A Moment in my Life 

I am on my evening commute. I must have taken a nap for at-least 30 minutes. I wake up to a dead slow gridlock. It is not normal for the heat to be turned up. “Perhaps it’s the bus’ occupants that are all worked up.” I thought to myself. I can’t help but notice the number of school buses and vans. It was probably five o’clock. “A bit too early for my commute…” I think to myself. Then something happens that makes me want to be stuck in traffic a little longer. A student opens up the school bus window and throws out a bunch of candy wrappers. This act triggers a set of reflexes . Almost simultaneously, another occupant seated across the aisle  throws his empty water bottle out of the window. I am alarmed by this and I’m literally dying to comment but simultaneously a water vendor walks in the traffic-stalled Matatu. A few people purchase a bottle of water each and take quick sips while hurriedly looking for 20 bob (20 Kenyan shillings) to pay off the vendor. The traffic seems to have opened up. I hear long, impatient honks coming from all around. As the traffic starts moving, we can see the evidence of our satisfaction and impatience protest at the same time, patches of litter strewn all over the place. I turn to speak to my immediate neighbor but she seems to be trying to take a nap.

The plastic ban conversation

Early in 2017, the Ministry of Environment passed a ‘controversial’ law which banned the use of plastic bags in the Country. It was a tier 3 intervention, specifically  targeting retailers. We have seen a responsive mobilization around the sector where retailers, fresh food vendors and supermarket chains find an alternative to plastic bags; the most notable being paper bags.

Say I walk into a fast food restaurant or a kibanda. I will get my chapati and chips wrapped in a newsprint paper. Now, what follows in the worrying part. I will either have it disposed of into my regular waste disposal system or, since it’s paper, more biomass to light up my jiko. The same applies to the alternative carrier bags that supermarkets are using to make a killing by selling them, albeit forcefully, to their consumers.

Are consumers learning why the plastic bag ban was effected? Well, this is what we are looking to measure.

This takes me back to my work with the OpenIDEO Nairobi Chapter. 2017 was a busy year in Kenya. We had a convergence of sorts. The Ellen MacArthur foundation chose us as flash grant recipients during the Circular Design Challenge under their new plastic economy initiative. We held a series of exciting activities, as highlighted below…

[ picture of proposed activities. ]

We kicked it off strong with a team of 25 people. Three quarters of the participants were students drawn from different disciplines, notably from the design and environmental clubs of various universities. We toured the satellite town of Ngong. The Ngong settlement has a fair amount of lush and is one of the greener towns in the region. Powered with its own wind generated electricity, Ngong hills was voted the most romantic spot in Kenya in 2016. This team helped us map out1 some of the problem areas that the residents were facing around waste management. One group visited a fresh food market and the town’s landfill and found that the authorities and residents were having challenges putting organic waste to good use. The organic waste formed a notable percentage of the waste in the landfill. The group that tracked waste from households found their way to a collection point. We had the group walk uphill to examine the effects of plastic waste on the environment. The observation was a lot of waste dumped in roadside hedges and thickets of the otherwise beautiful landscape.  

Our second activity was to bring in some of the useful insights gathered from the field so as to have a city-wide view of plastics and their impact. We invited a celebrity street food vendor to do our catering. We tried out the circular design card game. We got the event attendees to produce some of the plastic waste that they had collected during their walk. After launching the circular design challenge and watching the design mindset from the circular design guide, the party proceeded to network and talk about the soon-to-come plastics ban and viable alternatives to plastics. 

We had made some impact and captured the attention of relevant stakeholders in the town. For example, the United Nations Environment Program [UNEP] has its headquarters in Nairobi and during their World Environment Day event, we got a chance to participate in their activities and join in the celebration. The OpenIDEO Nairobi Chapter was invited to exhibit in a stakeholders forum on the plastics ban at the UN head office. We met local product manufactures and members of the Kenya Association of Manufacturers who gave us multiple manufacturers’ perspectives what their major concerns were. We also kept in touch with the Ministry, seeing through the plastics ban in August 2017. We took a keener look at the informal economies and how they were working around the plastics ban. We saw peeled pineapples sliced and served on a piece of newsprint paper. Soon after the plastics ban, the informal food vendors required you to bring your own container if you wanted to have food on-the-go versus the paper bag normal. Although the ban proved difficult, it only took a few months for people to adjust mindsets.  beneficial to the whole community as highlighted in my follow up piece on the ban. 

My curiosity is reaching the consumer and finding out; how life is now and What has changed? I live on seventy dollar per month in an informal settlement that once had the largest tannery in the region before it was decommissioned. Some of the world’s trophies were stuffed here.  During the period August to November, we were kept in this animated suspense 3 in between elections, I got cash strapped and this opened me up to new experiences.  For instance, buying small portions of cooking oil, what I had in mind then was cooking fat that is measured and sold in bars of as low as 20 shillings. The shopkeeper confided in me to keep off the cooking fat if I was not going to use it for deep frying; he recommended the oil. I must say I was impressed with his rationale. He said “it is way cheaper to buy the oil in bulk than smaller volumes, and what do you do with all that packaging after you are done with the oil. Our portions will save you 50% off your regular purchase.” I couldn’t agree more. I got to learn that most residents now prefer this kind of delivery. Spending time with people must be rewarding, Since the ban of polythene bags was not extended to commercial use I came across some interesting water packaging [] .  

CDN at UN Nairobi

I also got involved in a UNEP -Green Africa initiative where they study social entrepreneurs working in diverse fields and help reduce fail rates by sharing models that can be replaced. While at it, I got to work with a plastic recycler who opened me up to the plastic value chain. I got to follow her around for a whole day. We visited her yard in the outskirts of the city. “PET is no longer profitable and many of the yards recycling PET are closing shop” she said. I asked her why? She said with the low oil prices, manufactures preferred shipping in virgin material or fresh plastic pallets. PET is bulky and it needs to undergo several processes before it can be sheared into plastic chips. She was instead working with PVC from construction pipes and boards. With the boom in real estate in the city it is now possible to get some of that Waste PVC from old pipes, plastic beams and panels. She keeps a contact list of more that 300 collectors, this collectors work directly with waste pickers who bring in small amounts of waste pipes from construction sites. A kilo goes for 15-20 kenyan shillings and after crushing it the chips fetches 30-35 shilling with the price of virgin material being 40 shillings. Operations run non stop with her 3 employees working in shifts and often have to sleep in the yard. They spend most of their day sorting the plastics, and she is constantly on call negotiating with collectors who are alerting her of the available PVC for collection. “Logistics is key” she shares, “You have to plan your pickup route advance so that you avoid waste”. She only collects when it is more than 800 kilograms and she processes,  doing 2 tonnes a day in her yard. We get to visit one collector nearby and we get only 35 kg of PVC , I am shocked with the amount of PET I see. But she won’t even give it a second thought. She says the only people interested in PET are the Chinese. We work for a couple of weeks on how she can optimise her operations and attract financing for the venture. We contact a major soft drink company and they share that they are at the moment keeping off financing PET recyclers unless they have an “out of this world” proposition.

All through my conversations I keep getting a running theme, “working with schools to build a foundation for responsible consumption”. It happens that Educate!, one of the beneficiaries for the Amplify OpenIDEO challenge, was looking to hire a country design coordinator, I put in my application. My interest was to get an overview of how the education system works and how a success design intervention looks like around Circular Economy.  I got on their short list that meant we got to work on a two weekends boot camp. We were tasked with rethinking the curriculum and imagining a Community Service Learning approach to Education.  Educate! have some awesome resources that they use to design for their teams. We got to create and mock up classes 2 and got peer reviews of how we had performed. The role play was the fun part. I also came across a number of world class some which I incorporated in my work with a local context in mind.  

what next?

For Circular design Nairobi, we view fair value in getting stakeholders to the table earlier on in the process. This will not happen with us sitted in isolation. We are at relevant happenings reaching out and evangelising circular design. An interesting to share experience is UNEA 3 , meeting people doing work to beat pollution. It was probably one of my best moments in the year. We had an executive from Ellen MacArthur come down to Nairobi for a side event of the circular economies. Recap here.  

We have two possible paths to explore.  Getting together a few chapter members and doing a schools intervention. We might give the shadowing 4 a student from retool ago. It looks great too because we have a demand for SDGs to be integrated in the curriculum.  The second path is a level higher , Working with Manufactures through the Kenya Manufacturers Association to unpack the Circular design guide. In both friend we see a positive impact endeavour . 


 Photos raw


1 . Perspectives from East Africa by W.Z ,K.L

2. Community Serving Learning in Kenya .

3.The Kenyan plastic bag ban conversation 

4.Shadowing French school students with oceansole

Case studies: 

5.Working with litter 

6. Mr green 

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