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Starting a business in Kibera or in one of Nairobi’s other informal settlements comes with it’s challenges that you won’t necessarily face elsewhere. However, savvy entrepreneurs in these areas know how to turn challenges into opportunities. Waste disposal for instance is a recurrent problem; often being found clogging water disposal systems, polluting water sources, or simply being burnt, releasing dangerous toxins in the air. The beauty of some of our entrepreneurs’ businesses is that they are tackling these issues in the design of their product!

Abraham Khayule’s Potter’s Briquettes, Susan & Meshack’s Afriknit Dolls, Josephine Kanini Mwangaza  Candles and David & Lucy’s Mfalme Biogas, all contribute to reducing waste from their surrounding communities while offering amazing products. Potter’s Briquettes produces briquettes from sugarcane waste that are not only healthier when burnt than charcoal, but are smokeless, odourless, and burn longer than traditional briquettes. Afriknit Dolls take the scrap fabric from making uniforms, while also collecting scraps from other tailors, to knit fabric dolls that represent African culture and heritage. Mwangaza Candles employs women to make candle out of industrial wax waste to provide non toxic lighting opportunity for her community. Finally, the Mflame Biogas is looking to recycle slaughterhouse manure into biogas and fertilizer giving a cleaner and healthier energy option to their community, as well as converting the waste they produce into fertilizer. These entrepreneurs all represent the many people contributing to the circular economy that exists in informal settlements.  

Waste management is an important issue for cities and urban areas, which produce 75 % of our planet’s waste, while only occupying 2 to 3 % of it’s surface area. A circular economy is an effective way to organize economic activity to reduce waste. It is often summed up with three actions, the 3 Rs: Re-use, Reduce, & Recycle, such reusing materials that were already used for the same purpose, reducing the amount of material used in the first place, and recycling waste.

The entrepreneurs all use the concepts in their own way, without necessarily adhering to the academic definitions of the circular economy, but they definitively practice the 3r’s. May it be reusing wax for candles, recycling slaughterhouse waste into biogas and fertilizer, re-using tailor scraps to make dolls, or reducing the amount of charcoal made from burning wood and replacing it with recycled sugarcane waste, they are implementing the circular economy at a micro-level, notably with the concepts of eco design and cleaner production as well as the recovery of resources and environmental impact prevention concepts. They improve the environment of their surroundings, the health of their communities, all while creating a living for themselves and their employees in areas which usually have staggering unemployment rates.

Starting a business in an informal settlements is difficult, but the same difficulties can lead to opportunity when businesses design their solutions properly and take into account the social and environmental needs that surround them. The Somo Project is happy to be there as a partner and help these entrepreneurs take their designs to reality!

Author: Dylan Hervé

Used for this blog post:

Ghisellini, P., et al., A review on circular economy: the expected transition to a balanced interplay of environmental and economic systems, Journal of Cleaner Production (2015)