Students reaping a fortune from the Kibera plastic menace

During this year’s Madaraka Day celebrations, two students from Langata Secondary School, just like their peers, enjoyed a sumptuous meal; afterward, the school’s compound was littered with plastic bottles, bottles tops, papers and drinking straws.

While others were busy exchanging pleasantries on how the day unfolded, 17-year-old Yassin Watete and Ronald Onyango, had other ideas. They decided to collect the bottles, with a plan to put them into good use.

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They turned the plastic garbage into a ‘decorated bottle tree’. And that is how they unlocked their innovative skills. So far, they have created beautiful pieces using the garbage that they collect from the school compound and the nearby kibera slums; flower pots, pen holders, pocket mirrors, hardcovers, and even decorated waste bottles are some of the items in their portfolio.

The site of discarded plastic bottles lying along the road, or floating through open drains of sprawling slums of Kibera is disturbing. When it rains, this waste goes on to choke the stinking rivers that snake its way out of the slum and the debris becomes a disaster for marine life.

Environmentalists are further warning that burning plastics releases chlorofluorocarbons that deplete the ozone layer.

Away from classwork, the duo collects plastic waste to help conserve the environment while at the same time make a tidy sum from their creations. 

“By turning plastic waste into an opportunity, we wanted to get some little pocket money and leave a better world for tomorrow’s generation. We get raw materials from the nearby Kibera slums during weekends when we are not in school,” narrates young Watete, who wants to become an engineer in the future.

They sell the bottle tree at Sh700 while the decorated waste bottle goes for Sh1, 000. 

But how did they start? The duo are part of a community service learning programme run by Educate! In collaboration with Kenya Institute of Curriculum Development (KICD) whose aim is to test concepts student learn in the classroom to real-life situation to enhance entrepreneurship, social awareness and responsibility.

A study of 1,500 US students published in the Michigan Journal of Community Learning noted the learning area changes students’ personal values within just six months, significantly raising the chances of students entering careers that help others, and raising their levels of volunteering and community leadership.

It has also been shown to increase students’ belief in their ability to solve community problems and their sense of connection with the community.

According to Onyango, since joining the programme in 2018, he no longer looks at waste the way he used to do. He believes this waste is the same he watched littered all over the school compound endangering the lives of aquatic animals and is glad to have since changed the narrative.

Education experts believe there is need to equip learners with skills that will enable them create livelihoods and solve local problems.

“Learning should be very practical, so that when students leave school they are prepared to create jobs for others,” said Diana Mwai, Educate!’s Kenya Program Director adding the Kenyan program was rolled under the theme ‘Igniting the High School Social .Entrepreneur’.

Such initiatives, education experts agree, are a training ground for next-generation innovators and social entrepreneurs.

“It has taught me to be a critical thinker who can solve challenges in the community. I now not only see waste bottles or materials as just ‘waste’ but something I can use to make a change in the communities livelihood and environment” said Watete.

And so how do they do it? After collecting the plastic bottles, they wash them and sort out to help them know which material is used in which creation. The plastic waste is then cut into different sizes depending on the model that they are working on and then it is glued together. And for example, when making the base of the bottle tree, they use an old cup that forms the base.

However cultivating an innovative and entrepreneurial mindset among learners still has challenges among them; school extra-curricular activities, learners transferring to other institutions and late introduction to such programs.

Recently during an exhibition organized by Educate and KICD, the duo’s project won in two different categories. “Our project wooed the judges and we were awarded two certificates as Best School on Community Engagement and Innovation Category”

“Yes, we are secondary students but that does not mean we should not touch dirt. On that day we sold one of the mirrors for Sh1000. We are really enjoying it to the end,” said Watete,   some projects are life-enriching in the future, she added.

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