aims to promote recycling and upcycling in Kenya and Africa, and provide job opportunities for skilled and unskilled youth and women in Kenya’s bourgeoning engineering sector.

Nzambi, second left, with her colleagues in the factory.jpg

Her team collects waste plastics from the streets of Nairobi, processes them, and mixes the recycled plastic with sand to form a mixture, which is then molded into durable, lightweight paving blocks.

Gjenge’s bricks come in an array of colours, from traditional terracotta blocks to eye-catching blues and greens.

Tested to hold twice the weight of concrete blocks and up to 30 per cent cheaper, they’ve proved popular with residents and businesses in Kenya, with the company projected to break even later this year.

With four full-time and six part-time engineers, the company – which won last year’s UNEP Young Champions of the Earth Award – currently produces around 1,500 bricks per day. But it hopes to triple capacity this year to meet increased demand and create more jobs.

Plans are already afoot to sell recycled blocks in other countries within the East African Community, as well in Nigeria, where local suppliers have expressed interest in Gjenge’s products.

Matee has fostered partnerships with various organisations in order to help ramp up production, including the Kenya Climate Innovation Centre, Alquity Investment Management, America’s Watson Institute, Make-IT in Africa, and the iLab research and development unit at Nairobi’s Strathmore University.

The Kenyan businesswoman is confident that her team has what it takes, adding: ‘We are extremely excited to have recycled more than 2,000 tons of waste over the last two years and won five awards, while creating employment for the youth.’

Visit gjenge.co.ke.

Gjenge engineers at work.jpg