UN-HABITAT invited Precious Plastic to create a plastic recycling workspace in Kisii, Kenya. The project tries to tackle two critical problems in the area: plastic pollution and youth unemployment (60% of the population). Using Precious Plastic technology and modus operandi we wanted to offer a small scale solution that, if successful, could be replicated across the region and country. The project stretched across 12 months with a total of three visits from the Precious Plastic team. Beyond this year, the team of locals will be left to run the workspace on their own.
During the first visit in Kenya Dave, Mattia & Emile laid the foundations of the project. In the two weeks they had available they transformed an old chicken shed into a plastic recycling workspace, and trained locals on how to use the machines and recycle plastic into products. Two intense weeks of construction, building, melting, training, laughter and joy.
Six months after our first visit Dave, Mattia & Kat went back to the workspace to monitor the project development and offer further training to help to run the space. After a somewhat tough start, we spent the week running workshops, team building, and creating a structure to help the team to improve the outcome products.
We like to keep this open and clear. The total budget for the project was 100.000€ with Precious Plastic being offered 20.000€ to plan, design, execute and monitor the project over the course of 12 months. This is how we spent the money:
- 6000€ on machines, parts & tools
- 5000€ on salaries
- 2000€ expenses on the ground
- 2000€ video production and post production
- 5000€ extra to be reinvested in Precious Plastic
Working with such a big organization is both exciting and daunting. Be prepared for lots of paper work and bureaucracy which naturally translate into slower outcomes. Partners like the UN also come with a great number of regulations and procedures. On a bright side they have the expertise on the ground and the budget to execute projects of this size 😄
Working with Kisii County was indeed a challenge. African bureaucrats, coming from a completely different culture, have different working methodologies, expectations and requirements. The result is a slow, difficult and inefficient process if compared to our expectations. On a positive note they tend to be very polite, welcoming and committed.
Setting up a workspace in rural Africa was a terrific experience. Lots of learning, continuous pivoting, great people and the best mango juices in the world. Definitely not an easy task though. If you're about to start a project in Africa be ready for a number of cultural, social, environmental and technological challenges. The most crucial aspects to keep in mind when working in Africa are:
1. Poverty. Centuries of colonialism and globalisation (🇬🇧) left the continent mostly poor and uneducated. Things are changing fast but this can influence your work in a number of ways.
2. Electricity. Even though we were very lucky with only a few blackouts throughout our experience, absence of electricity is still very common.
3. China. Chinese crap has inundated the continent, basically everything that can't make it to Europe or US goes on to Africa. Sad. This can make it difficult to source good quality materials, tools, parts, motors and components.
4. Culture. The cultural difference is huge. From food to work and everything in between is completely different from everything we've ever experienced before. Keep that in mind when working in Africa.
5. Internet. Mobile internet was surprisingly good and was never a problem.
6. Punctuality is a rare asset. Be ready for late starts, in the order of hours 😄
7.Tribes. In Kenya tribes play a huge role 👹These social dynamics are difficult to understand and comprehend for outsiders but deeply influence your work on a daily basis.
8. Partners. Choosing the best partners for your project is crucial to succeed. Big or small, international or local, private or state-run, these are all things to keep in mind when choosing the organisations you’re working with.
9. Bureaucracy. Big organisations naturally translates into loads of paperwork, meetings and approvals. Which means much extra time and a very much slower process.
10. Politics. These big projects in collaboration with international organisations and NGOs can be very political. Something new to us. Many voices, interests and dynamics that will eventually affect your work on the ground.
11. Communication. Setting up a direct communication stream with the local team was difficult. We tried to use slack, WhatsApp, Messenger but still was kind of hard to establish a continuous communication with the people on the ground. Which slowed progress and troubleshooting.
12. Managing. Creating a team is one thing, managing it is another. We found that managing the local team remotely was a particularly difficult task. It can be hard to know who is doing what, how and in which terms. This is also connected to a lack of communication.
13. Incentives. People have to have a reasons to join your project 🍩🍩🍩 Whether economic, ethical or environmental you have to make sure that people have strong incentives to participate in your project, over time.
14. Structure. During our second trip we realised the importance of setting up a very defined structure for the team with clear roles and responsibilities.
15. Machines. Local does not necessarily mean better. In Kenya we build the machines almost entirely sourcing tools and materials locally. Big challenge that resulted in lots of extra work and possibly not the best ever machines for a number of reasons. Lacking a manufacturing industry most tools (motors, ovens etc..) and material are imported (not very local in the end). Depending on the project, it might be more efficient to bring the machines from home gaining on quality, efficiency and outputs.
16. Maintenance. Machines are easily understood by local metal workers and machine builders. This makes it possible to maintain the Precious Plastic machines locally as all the drawings are online and the basic functioning is easy to grasp.
17. Different plastic. If you’re used to work with plastic back home you might be surprised to find different kinds of plastic in other parts of the world. Different grades, quality and diversity. In Kenya for example there is a much smaller diversity of plastics (mainly HDPE and PET).
18. Collection. Even though labour is cheap collection can be a challenge, particularly in the beginning. Try to think of a system to collect enough plastic cheaply to ensure a steady production.
19. Clean. Sometimes the plastic coming in is super dirty adding to the technical challenges. Try to get people to collect clean(er) plastic when possible. This will make your life a ton easier. Chocolate is hard to find. They only have this soft milky sweetened brown chunk of butter
The project is now officially over, it run for little over 12 months from June ’17 to ’18.
We originally set out to create the first Precious Plastic Pilot in Kenya to research and learn about the challenges & opportunities connected with working in Africa, a place dear to us and always in our heads when developing Precious Plastic. Slashing our assumptions we've gathered crucial insights on working with people of very different cultures, sourcing materials locally, working with African officials, finding decent motors, building machines, structuring the team & lots more.
The learning will inform new iterations of Precious Plastic in the future as well as people in our community that are trying to set up similar projects.
*Oh, and we’re inviting Alicia and Manduku, 2 of the most active local members, to help us develop Version 4 in the Netherland (first time out of their country) so that they can bring back to Kenya lots of learnings and knowledge to keep on recycling plastic in Kisii.
Pilots are unique opportunities to test Precious Plastic ideas, technologies and processes on the ground. We collaborate with different institutions, partners and organisations to create Precious Plastic workspaces around the world.
We do pilots for two main reasons: research and testing. Working in different countries, with people of completely different cultures, realities, needs and drives help us understand the problem in a more informed and practical way. This field research is then used to develop Precious Plastic in more meaningful, accessible and applicable manners enabling ever more people around the world to work with plastic waste. While on the ground we also stress test our ideas, machines and systems to try and make successful plastic recycling workspaces in different parts of the world.
We like to make the mistakes, fail, pivot and find a better solutions. So others like yourself don’t need to make the same mistakes again. Trying to make plastic recycling easier and more affordable for others around the world.