The African Queen Rug
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Entrepreneur finds success turning textile waste into carpets and padding for sofas, toys

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The African Queen Rug from Africa Collect Textiles is a sustainable home decor product made from upcycled denim.

Photo credit: Pool

In March this year, the East African reported that Mitumba imports from China to Kenya jumped by 86.2 per cent in the first quarter of 2024. Over the years, the volumes of second-hand clothing, shoes and textiles have increased at worrying rates.

But quantity is not the only issue - several organisations have raised alarm over the quality of second-hand textiles making their way into Kenya and Africa from around the world. A 2023 report by Changing Markets Foundation, an organisation that exposes irresponsible trade practices - titled Trashion: The stealth export of waste plastic clothes to Kenya, shows there is an increasing number of low quality, unwearable second hand clothing coming into the country. The report notes with concern that Kenya and the rest of Africa have become a release valve and a textile dumping ground for countries in the global north as fast fashion and consumerism explode.

Though the Mitumba Consortium of Kenya maintains that only 2 percent of second hand apparel imports are of low quality, Changing Markets Foundation and Clean Up Kenya report that over 40 percent of these imports are unwearable.

As it is, Kenya lacks the infrastructure, systems and policies to manage textile waste. As second hand clothes and shoes pile up in our markets and homes, we lack a clear direction on where to take them at the end of their life cycle.

A Kenyan company is working hard to change this. DN2 Property had a chat with Alex Musembi, the Co-founder and General Manager, Africa Collect Textiles (ACT). ACT is diverting thousands of kilograms of textile waste from landfills and rivers through a unique business model that turns the waste into home decor and other products. Musembi shares their journey:

Early Detection

“The history of ACT goes back to 2013 when we started thinking about textile waste. The company’s full-time operations however started in 2020. Before starting the company, I was working for a Dutch non-profit, textile collecting company which had operations in Kenya. In Europe, companies collect materials and clothes which are sorted and dispatched or shipped to Africa in bales and sold as second hand clothing. I was part of that value chain. The company also had a Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) program supporting different initiatives. One of them was a knitting project in Kenya and I was in charge of it as the General Manager.

The motivation behind ACT came from observations I made while working in the second hand clothes’ value chain. I noticed there was a lot of textile waste coming into the country.

Donated denim textile

Donated denim textiles at Africa Collect Textiles are prepared for upcycling into various home decor items.

Photo credit: Pool

As the textiles are collected, sorted and packed into bales, they are also mixed with non-wearable items. These could be stained clothes or low-quality materials. Some of them are unfit for the Kenyan market - they could be too big or too small depending on their country of origin. Kenya is warm most of the months, and some second-hand clothes are designed for much colder weather. Such clothes are a waste when shipped to Kenya because no one can wear them. More than 10 years ago, we could see textile waste becoming a big issue in Kenya and Africa even though most people were unaware of it.

Partnership with Nakumatt

Before setting up the business in 2020, we started with research. We attended accelerator programs, worked on defining our value proposition, and learned how to turn the business into a profitable venture. We put in a lot of legwork to ensure once we hit the ground running, the business would be a success.

Between 2014 and 2015, for instance, we partnered with Nakumatt, a retail giant at the time. Through our strategic partnership with the retailer, we installed our collection bins in their branches. We started with Nakumatt Lifestyle, Mega and TRM. People would drop off their old clothes at the collection centres as they came to shop. At the time Nakumatt was way ahead of the retail chain and through the partnership, we worked on a loyalty program. Customers who donated clothes were to earn loyalty points to be redeemed by shopping at the supermarket. Such a program was going to create a win-win situation for everyone. Our main goal was to divert textile waste from landfills while providing the public with a convenient method of disposing of their unused textiles.

The partnership was going very well and we were collecting at least 500 Kilograms of textiles per branch every week. But what we didn’t know is that Nakumatt was on the brink of collapsing at the time. By 2017 they shut down completely. Though our primary goal was to research and test the viability of our business model, we had to rethink our entire model. Still, we learned a lot from the partnership.

Anonymous Donations

We currently have three textile waste collection models. The first one involves placing collection bins in different strategic locations. We have over 40 bins in different estates, malls, shops, institutions, supermarkets and at Gikomba market. The collection bins’ model we are working with is a European contextualised model. In 2012 we conducted research to find out the most convenient way to collect textiles. We interviewed people and one of the things that came out strongly was that they want to donate anonymously. This is tied to African cultures and beliefs. People feel uncomfortable sharing their clothes with others casually. Some people hold spiritual beliefs and that leads to a hoarding culture.

This is one of the reasons we decided to set up donation bins in different locations to minimise face-to-face interactions between donors and collectors.

Along the way, some people suggested door-to-door pickup. Not everyone can access our bins. We started scheduling pick-up days for different estates with our van. The door-to-door pick-ups became our second collection model.

The third model provides solutions for corporates. A lot of companies are becoming environmentally conscious. Previously, businesses would burn their old uniforms, but that is not sustainable anymore. Donating these uniforms is not an option either, for security reasons. They have company logos and if they end up in the wrong hands they could be misused through impersonation. We are currently providing several security companies and other corporations with a safe and sustainable alternative for disposing of old textiles.

The upcycling and reusing process

upcycled textiles

Image of an area rug made from upcycled textiles by Africa Collect Textiles a Kenyan company turning fashion waste into home decor.

Photo credit: Pool

Once the textiles are collected and they make it to our facility, we sort them into wearables and non-wearables. The wearables have to flow back to the market if they are good enough to be reused. We sell them to women in rural areas such as Murang’a, Mwea, Meru and parts of Nairobi at an affordable price. Delivering the clothes to them increases their profitability. Most importantly we are giving these clothes a longer life cycle instead of wasting them.

The non-wearable textiles are used as raw materials for our line of products. We have specialised in home decor products like pillows, lumbar pillows, duvets, cushions, chairs, rugs, carpets, toys, backpacks and baskets. We also have a B2B arrangement through which we help companies create branded merchandise from their upcycled uniforms or textiles.

Beyond Home Decor

Our first range products were rugs, tapestries and carpets. We are the first company to upcycle denim and unwanted textiles into home decor products. Family is also an integral part of our business model. We needed to make products that are family friendly. We started with the African Queen Rug, and it is one of our best selling products to date.

We are currently scaling to mechanical recycling. We want to recycle more than a million kilograms annually. Our mechanical recycling process will involve producing fillings through a downscaling process which breaks down textiles into fine fibres. These fibres can be used as raw materials for yarn or as fillings for sofas, puffer jackets, toys and pillows. Currently, the fillings we use in Kenya are imported from abroad and that means we are not creating jobs. Our money is building other economies. If Africa Collect Textiles can produce enough fillings by recycling textiles, we will not only divert textile waste from dumping sites but also create jobs for Kenyans.

The challenges

Despite our success, we’ve jumped through several hurdles. The biggest issue when it comes to doing business in Kenya, especially manufacturing, is the cost of operations. Things like fuel, water, electricity and labour are expensive and that makes local businesses uncompetitive in the global market. Regulatory issues are also a challenge. Sometimes the regulatory agencies create bottlenecks for businesses. Issues such as corruption and demands for kickbacks sabotage manufacturing in the country.

In the beginning, lack of awareness was a big problem. Social behaviour change is needed for this model to work. Helping people understand why they should not throw away their old clothes and shoes requires lots of awareness efforts. It’s a new concept and it takes time for people to accept it.

Lastly, no one has done this kind of business in Kenya. We are the first company collecting, sorting and upcycling textile waste. There is no data to refer to. We have to define numbers such as how much textile waste is out there, how many kilograms we can collect and how much we can process. No one has commercialised the textile waste sector like we have and that makes it unattractive to investors or venture capitalists, due to lack of crucial data.

Designing the products and getting the right professionals to work at the factory has not been easy either. Tailors and weavers are used to making different products and now we are exposing them to a very unique line of products and it takes training to get perfect products. Overall, it’s not an easy business.

Changing buyer behaviour

Regardless of these challenges, we have several distributors in Kenya like the Secret Garden Shop, African Lifestyle Hub and the Village Market. We are still trying to scale up in other Kenyan locations.

We also sell in several European markets. In the Netherlands we have a distributor called Nic & Mic. We have a B2B partnership with the Sheldrick Wildlife Trust. In German, we sell through a shop called MultiCulti. In Italy, we have partnered with Ultramoda. Buyers in European markets are slightly ahead when it comes to upcycling and buying sustainable and ethically produced products. Kenyans are also becoming conscious of these things but we still need to catch up.

Impact and Global Partnerships

So far, we have diverted more than 150,000 kilograms of textile waste from landfills. We have also created over 120 jobs by working with women who weave our baskets, and full-time jobs for those working in our facilities. By estimates, we have reduced about 921 trillion tonnes of carbon emissions. We are also driving social change and now, the people who work and buy from our brand understand the importance of increasing the life cycle of textiles.

We are also forming more strategic partnerships with groundbreaking innovators. There is a company in Switzerland called Winter & Company. It’s in the stationery industry and they’ve been around since 1892. They have an innovative experiment geared toward making paper out of textile waste and we are shipping textiles to them from Kenya. Such a partnership creates a lot of value. By buying our unwearable textiles, they are helping us divert them from clogging up our rivers and oceans. The paper they are producing is also revolutionary as it will save trees which are the primary raw material for paper.

Moving forward, I am optimistic about scaling ACT as a pioneer in diverting textile waste from landfills. For the next three years, we hope to set up 10 new collection points each year. We are also creating more awareness to scale up the amount of waste we are collecting and process to a million kilograms annually. Scaling up means more jobs. We’ve also partnered with an organisation called Ethical Fashion. They will be operating from our facility, buying textiles from us and producing sustainable fashion products for some of the biggest brands in the world.