A graduate turning plastic waste into building blocks

Thursday July 18 2019

Ms Nzambi Matee who is preparing the metallic

Ms Nzambi Matee who is preparing the metallic frame for a sand tank stand at her Gjenge premises in Nairobi’s industrial Area. PHOTO I NMG  

Nairobi. Meet Ms Nzambi Matee who is preparing the metallic frame for a sand tank stand at her Gjenge premises in Nairobi’s industrial Area.

Nothing gives away her stellar bio of being a Bachelor of Science graduate in Physics (majoring in geophysics and material science) as well as her eight -month stay at Colorado’s Watson Institute, a noted training ground for next-generation innovators and social entrepreneurs.

She also spent five weeks in Germany perfecting her social entrepreneurial skills before returning home to launch her business behind her mother Margaret Matee’s house in Kitengela.

Inside her new production premises is a stash of waste plastic bottles that have been delivered by a group of waste collectors who are paid based on quantity of bottles received together with other plastic waste.

“Yes, I am a university graduate but that does not mean I should not touch dirt. I chose and enjoyed my course to the end. I worked with Tullow Oil at their Magadi site but I quit to concentrate on producing paving blocks from waste plastic,” she says.

Ms Matee is dressed in a mechanic’s attire and black industrial shoes working with one of her employees on the sand tank stand.

She has just moved from Kitengela to Nairobi’s Industrial Area where she has signed several partnership agreements with plastic products manufacturers to supply her with waste plastic.

Inside her premises is a newly refurbished plastic bottle crusher and melter that prepares the liquid plastic raw material for mixing with dry sand. This is the malleable substance that is used to make attractive yet flexible long-lasting paving blocks.

The 27-year-old graduate from Jomo Kenyatta University of Agriculture and Technology in 2015 during which she invented a thin electronic membrane material that could be used to harness solar energy.

The material she used to make a motorcycle solar hood served as an energy source for the motorcycle as it moved.

“I applied for a patent and was told it would cost me Sh1.2 million to have the entire process including a global search, verification of my invention done and a patent issued with a year. I gave up,” she recalls.

Ms Matee also researched on sustainable ways of collecting plastic waste that could be turned into a raw material for construction products that could be sold to Kenyans.

This saw her invest her Tullow Oil earnings in buying a small machine that she used to make paving block prototypes which she exhibited in the US while undergoing incubation.

But the machine which made five blocks an hour was not efficient and she sought employment to raise funds for a larger machine as well as applied for angel funds to actualise her dream.

She wrote to the Youth Enterprise and Development Fund but lack of an active business with a clear financial history proving viability of her commercial idea as well as a licence saw her application rejected.

“Everyone agrees collecting waste bottles and other plastics cleans the environment while creating quality and sustainable jobs for our youth. The products we make are in high demand but we have no funds to make true our dream. “The government has no kitty for such ventures and Kenya lacks serious angel investors willing to risk their money for better or worse. This is what is giving away our most viable businesses to foreign owners,” she says.

Ms Matee laments that the government has largely concentrated on funding IT-based ventures but hardly looks beyond for other innovations.

She has since applied for certification and was elated when she received an interim certificate allowing her to launch production of her paving blocks as the process continues.

To enhance her production line’s viability, Ms Matee is conducting research on tiles, fencing poles and building blocks to supplement her paving blocks business.

Her prototype paving blocks have since been improved and she invested new funds in making her Most Viable Product (MVP) that she is now selling to churches, learning institutions and residential homes.

“We starting small since we want to build volumes based on affirmation of quality products and demand for our products,” she says. While she has visited many incubation centres in Nairobi,

Ms Matee says Kenya needs to roll out government-supported technical support centres that will insulate startups from regulatory impediments as well as provide them with space to set up shop. “My products will have to be shipped to the US and Germany at my own costs since Kenya lacks a testing centre for my products,” she says.

She supports the Kenya Association of Manufacturers bid to collect PET bottles for onward delivery to recycling firms saying this will give them a steady source of raw materials. (NMG)

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