Nowadays, the humanitarian community is thriving to embed Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) and cross-cutting policies on sustainability in its programmes and operations. It’s exciting to see so many organizations exploring solutions to contribute to achieve one or more SDG, partnering to deliver on common goals. With this objective in mind, the Danish Refugee Council started looking into responsible production and consumption mechanisms and circular economy business models enabling the creation of value chains for vulnerable populations and reduce plastic waste volumes. 

Humanitarian operations largely take part in places with lacking waste management infrastructure, where managing plastic waste is challenging in the best contexts, and near impossible in most – leading to disposal by landfill or worse, burning which creates toxic gases and affects the health and wellbeing of local communities. However, not every context is the same and the Danish Refugee Council (DRC) has, by collaborating with local stakeholders, been able to launch an innovative project in Kenya to make sure that plastic packaging not only doesn’t end up in landfills, but also becomes a precious resource: that’s what the Fair Recycling Project is about!

The Fair Recycling Project

The Fair Recycling Project aims at creating an inclusive plastic recycling ecosystem in Kenya for informal workers and refugees. It represents a collaborative effort between DRC, Mr. Green Africa, and Unilever: those partners cover the whole plastics recycling value chain and aim to completely transform Kenya’s plastic waste collection sector in the next 10 years. They plan to collectively achieve this goal by engaging the local communities, creating jobs and providing training opportunities.  The creation of waste-picker jobs has served to formalize a previously informal job sector in these communities, resulting in increased income, decent jobs, and safer work conditions.

Kenya, DRC
Kenya, Maurice Onzere Ala/DRC

The partners all bring their own unique flavor to the project: DRC brings in its long and wide experience in working with refugees and host communities, Mr. Green Africa brings their experience in sourcing and processing of locally collected plastic wastes into high quality post-consumer recyclables at par with virgin plastics, and Unilever provides a steady market for the Post-Consumer Recycled materials to create products used across Kenya and beyond.   

Voices from the field: the experiences of Francis and Rukundo

Francis, 47, from Kariobangi North - Dandora area started picking waste using a back-carried sack and selling it in 2016 to make money and a living. He used to work for over 12 hours, starting at 6AM and returning home around 7PM completely exhausted. The following year, he realized that he could upscale this activity by buying and aggregating plastic waste from other small waste pickers, understanding that higher volumes of plastic wastes fetched higher prices. He ventured into the tier as a medium-scale operator and benefitted from capacity building with respect to business skills and financial management from Mr. Green Africa. Coincidentally, at this time, Mr. Green Africa was also supporting waste-pickers with a small loan facility ranging from Kshs 5,000 – 30,000. Thanks to the waste volumes collected by his business, he was able to secure a Kshs 30,000 loan, with which he was able to open a store where he would receive plastic waste types from smaller dealers whom he would pay between Kshs 15 – 20 per Kg – buying up to 800 kg of waste per week until the outbreak of the Covid 19 pandemic. Having transitioned to a medium-scale business in the last 6 years now, he has been able to provide for his family and purchase a plot where he intends to put up his home, identifying plastic waste collection as a viable business opportunity despite its numerous challenges and accessing loans from banks or microfinance institutions. Drawing from his personal experience, he wishes that other small-scale pickers could migrate to the second tier of medium-scale if they accessed loans. His future plan is to grow into a large-scale supplier benefiting from economies of scale.

Rukundo is a 33-year-old Burundian refugee who came to Kenya on 26th June 2019 after running away from the ravaging war in Burundi. He heard and was inspired to venture into the plastic collection business during a forum about the Fair Recycling Project organized by the Danish Refugee Council (DRC) in March 2022. In the framework of the Fair Recycling project funded by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Denmark under DANIDA Market Development Partnerships (DMMDP), he later received training on the basic Standard Operating Procedures (SOPs) as rolled out by DRC jointly with Mr. Green Africa (MGA). The training allowed him and other waste pickers to gain expertise on the objective of the project, the value of plastics, required plastics, tips to acquire plastics and plastic pricing schemes. Since he understood the value chain of plastics, Rukundo started collecting and selling plastic materials: in only one week, he was able to collect 46 Kg of plastics which he sold at one of MGA’s trading points in Kawangware earning KES 1,104. In addition, he was given the DRC-MGA Client registration card and a packaging sack for his products which has been a motivation for him to continue with the business. He is determined to grow and move to tier 2 within a span of three months and he now encourages fellow refugees to follow his path and understand that plastic should be seen as a resource instead of waste.

What next?

The 3-year project aims at integrating informal and marginalized waste pickers, including refugees, in a formalized plastics recycling value chain, resulting in increased income, decent jobs and safer work conditions.

Kenya 2, DRC
Kenya, Maurice Onzere Ala/DRC

Steps have been made to turn plastic waste collection and recycling into a feasible and inclusive business case in Nairobi that addresses important topics, such as fair prices and formalization of waste pickers in the value chain. Mr. Green Africa is already promoting opportunities through different employment levels (part of the integrated project design) from its base of waste pickers. In other words, the integrated planning of the project is already resulting in increased employment opportunities for the community, with more responsibility and promotions available for the most ambitious waste pickers.

DRC is currently in the process of conducting a feasibility study in Kakuma to validate the project assumptions that would allow Mr. Green Africa to expand its operations in the refugee camp setting.  If the assumptions are  verified, thereby confirming operational and financial viability, the project partners will aim to source additional funding to scale up operations in the targeted refugee camp and other camp settings throughout Kenya.  

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