Nzambi Matee is a Nairobi-based entrepreneur and inventor who is the founder of a startup which recycles plastic waste into bricks that are stronger than concrete. Nzambi launched her company initiated following the development of a prototype machine that turns discarded plastic into paving stones. Each day her factory can produce 1,500 churned plastic pavers, which are prized locally not just for the quality, but for how affordable they are.
“It is absurd that we still have this problem of providing decent shelter — a basic human need. Plastic is a material that is misused and misunderstood. The potential is enormous, but its after life can be disastrous.”
— Nzambi Matee
Nzambi created her company after majoring in material science and then working as an engineer in Kenya’s oil industry. In 2017 she left her job to start creating and testing her ‘pavers’, which are a combination of plastic and sand. Nzambi gets her waste material for free from packaging factories and also buys it from other recyclers. Through a long process of experimentation, she was able to understand understood which plastics bind better together, and then created the machinery needed to mass-produce them.
This example of lateral thinking and entrepreneurial innovation is notable for many reasons, but foremost because it highlights how we can and must rethink how we manufacture industrial products and then also deal with them at the end of their useful life. Manufacturers have no responsibility to ensure that their products are disposed of safely or recycled at the end of their useful life, and this imbalance undermines the drive toward sustainability.
Unfortunately it would politically and commercially impossible to regulate so that manufacturers or retailers retain responsibility for the recycling of products at the end of their useful life, not least because this would inevitably mean price rises for consumers.
So it is left to entrepreneurs like Nzambi Matee to spearhead the kind of innovation which highlights the economic and environmental opportunities when we move from a linear economy, where products, once used, are discarded, to a circular one, where products and materials continue in the system for as long as possible.
So far Nzambi has managed to recycle more than 20 tonnes of plastic waste into paving bricks that come in an array of colours. Not only are they incredibly strong — tested to hold twice the weight threshold of concrete blocks — but the manufacturing startup has also generated 112 local job opportunities for garbage collectors, women and youth groups.
I blog often about the work of my Tej Kohli Foundation and Tej Kohli Cornea Institute in making grassroots interventions that can improve lives. Most frequently these interventions are about empowering individuals to be economically active and, in some cases, to become entrepreneurs. If my Tej Kohli Cornea Institute cures someone of blindness they are free to see the beautiful world, but they can also contribute more to society.
For me this is where NGOs and not-for-profit organisations can play their role — in removing inequalities in access to basic human needs such as healthcare. But I firmly believe that, with micro-financing also available, it is then for individuals and entrepreneurs to then resolve how we can create businesses and grow economies and develop a more sustainable relationship with the world. Nzambii Matee is a great example of this.