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Tackling Kenya’s plastic waste begins in the playground


Plastic litter and dumped waste are degrading the environment in Kenya. To change public attitudes towards waste, Unilever Hero Draganah Omwange recruited an enthusiastic set of changemakers – schoolchildren in Nairobi, one school at a time.

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Every year, we recognise pioneering individuals within the company who have brought our values to life and truly embody what it means to be part of Unilever. Our 2019 Heroes with Impact have gone above and beyond their day-to-day jobs. Their stories paint a picture of passion, purpose and drive.

Kenya is awash with plastic litter. The problem is especially acute in the big cities. Nairobi, for example, produces around 2,400 tonnes of waste a day, of which roughly 60% is collected and only around 10% recycled. The rest is dumped illegally or burned.

“People dump everything without caring and it becomes the next-door neighbour’s problem,” says Draganah Omwange, Unilever Future Leader in Marketing. “This dumping is clogging the rivers and even the roads are becoming impassable.”

Draganah joined Unilever straight from university in 2016. She found her chance to get directly involved in an environmental initiative by mapping out a scheme to improve plastic waste recycling. She secured funding of €234,000 for the project from Unilever’s East Africa Brighter Future Fund.

At its heart was the recognition that children are the best agents of change. “Adults have firm, unshakeable beliefs,” she says. “But children are like a clean leaf and have a strong impact on their parents.”

The campaign was called U-Turn because it involved a change in mindset. Instead of seeing plastic as waste, the aim was to change the perception of waste in Kenya, starting with children as a way of getting future generations on board. Around 180 primary schools were enlisted, some of which are based in Kibera, Kenya’s biggest slum. Pupils collected discarded plastic containers and the schools provided collection points. Children are shown the value of keeping the environment clean and the benefits of recycling. “We are teaching them that ‘plastics equals value’,” adds Draganah.

The project partners with waste management company Mr Green Africa, which collects the plastic bottles from the schools and recycles them.

Everyone is a winner here. Collection is a prime challenge for waste recyclers, and the U-Turn scheme is providing a new source of plastic waste ready for recycling. The partnership has also created employment for over 2,700 waste pickers who help collect the waste.

And a new recycling culture is gaining traction, shifting entrenched attitudes towards plastic littering and turning waste into value. Over 1 million people have already been reached by the campaign. The U-Turn project is also being scaled up and extended to the cities of Kisumu and Mombasa.

The judges of the Unilever Heroes Awards praised this “great initiative in linking plastic recycling with job creation in Kenya”.

For Draganah, one of the enduring rewards of the project has been to see the positive influence it has had on the schoolchildren involved. “Listening to them singing and chanting – it makes me feel so proud,” she concludes.

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