Kenya-based Gjenge Makers founder Nzambi Matee talks about recycling plastic waste and the alternative construction products sector.
The harmful effects of excessive carbon emissions on our planet’s well-being are no secret. Everything from climate change, depleting resources and species extinction are all direct or indirect consequences of carbon emissions. Just take one look at your lifestyle or your surroundings, you will see countless contributors to carbon emission. Whether it is meat, pet food, electricity or transportation, almost everything around us is responsible.
One major carbon contributor is construction. The building sector is responsible for a staggering 39% of all carbon emissions globally. In addition, there is a rise in urban migration, which implies a rise in global construction. So, how do we ensure progression while saving our planet?
Multiple initiatives are being taken in the form of eco-conscious construction. One such project is Gjenge Makers, founded by Kenyan entrepreneur Nzambi Matee. She is a mechanical engineer and self-taught hardware designer, as well as the recipient of the Young Champion of Earth 2020, award by the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP).
Gjenge Makers came into being in 2018. The startup builds construction products from recycled plastics and sand. Matee worked as a data analyst, where she was exposed to data surrounding plastic waste, which then inspired her to look into the sustainable building sector.
Matee says she learned hardware designing and tapped into the building products market out of a “combination of curiosity and necessity”. Matee founded Gjenge makers to disrupt the rigid building construction space. The company’s vision is to “build alternatively, affordably and sustainably”.
Today, Gjenge Makers is forging ahead with alternative and eco-conscious construction materials in Kenya. Matee and her team started research and development for recycled pavers in 2017 and quickly found success in the form of a prototype in 2018. The company then built a customised machine to manufacture their product on a large scale. Gjenge Makers currently has three primary products: heavy, moderate and light-duty pavers, which are used in roads, household, and other commercial premise construction.
Matee founded the company with sustainability in mind. She says sustainability should be a way of living, and if we do not adopt sustainable ways, “we won’t be doing justice to ourselves and our planet”. She adds that the startup’s recycled and alternative bricks are “stronger, lighter and cheaper” than traditional bricks. Gjenge Makers sells its heavy-duty recycled pavers for $8.50 per sq m, unlike the traditional pavers that are sold for around $10. The company produces around 500 to 1,000 construction bricks every day, recycling around 500kg of plastic waste. Gjenge Makers has partnered with several single-use plastic manufacturers across Kenya and collect a combination of plastic waste such as beverage bottle tops and seals.
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Matee built Gjenge Makers’ primary customer base through referrals, and also received the first order via a referral. She says the future of alternative building products in Kenya and worldwide is bright, calling it the “next space to look out for”. She adds that whether it is the “financial, automobile, or the building sector, alternative products are the future”.
Furthermore, the impact of Matee and Gjenge Makers isn’t just limited to sustainability and climate change; it also contributes to positive social change. The startup creates job opportunities for skilled and unskilled youth, and the majority of its employees are women. Matee says: “Being a woman, I understand the lack of decent employment opportunities.” So she provides employment to women as they often “are the most marginalised groups in the workforce”.
Along with a team of 10 members, all below the age of 30, she envisions Gjenge Makers to be the “leader in the alternative building product manufacturing space in Kenya, Africa and the rest of the world”. Today, it is a sustainable force in Kenya that is working to solve the plastic crisis by encouraging a “recycling and upcycling culture”.