Nzambi Matee is a Kenyan mechanical engineer and environmentalist known for her innovative and creative ways of converting waste into sustainable materials.
The 29-year-old runs Gjenge Makers where she recycles plastics to make bricks that are stronger than concrete material and last longer.
Here is Matee’s story as told by WoK.
Education and venturing into waste management
After completion of her secondary education, Matee joined college and pursued physics and material engineering.
She completed her studies and worked as an engineer in the oil industry and a data analyst before quitting the job in 2017.
Matee decided to fully venture into sustainability and waste management by setting up a small workstation at her mother’s backyard.
She started off by making and tasting pavers, with the process taking her an entire year to come up with the right ratios for the paving bricks.
In 2019, the engineer made her own machine in a bid to produce the plastic bricks in large scale; even as she faced a backlash from neighbors due to her noisy machine.
Scholarship and founding Gjenge Makers
Matee was fortunate to win a scholarship to a social entrepreneurship training programme in the United States of America.
During her time in the US, she worked round the clock to find ways of bettering her innovation including testing and refining the ratios of sand to plastic.
It was after the programme in the US when she founded her startup company, Gjenge Makers, where she recycles plastic waste into bricks and paving stones.
The company produces between 500 to 1000 bricks per day, recycling close to 500 kilograms of plastic waste a day.
“Plastic waste is not just a Kenya problem, but it’s a worldwide problem. Here Nairobi we generate about 500 metric tones of plastic waste every single day and only a fraction of that is recycled
“We decided what more can we do instead of just sitting in the sidelines and complaining. Essentially, companies have to pay to dispose the waste, so we solved their problem,” Matee said in a previous interview.
To make bricks, Matee explained that they first source for plastics, either from packaging factories or local recycler, before mixing it with sand using a machine at very high temperatures and then the press compresses it.
For instance, the pavers which are fully certified by the Kenyan Bureau of Standards have a melting point of over 350°C and they are much stronger than their concrete equivalents.
“Plastic is fibrous in nature, so therefore, the brick ends up having a stronger compression strength. We right now have a capacity of producing 1000 to 15000 bricks a day
“So far we have recycled 20 metric tons, and we’re looking to push that value to 50 by the end of next financial year,” Matee explained.
Matee was in 2020 named the Young Champion of the Earth 2020 Africa winner at the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) thanks to her innovation.
“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,” she said.