Working together to innovate scaling and recycling of PPE in Kenya

Chime Asonye

April 16, 2021

A SilAfrica team member wearing a PPE gown and putting on face mask

A SilAfrica team member wearing their medical gown PPE items

COVIDaction social enterprises SilAfrica and Taka Taka Solutions came to us as a package. Both based in Kenya and witnessing the challenges COVID-19 presented around production and reuse of personal protective equipment (PPE) materials, they decided to partner to provide an end to end solution. Their approach is helping tackle unemployment and stems a growing environmental crisis: plastic pollution from the rise of single-use PPEs.

Akshay Shah, Group Executive Director of SilAfrica and Daniel Paffenholz, Chief Executive Officer of TakaTaka Solutions (TakaTaka) both observed the emergence of the COVID-19 pandemic in similar ways. Like many of us, they thought initially the outbreak would be localised but as the virus continued to spread, their thoughts turned to the business of personal protective equipment (PPE).

Plastics packaging company, SilAfrica, and waste management firm, Taka Taka, have worked together in the past, finding solutions to recycling problems. “There should be more companies like SilAfrica,” says Paffenholz. “Ultimately recycling works for everyone. What I appreciate about SilAfrica is that it is really trying to make the recycling of difficult materials work. They are open to testing and really experiment so we can get a solution to these problems.”

Akshay Shah, Group Executive Director of SilAfrica, standing in front of a bookcase

Akshay Shah, Group Executive Director of SilAfrica


At SilAfrica, while the firm worked to make sure employees across three countries would have a safe working environment, Shah realised that it would not just be his firm that would need protection, “I knew there would be many other companies, communities, and schools facing challenges around hand hygiene, protective clothing for front line workers, and low-income communities who don’t have access to clean toilets, especially during lockdown more people use the same pit latrine toilets. We were in a position to solve these three problems by repurposing our production lines, route to market model, and partnering with those who have competencies we don’t have or need to build.”

The result was Smart Handwash Stations with water level sensors that send a signal to alert when water needs to be refilled. This was connected to a network of water trucks to bring water on demand to those communities outside the established water infrastructure grid.

Along with this, SilAfrica provided installed pit latrines that can help significantly reduce communicable and infectious diseases and worked on producing the low-cost protective gowns that are transparent, tear-resistant, and protect frontline workers.

While SilAfrica was busy manufacturing, TakaTaka was also committed to protecting the community. Although the business was seeing revenue losses through the closure of malls, bars, and restaurants which no longer required waste collection, the firm was contacted by a government representative requesting help to provide waste collection for all of Nairobi’s quarantine centres for five months.

Better together

Both firms worked hard to pivot their businesses and provide services to communities braced for the impact of COVID-19. It took SilAfrica two weeks to make changes to its existing lines and produce appropriate stretch wrap — which the business normally used to secure packaging and loads for storage and logistics companies. “Stretch wrap is produced at a thickness of 8 to 30 microns,” Shah explains as he describes how his company evolved its product to meet the challenges of the pandemic. “The material needed to pass the quality and safety standards needed to be at 80 microns and remain tear-resistant. After the modification, we now have a line that can also produce 80 micron thick tear-resistant flexible ‘fabric’ for making protective wear.”

While SilAfrica was able to turn around fast to produce materials from which PPE can be made, it does not have the capability to turn out gowns, masks, and headcovers. The firm turned to a strong community of makers in Kenya with the talent to change this quickly.

Jua Kali tailors are talented makers, artisans, and business people that are part of the country’s informal economic sector. They usually work outside established channels with offices often on the roadside and dispersed within the urban and slum districts of Kenya. They were just what Shah needed to make the items that were urgently needed. “We looked for those who could provide a large number of tailors, who could be paid to convert the fabric roll into a gown/headcover as per a standard universal size design,” he says. “Initially it was a challenge as our competency is based on mass manufacturing at scale, while the tailors who are part of the Jua Kali Association tend to do more craftwork, so we had to moderate our expectations and help with setting up some quality control processes to appropriately support them.”

Together, Silafrica and the Jua Kali have entered into a partnership to produce over 100,000 medical gowns for commercial and philanthropic use, which is supporting employment and livelihoods for the informal workers. COVIDaction Local Production and Local Solutions (LPLS) is also assisting Silafrica to do research and development to create new production tools like an electric hand sealer and dye presser cutter that will streamline manufacturing of the PPE. The company intends to transfer ownership of the materials to support Jua Kali production capacity in the future.

A SilAfrica team member wearing PPE gown and putting on a mask

A SilAfrica team member wearing their medical gown PPE items

Circular design in mind

As the world adjusted to the spread of COVID-19, one of the initial problems was the lack of PPE available to frontline workers. In March 2020, the World Health Organisation warned that this shortage was endangering health workers worldwide and called on industry and governments to increase manufacturing by 40 per cent to meet rising demand. By December 2020, shortages were not much better as health organisations used up their just-in-time supplies and local sourcing and production in many places had still not geared up to cover the shortfall.

The situation is a grim reminder of why Local Production and Local Solutions are vital and that systems need to be supported and available for when things go wrong. This is not just a manufacturing issue, of course, it is a problem too of waste.

While SilAfrica worked with the Kenyan informal sector to scale production of PPE, there was still the challenge of collection and recycling of that PPE, or it would add to plastic pollution and have a lasting impact on the environment. Enter Taka Taka. “I always strongly believe that waste should be handled, recycled and sold locally,” says Paffenholz. “I don’t think waste should be processed, semi-processed, or fully processed by being exported. It is a local resource and it’s creating much better loops and better accountability within an economy if the waste that is produced can be handled and reused and recycled and then reused again locally.”

Recycling PPE is not an easy problem to solve but as SilAfrica was working with COVIDaction’s LPLS team, it made sense to bring in TakaTaka to work on finding a solution. “We hadn’t looked at PPE as a recycling input because the waste volume was never very high, Paffenholz explains. Along with the low levels of volume, he also says that behaviour change is a big part of the problem. “We need to get people to separate somewhat risky items out, get them collected, set up the infrastructure for that and then have it recycled. The recycling is not difficult, the really difficult part is getting people to separate it and then being able to collect it.”

TakaTaka is now piloting an integrated waste management and recycling solution for Covid-19 PPE. The company is setting up and testing a collection-return system in partnership with the SilAfrica and Jua Kali operation. The used PPE medical gowns will be gathered in various locations in containers and stored using appropriate health and safety measures. Then the materials will be sorted with the non-plastic parts disassembled and processed into high quality recycled plastic pellets for further use by identified off-takers. This will mitigate the toxic impact that the PPE would have otherwise had on the environment. As the model is evaluated and refined for specific product waste management and tracking, the company hopes to develop and apply it to other waste streams. Paffenholz will also use the initiative to engage the government on effective ways to regulate take-back schemes for PPE plastic waste as Kenya is currently reforming its sustainable waste management laws.

While the circular economy is an important area of development across the African continent, Paffenholz points out there are dangers in romanticising current efforts, “People say, ‘Oh, in Africa so many things get reused!’, and yes, certainly the level of reusable items — clothes, plastic cans, and such — these are much higher and fewer things are thrown away, but it’s generally a myth that Africa is so great at recycling.

“The majority of things get thrown away, but people have less income so they have fewer things to throw away in total. People do use things for a longer period of time, but fundamentally the waste problem is still massive. I tend to believe there is an inherent circular economy here is being overly romantic.”

Daniel Paffenholz, Chief Executive Officer of Taka Taka Solutions, sitting at table with arms folded

Daniel Paffenholz, Chief Executive Officer of Taka Taka Solutions

Family influencers

Both company leaders appear to have circular economy principles in their blood. Shah grew up surrounded by the plastics manufacturing family business where he says it made environmental and economic sense to work in sustainable ways.

Paffenholz also received motivation from his family. “My mother is in post-conflict peace-building so I think her concern was always that her sons or children would do something meaningful and investment banking which was one of the other things I was looking at, didn’t really fit that bill in her eyes. She felt she could get me to do something more meaningful and do a business here and then I could address the waste issue, I think she thought that was a good entry. I think that nudge really came from my parents.”

It’s no surprise that the two businesses work well together as both have a very long view of the future, “The biggest problem this world is facing is a problem of climate change,” says Paffenholz. “I think that’s the biggest challenge we have as humanity. There are multiple contributing factors from renewable energy sources and circular economy is one of them. We have limited resources, making something out of new things is not almost always but always more energy-intensive. It falls to us to create a planet that still exists in a hundred years. I think ultimately we all need to work on practical solutions towards that and I think waste management is essential for that. That’s at a deeper level a real motivating factor.”

Shah agrees, “While it’s not a threat I may have to face in my lifetime, this is the time and generation to make the transition from a linear to a circular economy before it’s too late. The added bonus is that the circular economy will create a lot more jobs as new business models emerge to repair, reuse, and return besides recycling.”


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