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Entrepreneur turns plastic waste into a way to save trees in Kenya

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Muhammad Hamed/Reuters/File

(Read caption) Plastic waste is seen at the plastic waste exhibition "Sea, the Last Leg" in Amman, Jordan, 2014.

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Plastic littering the streets of Kariobangi is an eyesore for many residents. But for Aghan Oscar it spells opportunity.

Thirteen years ago, Aghan, bothered by the ever-increasing quantity of plastic waste in this low-income suburb of Nairobi, decided to find a way to recycle it.

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Now his company, Continental Renewable Energy (COREC), produces poles for use in construction, farming and road signage. So far he’s sold 96,000, and he says his potential for growth is limited only by the considerable expense of setting up plastic recycling plants.

He and others are calling on the Kenyan government to do more to support entrepreneurship for conservation.

Most of Aghan’s customers are farmers and developers who once used wooden fence poles. COREC’s solid black polythene poles are more durable and cheaper than timber, he says.

Customers say they have other benefits as well.

“I have fenced my piece of land three times using wood posts, but most of the time the fence was vandalized by villagers who used the posts as firewood,” said Caleb Kapten, one of Aghan’s customers from Bungoma in western Kenya. Now plastic posts have stopped the problem, he said.

The Kenya National Highways Authority is one of COREC’s biggest customers. It approached the company after road signs were vandalized by criminals who sold the metal poles to steel manufacturing companies.

“So far we have sold (the Highways Authority) 28,000 poles,” Aghan said. He reckons that COREC’s products have saved the government millions of shillings, besides preventing road accidents.

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“When I started this recycling venture in 2003, most of my employees were my family members due to financial constraints,” Aghan said. Now he employs 250 young people to collect plastic waste – the first step in the production process.

Fifty more youths work on the production line, where the waste is sorted according to quality before being crushed and washed, melted and molded into different shapes. The poles are then arranged by shape and size for sale in the yard of the recycling plant.

Aghan would like to scale up his production to meet growing demand. His machines can only handle 80-100 tons of plastic per month, and he has plans to double his capacity – but the cost of the recycling machinery is a serious constraint.

He says more should be done to support recycling since it can be a source of employment for many young people. Other people have approached him for advice about starting recycling plants of their own, he said, but they are put off by the high start-up and operating costs.

Oscar Ochieng, a solid waste management strategist at World Vision, a non-governmental organization that has incorporated environmental conservation in its programs, said he agrees that start-up costs and the high cost of maintaining imported recycling machines scare away many potential climate change entrepreneurs. He believes government tax breaks would help.

Richard Mwendandu, director of multilateral environmental agreements in the Kenyan environment ministry, said the government has not created these kinds of tax breaks, but has been running media campaigns promoting recycling and reuse of plastic waste.

Aghan points out that COREC has been able to conserve large numbers of trees by producing plastic poles.

“One kilogram of plastic waste saves 2.5kg of carbon emissions, and for every 10 plastic posts produced, one tree is saved. Recycling is definitely the best bet in conserving the environment,” he said.

Edward Mungai, chief executive of the Climate Innovation Center, a non-governmental body supported by the World Bank that supports climate innovators, says entrepreneurs such as Aghan should be encouraged with financial and marketing support and training.

“To fight climate change it has to be business unusual,” Mungai said. “Let’s help and encourage climate innovators and entrepreneurs through financing start-ups. We must think outside the box.”

Reporting by Benson Rioba; editing by James Baer and Laurie Goering. This story originally appeared on the website of the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters that covers humanitarian news, climate change, women's rights, trafficking, and property rights. Visit www.news.trust.org.