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

Africa’s cities may soon be less noisy and polluted, says Andrea Dijkstra, reporting on a new rent-to-buy electric motorbike taxi service in Nairobi.

Motorcycle taxis – known in Kenya as ‘bodabodas’ - are responsible for more than 50 per cent of CO2 emissions in the transport sector, explained Kimosop Chepkoit.

Chepkoit is the founder & CEO of Ecobodaa, a new start-up that offers professional riders the chance to swap their gas-guzzling motorbikes for affordable battery-powered alternatives.

He is passionate about cleaning up his capital city’s toxic air. ‘We think it’s better to start where we can have a maximum impact.

'Two-wheelers are also easy to electrify and don’t need such a capital expenditure [on] heavy infrastructure, compared to cars.’ 

While the electric motorbikes are more environmentally friendly, crucially they will also give bodaboda riders higher profits, according to the Kenyan entrepreneur.

That’s because users will have lower fuel expenses and will also save on servicing costs because electric motorbikes don’t require oil changes and are built with fewer moving parts.

This might lead to savings of as much as $3 per day, explained Chepkoit.

‘A saving of even $1 per day means a lot to the riders,’ he said. 

‘These are young people with families and dependents in rural areas.

'$1 is the difference between having milk for the kids and not be able to afford milk.’ 

The Kenyan company will start commercial activities this month when it launches its first 10 Ecobodaas in Kibera, the informal settlement in Nairobi where the start-up launches. 

Riders pay a deposit, which is 10 per cent of the base cost of the Ecobodaa.

Then, after paying an 18-month lease of $3.90 per day through the Kenyan electronic mobile money service M-Pesa, they become the registered owners of the motorcycle but not the batteries.

Motorbike leasing is a very common thing in East Africa, more so in Kenya and Uganda where more than 70 per cent of motorcycle sales are through the lease-to-own model.

Kenyan motorbike taxis go electric.jpg

The electric motorbikes will be among the first to compete with Nairobi’s 100,000-plus petrol-powered motorbike taxis. 

For $1, the bodaboda riders can swap the bike’s battery in less than two minutes for a fully charged one.

‘Right now, we have rented four locations in [Nairobi’s] Kibera and Kilimani areas, which we will use as swap stations once we launch. We plan to have 100 swap stations in Nairobi by end of 2021,’ explained the Ecobodaa CEO.

‘The prospected savings on fuel, oil and maintenance are definitely interesting,’ said 26-year-old bodaboda rider Jacob Sum about the Ecobodaa launch.

Sum has been working as a motortaxi rider for four years now and bought his own petrol-powered motorbike two years ago.

‘I often drive around 200 kilometres per day, which costs me around 530 Kenyan shillings [$4.80], while this would cost me with an Ecobodaa around three battery swaps of in total only $3.’

The bodaboda rider is a bit sceptical, though, about the battery range being only 60 to 75 kilometres.

‘Sometimes I bring clients from Nairobi to Naivasha which is 80kms go and 80kms back,’ he said.

‘I also use my bike to drive to my home village, which is 342km one way. For these rides, you need to swap your battery, but where?’

Based on GPS tracker information and interviews with 300 riders, Ecobodaa’s founder concluded that battery range wouldn’t be a problem for most drivers who, he said, tend to fuel up every 30km.

Ecobodaa is part of a growing number of electric motorbike start-ups that have sprung up across the region in the past two years.

They supply and manage the motorbike-taxi drivers who run the most common form of public transport in most cities.

Bodawerk and Zembo have started providing electric motorbikes in Uganda. Metro Africa Express (MAX) has launched electric motorcycles for the Nigerian market.

Ecobodaa and British start-up ARC Ride are active in Kenya.

While two companies, Ampersand and Safi, currently provide electric motorbikes in neighbouring Rwanda. 

When Rwanda’s president, Paul Kagame, announced last August that he wanted all of the country’s motorbikes to be electric as soon as possible, Ampersand’s waiting list exploded.

Rwanda’s first electric motorbike company now has about 7,000 drivers on a waiting list for its vehicles.

The problem is that it can deliver only 40 bikes by the end of March. 

In Kenya, Chepkoit noticed that there was a lack of electric motorcycles that would meet the tough riding conditions in Africa, and therefore designed one himself together with Steve Juma, his Ecobodaa co-founder and former classmate.

‘We manufacture in China and assemble in Nairobi,’ explained Chepkoit, who is an electrical and electronics engineer.

‘The Ecobodaa is designed for our African cities, and we intend to move into other East African cities after our successful launch in Nairobi.’ 

See, ecobodaa.bike