When the Kenyan government instituted a nation-wide ban on logging in 2017, furniture companies like Funkidz were badly hit.
The ban, which was instituted to facilitate the rehabilitation of national forests, saw the prices of timber and poles skyrocket as they became hard to source. Many companies’ revenue suffered as they had to purchase raw material from other countries. But instead of dwelling on the setback, Ciiru Waithaka, who founded the Nairobi-based children’s furniture company Funkidz, decided to find a solution. “We realized we have to innovate,” Waithaka said.
While in the company’s warehouse one day, Waithaka saw a pile of wooden pallets that had been used for a delivery and thought that if she could repurpose the wood that would otherwise go to waste, she could turn it into something usable.
“As a business you can complain about the lack or quality of raw material or you can do something about it,” she said. “I thought instead of cutting more trees, how do I harvest pallets and start using the circular economy in that.”
After some research she found more and more places from which to source pallets, and soon she was making tables and desks that were “funkier” than before.
Waithaka saw the opportunity to repurpose all types of discarded material for furniture. She visited local markets and bought bales of second-hand clothes for her soft furnishings, such as cushions.
The company understood how much water is wasted in making even one T-shirt or pair of jeans and by using second-hand, “the innovation and the funkiness has come out [in the designs] even stronger than we expected. Each piece is original,” she said.
Soon, Waithaka branched out to repurposing office furniture as well, realizing that there was potential to do social good. She approached corporate offices and asked if they would donate broken or unused furniture to Funkidz so that the company could recondition it and sell it to Kenyan schools at affordable prices.
“There is no excuse today to have children sitting on the floor in schools in Kenya,” Waithaka said. She says that in most cases communities are unaware on the potential of the waste they have sitting around to create furniture that they desperately need.
Funkidz also sells new furniture made from sustainably-sourced forests in South Africa. But in order to curb the level of human waste, Waithaka allows for parents to resell any product bought from Funkidz back to the company once a child outgrows it. “We’ve been doing that for the 10 years that we’ve been in business and yet we had no idea that was what the circular economy was about,” she says laughing.
UN Environment, the leading global voice on the world’s environment, has encouraged the use of the circular economy by reusing materials and creating value from products and services that would otherwise go to waste. It supports programmes around the world in waste management and has assessed that greenhouse gas emissions could fall by 79 to 99 per cent across industrial sectors if the circular economy was adopted large-scale.
Turning trash to treasure
After applying the recycle and repurpose model, Waithaka was inspired to look at other everyday waste produced in Kenya that could be reused. Her curiosity led her to rice husks: the hard, protective coating of rice.
The husks, which are abundantly found in Kenya, contain opaline silicon dioxide and lignin. When farmers burn the husks to dispose of them after milling the rice, the silicon dioxide turns into cristobalite, a mineral that is toxic to the environment and that can cause permanent lung damage in people.
“From a health perspective, it is terrible and we have mounds and mounds around the country,” said Waithaka.
The Funkidz founder decided to try and create particle boards, otherwise known as low-density fibreboard, from the husks. The fireboard could then be covered with laminate, and used as a replacement for raw materials. In line with this, Funkidz will participate in the incubation programme of NETFUND to carry out research into the potential use of such particleboards for furniture and housing.
Waithaka said that instead of complaining about environmental policies impacting business, “we're going to be even that much more responsible and come up with a solution.”
She pointed to the impact that the rice husk innovation could have in the creation of jobs for the community, and said that while this was born from a challenge they encountered in Funkidz, this innovation was not going to be limited to operations in Funkidz, as it has so many other potential applications.
The company now has six months to build a one-bedroom house using the rice husk low-density fibreboard. They will test it for termite resistance among other things, which silicon dioxide is known for.
“Ciiru Waithaka is the epitome of a woman who has taken sustainability to another and realistic level, for the benefit of her community and products that are part of a circular economy,” said Musonda Mumba, Chief of the Terrestrial Ecosystems Unit at UN Environment. "She is the change SHE wants to see.”
Funkidz will be exhibiting approximately 25 pieces of furniture at the Sustainable Innovation Expo during the United Nations Environment Assembly to showcase their take on the circular economy.
During the United Nations Environment Assembly, from 11 to 19 March 2019, UN Environment is urging people to Think Beyond and Live Within. Join the debate on social media using #SolveDifferent to share your stories and see what others are doing to ensure a sustainable future for our planet.