This 26 Year Old From Kenya Is Churning Out Bricks From Plastic Waste
How much can you push yourself for your dreams and your conviction? When the world asks you to accept defeat and move on? Would you?
Nzambi Matee, Co-Founder and CEO of Gjenge Makers Ltd did everything possible in her capacity to keep chasing her dream. The dream which is driven by a purpose. From choreographing part-time to doing odd jobs to sustain her project, her conviction in her product gave her immense confidence.
So what is her idea? – Waste Management
Nairobi is a growing city with urban population leading this growth. It is one of the most densely populated areas of the country, contributing 8% to its population. It alone produces 2000 – 3000 tonnes of solid waste daily, a problem every citizen is aware of.
To the east of the city is one of the most significant challenges for the government to solve the Dandora dumpsite. In 2016-17, KSh 1.5 Bn was allocated for waste management by the Government. Moreso, as per article 42 of the Kenyan constitution, every citizen has the right to clean and healthy environment.
But how many individuals did really pay attention? This young girl recognized the opportunity in a cataclysm.
She was very close to letting it go!
“I had to do odd jobs to sustain my product,” tells Nzambi.
Just after passing college, she took up a job in 2016. She was working at National Oil Corporation of Kenya when she realized that she was not chasing a purpose. She was driven to work with ideas around social impact and being a student of Physics & Material Science; waste management was her first choice. Upon realization, she immediately quit her job and started working towards her objective.
During her research on tackling pollution, all her findings directed towards a gap in the plastic waste management. She discovered that plastic could be converted into polymer concrete, which could be then used for building homes and structures.
In Jan 2017, she began her journey of creating a product that could recycle plastic waste into building blocks. Her startup was bootstrapped, and she deployed her entire savings into product development. She was able to create the first prototype in March 2017, but to her dismay, it did not fall through the quality check, and could not be certified. And then was series of disappointments with 10-15 failed prototypes. The building blocks had to be both good looking and certified. Slowly, the six-member team that was involved in the research began parting ways.
Nzambi at this point was left alone with her failed product and no money to plow to her business. She says, “ I felt demoralized, and thought about quitting.” But at the same time, she remembered that she wanted to do something different with her life, and this was the time her being stubborn helped.
How she reached her watershed moment? – By not calling it quits!
She went back to her University lab to test her product once again to try out for compression. And this time the prototype came out really neat. She recalls this moment as a turning point in her journey. At this stage, she was motivated to improve her product further, but the lab did not have machines for further testing.
Her finance was entirely over by this time and friends and family started to talk her out of this pursuit. She approached banks for loans and investors for money, but no one was willing to fund her as she just had an idea and prototype, no customers. The Church, in fact, agreed to be the client but Nzambi was not convinced with this offer, as she wanted her product to get requisite attention.
She moved back to her parents’ house and started doing odd jobs to keep her dream going. She remembers, “ I choreographed videos and danced to raise money for my project.” It was during this period when family and friends started noticing her dedication. The family began to see merit in her product and started investing. She collected Ksh 30 k from friends and family to build her MVP.
She adds, “my mom never doubted me, it was only she who kept faith in me during the darkest hours.” Her mother let her use the backyard as the manufacturing unit for the product. Finally, in June 2017, Nzambi created the first successful MVP that ceased the doubt of people around her.
Whats happening now?
Gjenge Makers was selected for the December 2017 cohort of Make-It -Africa, which Nzambi identifies as a big boost. It was during her research on incubators that she bumped into Watson Institute, Lynn University, Colorado. She was chosen for the four months program and recently returned from New York after networking with mentors and investors.
To be able to do business at a viable level, the startup needs four machines to mass produce the bricks. An immediate pressing issue is also to find a place to set up the manufacturing unit. The current machine that she uses to make the blocks is noisy and inefficient. The neighbors around her mother’s house are not too happy with the disturbance but have given Nzambi time to find herself a new space.
The startup is looking to raise its seed money and has been talking to investors and VC’s again for getting its first external financing.
Nzambi also plans to get back to get back to Watsons Institute to pursue her second semester and hone her skills further for a deeper plunge into entrepreneurship. She has started ‘Brick by Brick’ campaign back in Kenya in partnership with a few schools. These partner schools will be the first beneficiary of her project’s pilot process. The schools will get a compound with bricks made from their plastic waste.
Feature Image: Nzambi Matee