‘We want to keep our streets clean and create jobs’

In Kenya garbage is recycled into opportunities for the young

© Thomas Mukoya / Reuters

Hairstylist Julia Wanya is looking for hair extensions that can potentially be recycled on the Dandora waste heap in Nairobi, Kenya, 29th of July 2020.

As the Kenyan economy grows, the amount of waste grows along with it. A flood of new disposable materials, from mouth masks to gloves, puts extra pressure on faulty policies. At the same time, Kenyan youth is at a loss due to high unemployment. Can a sustainable waste policy offer young people growth opportunities and reduce the waste heap?

Julius Muiyoro Waweru is 25 and lives in Meru, at the Kathitariver northeast of Mount Kenya. He studied Information Technology at Maseno University. However, the first three years after graduation brought him no perspectives of employment. ‘There is a lot of talent in Kenya, but jobs are scarce.’ Julius blames this on a lack of resources. ‘A job proposal is almost unimaginable here. Young people travel the entire nation in search of work.’

As the whereabouts of these opportunities are often unclear, young people sometimes haphazardly invest in a journey that will not result in any offer. ‘We have a saying here, “food for work”. You work to be able to eat the same day.’

‘Lots of people here sell phones or headsets on the street, because working for a steady paycheck seems so far-fetched.’

Even though he found employment in an internet café, Julius still has a hard time meeting his basic needs. ‘And there are no alternatives — we need new companies, new ideas. Lots of people here sell phones or headsets on the street, because working for a steady paycheck seems so far-fetched.’

Karin Boomsma, director of Sustainable Inclusive Business, remains hopeful. ‘The situation is hardly irrevocable,’ she says. ‘We look at what we’re able to do and where we can implement change. Not at what we should have done and isn’t there yet.’

Focused approach

In Mombasa and the capital Nairobi, where around 2,475 tons of waste is generated every single day, The Sustainable Inclusive Business foundation found a way to tackle scarcity using excess. They set up a project that involves unemployed youth. These young people learn how to recycle from the waste heap, which ensures more growth opportunities for them in the future.

This is essential. After all, the cliché of the polluted African metropolis is hardly that far removed from reality. In Nairobi, only 38 percent of waste is collected and less than 10 percent is recycled. The remaining 62 percent is left behind on illegal dump sites, burned or ends up in residential areas and public spaces.

Fortunately, the Kenyan government is not alone in confronting this excess. The Dutch government supports the Kenya Private Sector Alliance, a network of private companies that exchange sustainable strategies. By joining forces and sharing information, they hope to have a positive impact on policy initiatives in Kenya.

The government shares this ambition; it has launched a Sustainable Waste Management Plan to reduce waste in the country by 64.6 percent by 2020. But according to the latest figures, 2016’s total waste heap will have doubled by 2030. Plastic is a major risk factor. After all, 79 percent of this waste ends up in natural storage areas, where it does not degrade. It has an inevitable impact on both people and the environment.

A focused approach has paid off. On June 4, 2019, a presidential decree banned disposable plastics in Kenya’s national parks, on beaches, in protected territories and in forests. This Single Use Plastic Ban criminalizes pollution in the hope of protecting wildlife and conserving tourism revenues. This turned Kenya into a forerunner in the fight against plastic pollution.

Alternative recycling

The New York Times reported that the American Chemistry Council, a lobby group of oil giants, pledged for the US government to put pressure on Kenya. They were alleged to advocate a loosening of local laws in order for plastic production, consumption and international trade to proceed smoothly.

The United States have previously refrained from signing the Basel convention. This international agreement, already ratified by 190 countries, intends to make it more difficult to ship plastic waste off to the Global South.

A statement by the American Chemistry Council states they do not aim to reverse the plastic ban in Kenya. The lobby group, which represents major fossil fuel traders such as ExxonMobil, Shell and DuPont, hereby stressed their support for the emerging recycling culture. They emphasize they have addressed the US government in favor of investments that enable recycling, reuse and trade.

However, the petrochemical industry buzzword ‘chemical recycling’ does not refer to techniques that benefit the circular economy. A report from environmental organization GAIA shows that during this process, plastic is incinerated rather than re-used. ‘It’s a questionable distraction at best,’ GAIA remarks. Large quantities of toxic gases and liquids are released during combustion. This is not a futile threat: more than 8 million tons of plastic materials have already spilled into the ocean per year, the equivalent of one garbage truck per minute.

The World Economic Forum has already stated that the world’s plastic production would triple by 2030 compared to 2014.

‘If we can convince companies to think differently, the results can be overwhelming.’

Bloom above growth

In any case, Kenya is moving forward. Sustainable Inclusive Business has been developed in tandem with the KEPSA, or the Kenyan Private Alliance Membership Organization. By joining forces they can influence policy, hereby envisioning significant effects on Kenya’s social fabric.

Sustainable Inclusive Business also translates the importance of women, youth and the environment into business strategies, reconciling a financial logic with socially desirable outcomes. ‘Companies can have a huge negative impact on people and the environment,’ said Karin Boomsma, director of Sustainable Inclusive Business. ‘But if you can convince them to think differently, the positive results can be equally overwhelming.’

By proposing changes in policy, Sustainable Inclusive Business finds backing for their ideas, with a circular economy as the central pillar. ‘The corona crisis has led companies to understand why a linear economy is so fragile. After all, it always depends on one link; a financial incentive. If this fails — be it in the shape of import, export or consumption — the entire house of cards collapses.’

In a circular economy bloom prevails over growth, says Boomsma. ‘Our economy is oriented towards the fallacy of indefinite growth. But nothing grows endlessly.’

Fortunately, there is momentum for new ideas. ‘Many systems we believed in are now being challenged. Like the idea that we absolutely have to work from a remote space from 9 to 5; that idea lost its power during the pandemic.’

Kenyan waste policy is equally in need of new paradigms. The endless supply of waste is left in the hands of private individuals, who all focus on different types of waste.

Copper, tin and other precious resources are removed from the landfills and resold. However, these organizations’ hierarchical structure ensures that their income flows to the top. By professionalizing sorters, Sustainable Inclusive Business hopes to ensure a more equal distribution of wealth. Young people also can develop skills they can then later apply in the open market.

‘Of course it is not our goal to ensure that young people end up cleaning the streets,’ said Boomsma. ‘Ultimately, we want the streets to be clean and we want to create jobs.’ This is why Sustainable Inclusive Business practices incubation; it provides young people with financial impulses to start up their own businesses, which in turn sets an example for a circular economy.

‘A circular economy has a lot to do with independence.’

Forging new values, redecorating the future

They also teamed up with the WEEE Centre, a company that has existed since 2012 and has since served more than 8,000 customers, including governments and companies. With partners such as Umicore and Total, they provide training in electronic waste management. At the average sorters copper, gold and other valuable elements are extracted from this and the rest is returned to the waste pile.

At the WEEE Centre, young people are taught to disassemble devices. This also allows goods to continue to circulate on the local market, rather than to flow abroad. ‘A circular economy has a lot to do with independence’, said Boomsma.

It does require a change in our value system. ‘You can easily produce lighters from the remains of sugar production. Yet despite the ban on logging, wood is sold here for heating. This causes respiratory diseases. “The alternative is too expensive,” they say, while recycling only seems more expensive in the short term. When you face the true cost, you see that all the negative effects of that short-term thinking also impact the producer. So why can’t trade and the environment go hand in hand?’

Sustainable Inclusive Business is developing a model in which the end of the production chain becomes its own starting point. ‘Upcycling produces great results — but it doesn’t keep the streets clean.’ In their view of the circular economy, factories turn plastic back into a water bottle, just as aluminum, glass and tin keep getting new lives.

‘Kenya is exceptional when it comes to this — with the Single Use Plastic ban, there are parts of the circular economy that are already embedded in legislation,’ Boomsma said.

During the corona crisis, however, VAT for companies was leveled from 16% to 14%. With a government that relies on external parties to control the waste flows, waste management companies previously paid 0% VAT — since the leveling, these enterprises pay the same 14% that is expected from profitable companies. ‘This causes a loss in financial incentive for a sector that we most desperately need’, says Boosma. ‘There is still a long way to go.’

This article was originally published in Dutch and has been translated by the author.

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