In Kenya’s capital, less than half of all the waste produced by the city’s 4 million inhabitants undergoes any sort of treatment or recovery process. Most of it ends up burned, or tossed in open dumps. Fortunately, a dynamic network of innovators and start-ups are trying to turn the tide with smart solutions that tackle everything from food loss to e-waste management. We’re thrilled to be working together with some of these creative leaders in the WDCD No Waste Challenge in Nairobi, which seeks design-driven solutions to reduce waste in the region.
To learn more about what’s brewing in the city, we caught up with circular design champion Wekesa Zablon for a quick Q&A about the challenges and opportunities that inspire him most. Wekesa is the founder of Circular Design Nairobi, an organization that helps communities maximize resources by cutting out waste through design. Since 2017, the platform has focused on supporting local initiatives that engage creatives with the potential of circular practices, and that bring about structural change in the region. This includes implementing bike-sharing systems, re-thinking informal food markets and even creating new value chains from the city’s leftover waste products. See our full conversation, below.
Hi WEKESA! We are very excited to count Nairobi as one of our city partners in the No Waste Challenge. Can you tell us a little bit more about the city?
Nairobi is a vibrant metropolis with a diverse mix of communities from East Africa and the world. With this comes an appetite for culture, consumption and growth. The creative community is at the core of the city mechanics with rapidly changing city dynamics at play. Mobility and food systems are more than ever straining to adapt, and housing and utilities equally face the same challenges. The creative community is driving useful conversations on the fundamentals of last mile delivery of products, management of resources and geopolitics. What fills my heart with optimism is the multidisciplinary dimensionalism in creativity that is inspiring innovation at every level of society in Nairobi.
Top: Wekesa with the Circular Design Nairobi team. Bottom: the Bike-share initiative in action.
Your work often deals with sustainability and circularity. How did you first become aware about the environmental impact of your practice?
Well, for as long as I remember, I have been very aware of my environment. I majored in product design and worked with leather, glass, ceramics and plastics; this exposed me to understanding materials and their properties. Then, when I got introduced to the concept of human-centered design and product/service/system design, it reoriented my viewpoint on ecosystem services. Now, with the Circular Design Nairobi team, we apply a social-technical perspective to systems within hyper-local contexts.
How do you see the relationship between design and waste? Do you think it’s important that creatives feel a sense of responsibility?
Designers are responsible for waste in the systems that they bring to life. Products and services are meticulously planned and executed. In the design of everyday things, as Prof Don Norman brought out, the subconscious influences design systems and the resultant behaviour. This builds a formidable argument on the power that people who make design decisions wield on resource allocation and being intentional with eliminating wastage within systems.
“Designers are responsible for waste in the systems that they bring to life.”
What are some of the biggest challenges facing Nairobi when it comes to waste?
My take is that waste in Nairobi is a self-efficacy problem. From the decision-making design team member, to political leaders and heads of households, the difficulty to navigate out of wasteful behaviour is eminent. While we have messaging and policy on solid waste management in paper, our everyday living lacks examples of proper resource management.
It’s frustrating to learn that over three-quarters of household waste is land-filled with no other alternative, yet there exists systems that if properly articulated might divert that waste resource into by-products that are beneficial to people and the environment or that could modify upstream behaviour. Despite the availability of technical abilities to execute programmes that mitigate waste, the financial systems fall short of understanding risk in these perspectives, and thus the struggle to scale up systems. Overall the political economy in various systems and value chains is a major factor in influencing city dwellers’ mindsets toward resource management.
What are some key opportunities that innovators can focus on?
A key moment is community action—the ability to create a sense of leadership through active citizenship as the first step toward auditing water, energy, food systems, mobility, healthcare and environmental protection dimensions.
We have an opportunity to design financial instruments that cater for our micro-ecosystem waste management systems and that understands the risks at this level of abstraction to better fund resource management. With this in place, organizations can leverage patient and more risk-tolerant capital to innovate and learn.
“A key moment for Nairobi is community action.”
Are there any existing circular projects that you would like to highlight?
I love the milk and cooking oil ATMs in Kenya. These informal vending machines help eliminate unnecessary plastic packaging from low-income communities that have a porous solid waste management system. Another interesting project is Soko Fresh, who are working with the fresh fruit value chain and providing cold storage facilities for farmers and markets, in turn mitigating food waste.
Close the Gap Kenya is a makerspace refurbishing old IT equipment and making it available for social and educational programmes. Then there is Alisam Ltd by Newton Owino, who works with CBO’s in Kisumu to process fish waste into leather using vegetable extract and dyes.
Lastly, what advice would you give young creatives applying to the No Waste Challenge in Nairobi? Any ideas you’d be excited to see?
I am super excited about sorting at the source and household-focused interventions. I’m also keen on ideas that solve one problem at a time. Try to stay focused and avoid stretching yourself too thin trying to attack many problems with your solution.
Also, building a strong and clear journey map that illustrates how your proposed solution eliminates the pain points in your target user’s life is a wonderful approach.
For more inspiring stories like this, follow the No Waste Challenge, a global competition presented by What Design Can Do and the IKEA Foundation. Innovators from around the world are invited to submit creative solutions to reduce waste and rethink our entire production and consumption cycle. In Nairobi, the No Waste Challenge is working closely with the Kenya Climate Innovation Center to offer an extended track inspired by local problems and opportunities. Applications are open until 20 April 2021.
LEARN MORE BY VISITING THE CHALLENGE PLATFORM >