A staggering 120 billion barrels of black gold are claimed to lie untapped beneath the semi-desert wilderness that straddles the Namibia-Botswana frontier. It’s been heralded as a get-out-of-poverty-quick card for these small, underdeveloped nations. But as exploration licenses begin to be issued, questions are being raised over how much oil really lies under the southern African sands, and what impact trying to find it could have on the wildlife, the half-a-billion safari industry and local farming communities alike. By Britt Collins.

The Liberian president has been forced to launch a special presidential task force to clean up Liberia’s filth-strewn cities.

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

The deaths of around 350 elephants in Botswana’s swampy Okavango Delta region remain a mystery almost six months after large groups of the giant mammals started being found dead with their ivory still intact.

On September 21, scientists reported to the public that cyanobacterial neurotoxic – a water-based toxin also known as blue-green algae – was the cause of deaths, with the delay in diagnosis being blamed on the Covid-19 outbreak and subsequent lockdown hampering the investigation.

But it is not clear why the algae has suddenly become a problem in the delta.

Before September 21, suspicions were raised that the giant mammals were being deliberately poisoned in a country that has raised concern about its growing population of elephants and the increasing problem of human-wildlife conflict.

Botswana is home to the world’s largest elephant population, with around 130,000 individuals.

Under President Mokgweetsi Masisi, Botswana lifted the five-year trophy hunting ban introduced by former president Ian Khama, and auctioned off hunting packages in order to control the alleged over-population of elephants. (The hunting season coincided with the mysterious deaths of elephants in the Okavango Delta.)

After elephant carcasses were spotted dotting the floodplains, a decision was taken following a ‘high level meeting’ by several ministries to dispatch a multi-disciplinary team comprising veterinary epidemiologists, pathologists and a biologist to the affected area.

Samples were sent to laboratories in Canada, the US, South Africa and Zimbabwe, and a lot of theories were eliminated, including deliberate poisoning and the presence of anthrax in the soil.

Principal veterinary officer from the department of wildlife and national parks Dr Mmadi Reuben said they established that scavengers like vultures and hyenas who had possibly been feasting on carcasses later showed ‘clear signs of neurological symptoms’.  

While cyanobacterial neurotoxic has been found to be the killer toxin, Reuben said there were still other questions remaining to be answered including: why only elephants were affected and why only those in specific areas.

Climate change has been cited by scientists as one of the possible causes for the algae growth.

Heat is a key driver in the growth of cyanobacterial blooms, and water temperatures in southern Africa are rising at twice the global average.