Females-In-Tech Spotlight: Nzambi Matee
Nzambi Matee is changing our world one brick at a time. The young Kenyan witnessed plastic bags in her native Nairobi streets and rivers. There, plastic waste has become a huge pollution strain. So much so that the National Environmental Management Agency (NEMA) found that the majority of cattle in the area had plastic bags in their stomachs. The Kenyan government then outlawed the use of plastic bags more than three years ago, and banned single-use plastics last year. Still, the government’s actions were slow, and plastic pollution was literally piling up in the streets. Nzambi, having been an oil-industry engineer, wanted to change the pollution and life-cycle of plastic. She commented to World Architecture, “We decided what more can we do instead of just sitting in the sidelines and complaining. Essentially, companies have to pay to dispose of the waste, so we solved their problem.”
Fed up with the slow government and polluted streets, Nzambi left her comfortable career and jumped into building a sustainable solution for plastic. “I jumped in, off a cliff without even a parachute. I was building it as I was falling down. But isn't that how great things are done?” Nzambi remarks. But vision, hard work, and a strong understanding of materials led her down a path of testing and re-testing the right material solution. If you mix plastics with sand, you make a substance that's harder than concrete. Nzambi set up shop in her mother’s backyard in 2017. The neighbors complained about her noisy mixing machines, but she had thrown herself into making a use for the thrown-out, polluting plastics. Nzambi remembers, "I shut down my social life for a year, and put all my savings into this,” she said, "My friends were worried."
It wasn’t long before she won a scholarship to study in the University of Colorado Boulder materials lab. Flying across the pond, she packed prototype bricks of the plastic/sand solutions in her luggage. Her time at UC Boulder allowed her to finalize not just the machines to make the recycled materials into pavers, but refine the plastic-to-sand ratio prototype.
Nzambi was well on her way to founding Gjenge Makers. Using her proprietary machines and plastic-sand formula, she started producing recycled plastic brick pavers by the ton. Today the company still uses high-and-low density polyethylene and polypropylene as raw materials. These plastics are often found in everyday items such as milk or shampoo bottles, shopping and sandwich bags, flip flops and even buckets. As explained to Reuters, Nzambi makes it a point to not use polyethylene terephthalate or PET in her raw materials. Sourcing plastics from factories, recycler houses, and sometimes freely donated plastic, the team turns the plastic/sand formula into solid pavers. And she’s very proud to point out that the specific mix is five to seven times stronger than concrete. The pavers made of recycled plastics have a melting point higher than 350 degrees celsius. The plastic waste is mixed just right, with the appropriate heat and time, it’s virtually unbreakable.
The success of the young company is impressive. Brick pavers are sold according to color and size wanted. The common gray bricks are $7.70 per square meter. The low cost makes it affordable for schools, non-profits, and homeowners. But various colors and patterns are available. Today Nzambi’s team is making 1,000 - 1,5000 bricks a day. But her vision is much bigger, "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" she states. This entrepreneur is solving plastic, developing a sustainable company, and creating tons of jobs. In less than four years she’s hired over 120 employees in Nairobi. Understandably, she plans to expand across Africa.
Nzambi and her company, Gjenge Makers, are growing rapidly. But this is not just a solution for just Kenya. Today, UNEP reports that people purchase 1 million plastic drinking bottles every minute. That’s 5 trillion single-use plastic bags bought annually. And to-date, only 9% of all plastic waste ever produced has been recycled. About 80% has ended up in landfills, dumps or nature. Earth Day was started in the 1970s so we could examine our own waste, yet over fifty years later, our habits of plastic consumerism have exponentially increased. As we tackle climate change on a global scale, it’s important to connect how Nzambi’s recycling solution can contribute positively to changing manufacturing. As reported by Business Insider, Bill Gates notes, "Look at the plastic, steel, and cement around you. All of it contributed to climate change." Cleaning up our current plastic waste, and replacing additional production of cement is a direct answer to notching away at the world’s current climate emergency.
Nzambi’s story is important for women, African women in particular. She has worked around and risen above bias and red tape. Her ingenuity, determination, and spirit shines all over Kenya and all over Africa. Nzambi, we are huge supporters of your work and team at Gjenge Makers, as well as your leadership in entrepreneurship and sustainability. We look forward to you shining around the world.