10 Oct 2016 Story Ecosystems

Kenyan entrepreneur sets off on long and plastic road

At the end of her story, one gets that sense that Jackline Lang’at’s social enterprise, making road material and paving blocks while solving the waste plastic problem, is on the verge of taking off— all it needs is opportunity.

The soft-spoken Kenyan is perched behind her table at the 2016 SEED Awards symposium. On the table sit rectangular blocks of black paving bricks, a tray of shiny, sticky-looking material that contains bitumen, and a bag of round plastic pellets.

Her enterprise, Green Road Ltd, is the newest of 20 winners of the SEED awards, which honours and guides social and environmental micro, small and medium sized enterprises. Lang’at founded her company in 2015, after leaving her dream job in the city.

“When I was nine, I saw a plane for the first time at the airport,” she recalls, “and after that, I just really wanted to travel, to go into tourism so that I could see new places.”

She was the only one among six siblings to qualify for university in the capital, Nairobi. Her remote village (population: approximately 200) raised the money for her to earn her Bachelor degree in Tourism.

She landed a government job in tourism, later winning a scholarship to do a Master of Tourism and Environment at Wageningen University in the Netherlands. She chose to focus on sustainable tourism— and it put her on an entirely new path.

A lecturer at Wageningen had told his students to think back to their country and what they would like to change there, and to approach the problem laterally.

“I thought of poverty and pollution,” she says. “Of how I had grown up in a place with many flowers, and when I went to study in Nairobi, I noticed a lot of ‘city flowers’— all the colourful plastic litter.”

Meanwhile, in her village, “the roads were bad, so we would not get our goods to market”.

She combined all those elements and started researching her project. The idea was to use the waste plastic, grind them down to 2-millimetre bits and combine them with bitumen to pave roads or make “cabro”, paving blocks for car park surfacing.

This gave commercial value to waste plastic and saved on bitumen use. It turned out that the plastic was an excellent binding agent, and the mix itself was cheaper than conventional road surfacing.

Experience in India, where a similar idea has gained enormous traction at city level over the last few years, also showed that it was cheaper than conventional road surfacing material and had several structural advantages.

She decided to work with women from the slum areas who were already collecting glass to recycle for money, asking them to collecting plastic and sell it to her company.

Her municipality office gave her a contract for a pilot of one kilometre of road and budgeting for a sorting depot in the next financial year. She initially leased a collection centre, where 12 women now sort the collected trash. They have also been teaching the community how to sort their trash and why it is important.

That’s when she hit a bump in the road.

“We don’t have the equipment to crush the plastic into small beads, so we go to a crushing supplier, which is quite expensive,” she says. “So we crush whatever plastic we can when we have the money.”

Otherwise, she explains, they used scissors to cut the plastic into the 2-millimetre pieces.

However, after taking her turn to pitch her enterprise to the SEED audience, a decision-maker from the office of a large district in Nairobi pulled her aside, keen to explore the possibility of testing her product in the district.

“They have asked me to do a presentation to them on Monday,” she says, her face lighting up. She hopes a project would give her the chance to buy the equipment she needs to expand her enterprise’s capacity.

By receiving 2016 SAG-SEED Award Lang’at’s enterprise joins a community of 11 years’ worth of SEED Award winners from around the world, the large majority of which are performing as planned, if not thriving and exceeding expectations.

“SEED is a testament to what micro, small and medium sized enterprises can achieve when given a real chance in the form of tailored guidance and capacity building,” says Rainer Agster, Director Operations, SEED.

In this year’s 20 SEED Awards, fifteen SAG-SEED Awards in Burkina Faso, Ghana, Kenya, Mauritius, South Africa and Uganda are sponsored by the SWITCH Africa Green (SAG) project, which is implemented by UNEP with the assistance of the European Union.

SEED is a global partnership for action on sustainable development and the green economy, founded by UN Environment, the UN Development Programme and the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) in 2002. Further details about the award and this year’s winners can be found on SEED’s website.