In 2015, Keiran Smith, an entrepreneur, launched Mr Green Africa, a plastic waste recycling company whose vision is to promote a local circular waste economy. At the time, the importance of plastic waste recycling was not prominent and many people did not appreciate the value of waste.
Smith wanted to show people that there was value in waste by establishing a business that would pay people for their plastic litter and process them into materials that could be used again for functions such as packaging products.
To set up such a venture, he needed a significant amount of money, which he did not have direct access to. Therefore, he partnered with a fast-moving consumer goods company, Unilever, which gave him the money to purchase the equipment he required for plastic waste processing. In return, Mr Green Africa would process plastic litter into materials that Unilever would use to package some of their products.
“If you look at Unilever’s strategy, they have made commitments to have all their packaging as fully reusable, recyclable, or compostable by 2025. Currently, up to 25 percent content in all their packaging solutions comes from recycled material. They are also looking at a localisation strategy, where they will source most of the resources for their business from local vendors,” Smith noted.
The two firms, therefore, created a joint vision, with Mr Green Africa coming in as a local supplier for Unilever’s recycled packaging needs. They conducted various tests together, from which they were able to launch several types of packaging used for popular household goods such as Vim, Sunlight Scourer and Domestos canisters. In 2020, they launched a packaging product made out of 100 percent recycled material.
“Launching the packaging made out of 100 percent recycled material was not something we could take for granted, because we put a lot of work and research into it to make it happen and show that it is possible,” Smith said.
To encourage more people to manage their trash, they paid waste collectors about 20 to 30 percent more than what the market would pay them on average. They developed a mobile application that allowed them to register waste pickers and transact with them in real time.
Once suppliers bring in their waste, it is weighed on a digital scale which is connected to the mobile app that takes measurements in kilogrammes. The collected information is then sent to a server that calculates how much money one is to be paid. The money is sent to suppliers directly through mobile money platforms. Those who do not have mobile money are paid in cash.
“There was a lot of obscurity in the value chain and the people who were selling it were sometimes not being given the right amount in terms of pricing. We founded Mr Green Africa on the principle of fair and ethical sourcing of the plastic waste from the pickers and also from other actors who have been engaging in unlocking value for themselves,” Smith explained.
They also initiated a collection incentive where any consumer who brought waste to collection points, which they had set up in partnership with various entities, including petrol stations, shops, schools and estates, would get an incentive in the form of green points. Every kilogramme of plastic waste brought earns one 15 green points, which is equivalent to Sh15.
“If you consider other things that people have to take care of in a day, waste is not a priority. Telling someone to travel five kilometres to deposit their bottle just won’t work. What we are trying to do by giving this incentive is to make people appreciate that waste has value and they could make an extra effort of taking care of it instead of just throwing it away,” noted Smith.
Art of balancing
To be fully integrated in the value chain, the firm had to be involved in the business of collection, manufacturing, and selling the product into the right application. Keiran says that attracting and keeping the right talent to manage all these operations was not easy.
The bigger challenge for them, however, was in balancing between impact and fairness, because they wanted to take care of the interests of the waste pickers but at the same time, they were in business to make money.
That notwithstanding, the firm, which has about 150 full-time employees and about 2500 active waste pickers in their network, has in its eight years of existence managed to expand operations into Mombasa, Eldoret and Kisumu, where they pre-process plastic waste before bringing it to Nairobi.
According to official data, every Kenyan generates approximately 300kg of waste annually, which totals to about 15 million tons every year. With Kenya’s population growing at a rapid rate of 2.6 percent every year, the volume of recyclable waste is set to increase by 13 percent within the next five years.
This means that innovative ways to recycle waste will be mandatory as dumping fields shrink and the need to conserve the environment becomes more important. Keiran says that they are working on setting up a much bigger capacity factory, as well as expanding regionally to enable more consumers to participate in bringing in plastic waste and earning a small incentive out of it.
“We want to make Kenya an Eastern African hub for recycling with recycling expertise, to truly show that it is possible to leapfrog into a circular economy,” notes Smith.
They also hope to in future partner with other organisations such as WEE Centre to be able to venture into electronic waste processing, as currently they only deal with plastic waste.