These Upcycled Bricks Are Solving Nairobi's Plastic Waste and Housing Problems

These Upcycled Bricks Are Solving Nairobi’s Plastic Waste and Housing Problems

How this young African entrepreneur is changing the streets of Kenya’s capital.

Tired of seeing plastic waste littering the streets of Nairobi, Nzambi Matee took matters into her own hands. The 29-year-old data analyst quit her job and set out to create sustainable and affordable construction materials out of plastic waste products.

The “paver” is the result of testing various plastic and sand combinations in her backyard lab, then building a prototype machine at the University of Colorado. With a melting point of over 350 degrees centigrade, this eco-friendly brick is stronger than it’s concrete counterpart. 

Using her design experience, Matee launched Gjenge Makers in 2018. Its mission? To use the lower cost plastic-based bricks to tackle Kenya’s inadequate housing problem. Partnering with factories and recyclers for free offcuts allows the company to reduce the product price point making it affordable for schools and homeowners. Gjenge Makers also employs a team of waste collectors sourcing discarded single-use plastic. Not only has 20 tonnes of plastic been recycled since the company’s conception, but it has also provided an income for over 112 women and young people.

Right now, Gjenge Makers generates between 1000 and 1500 bricks per day.  Matee’s aim is to expand across Africa. “It is absurd that we still have this problem of providing decent shelter,” she explains to Al-Jazeera News. “Plastic is a material that is misused and misunderstood. The potential is enormous, but its afterlife can be disastrous.”

These Upcycled Bricks Are Solving Nairobi's Plastic Waste and Housing Problems
Gjenge Makers bricks

Young Champion of the Earth

For her work, Matee was named a Young Champion of the Earth by the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) in 2020. The award provides seed funding and mentorship to promising environmentalists as they tackle the world’s most pressing challenges.

“We must rethink how we manufacture industrial products and deal with them at the end of their useful life,” stresses Soraya Smaoun, a specialist in industrial production techniques, on the UNEP website.  “Nzambi Matee’s innovation in the construction sector highlights the economic and environmental opportunities when we move from a linear economy to a circular one.” 

One of the schools that uses pavers is the Mukuru Skills Training Centre in Nairobi’s Mukuru Kyaba slum. Its playground and the paths between classrooms are covered by Matee’s colourful paving stones. Before the pavers, students walked on dirt paths.

“We plan to pave all around the school,” said programme coordinator Anne Muthoni to . “It’s a cheaper solution and we are grateful to Nzambi. Young people need to be motivated about how to care for the environment, while at the same time making money.”

Matee encourages other young people to tackle environmental challenges at the local level. “The negative impact we are having on the environment is huge,” she explains. “It’s up to us to make this reality better. Start with whatever local solution you can find and be consistent with it. The results will be amazing.”
Read about another start-up turning trash into “trashion” here.

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