10 Young Afripreneurs Creating Solutions By Recycling and Upcycling

Cyrus Kabiru

Africa has been experiencing a rapid growth in the past few decades, and as the continent grows in different spheres, the amount of byproducts and waste has also been rising. Today, waste management remains one of the major challenges on the continent. According to a World Bank Report, waste generation in Sub-Saharan Africa is approximately 62 million tons per year. The report indicates that with the rapid urbanisation and economic growth, the waste generation is expected to double by 2025.

The good news is that some young African entrepreneurs are coming up with innovations that transform waste into valuable products. The entrepreneurs are spread across the continent ranging from Nigeria, Uganda to South Africa and their products range from beauty accessories to products that we use in our day-to-day businesses, such as packaging paper bags.

10 Outstanding African Entrepreneurs

Andrew Mupuya – YELI, Uganda

Andrew Mupuya

Necessity is the mother of inventions, and this statement is a true definition of Andrew Mupuya’s life. The award-winning entrepreneur was barely 16 when he founded Youth Entrepreneurial Link Investments (YELI). This was in 2008 when both of his parents had lost their jobs and could only afford to pay his school fees, so Andrew had to fend for his own basic needs. He decided to start a small business. However, he did not have a starting capital, so he started collecting used plastic bottles and plastics bags, which he sold to retail shops and recycling plants.

During that time, the Ugandan government had just announced its intention to ban the use of plastic bags, and from his many rounds to the local shops, he realised that the demand for plastic bags had gone down and they were looking for alternative packaging bags. He took that as an opportunity and decided to produce paper bags.

Andrew Mupuya

To start this, he needed a starting capital of 36,000 Ugandan shillings ($14 at that time). He already had $11 from selling 70 kilograms of used plastic bottles collected in a week. Andrew borrowed the remaining $3 from his teacher and set up his small company producing handmade paper bags.

The business has grown exponentially, producing over 20,000 paper bags each week, and employs over 20 people. He has over 70 clients to include restaurants, retail stores, medical centres, and multinational companies like Samsung.

The “Paper King,” or the “Paper Bag Emperor,” as he is commonly referred to, has received many accolades and won various awards for his noble idea. In 2012, he was the winner of the Anzisha Prize of $30,000, which is a prestigious award given to young African entrepreneurs who have developed and implemented innovative solutions to social challenges or started successful businesses within their communities.

Lorna Rutto – EcoPost, Kenya

Lorna Rutto

Lorna Rutto is a young Kenyan ‘Eco-preneur’ and founder of EcoPost, a social enterprise that gives an alternative waste management solution to one of Kenya’s huge waste problem – plastics.

EcoPost collects plastic wastes and manufactures commercially viable, highly durable, and, importantly, environmentally friendly fencing posts used widely across Kenya.  These posts are used in houses and forest reserves to fence the properties, and they are getting increasingly popular. Every month, EcoPost uses approximately 20 tonnes of plastic waste, utilising dirty plastic to make a product that saves trees.

Lorna Rutto

Lorna, who holds a Bachelor of Commerce Degree in Accounting, quit her job with a bank in 2009 to pursue a career in waste management. EcoPost sources its raw material from garbage cans and dump sites in Nairobi. Her venture has not only provided Kenya with a commercial and environmental alternative to timber but has also created over 300 jobs with over $150,000 annual revenue. The business has made over 10,000 posts which have helped save over 250 acres of forests, which would have been otherwise cut down for timber to be used in construction work around the country. This innovation has helped take over 1 million kilograms of plastic waste from the environment and this has won her various awards and accolades both at home and abroad.

Thato Kgatlhanye and Rea Ngwane – Repurpose Schoolbags, South Africa

Thato Kgatlhanye and Rea Ngwane

Repurpose Schoolbags is an innovative ‘green’ social startup founded by two childhood friends and now business partners, Thato Kgatlhanye and Rea Ngwane. The two entrepreneurs’ invention combines recycling, solar energy and education by making backpacks for school children. The backpacks are made from 100% recycled plastics and incorporate a solar panel that charges during the day while the child is walking to school. This, in turn, serves as light sources for the children to study and do their homework after dark. Furthermore, the bags have been designed with reflective strips as a safety measure to make the children visible when walking to school early in the morning.  This venture creates a solution to a problem facing rural and non-electrified parts of South Africa. Launched in 2014, Repurpose Schoolbags has grown, and today it employs eight full-time staff, six of whom are women.

They collect the plastics from landfill sites and also in local schools that run campaigns to get their students to bring in plastics to be upcycled. The plastics are then taken to their workshop where they are processed into textile, then sewn into bags and then distributed.  The workshop produces around 20 bags per day.

Thato Kgatlhanye and Rea Ngwane

This innovation has not only helped to reduce plastics and clean the environment, but it has also restored dignity to school children in rural areas who would have been using plastic bags to carry their books. It has also helped the children study at night as well as be visible in morning traffic.

Recycling is the separation and collection of materials that otherwise would be considered waste, the processing and remanufacturing of these items into new products, and the use of the recycled products to complete the cycle.

Bilikiss Adebiyi Abiola – WeCyclers, Nigeria

Bilikiss Adebiyi-Abiola

WeCyclers is a social enterprise that was started in 2012 by Bilikiss Adebiyi-Abiola and her co-founders by using low-cost cargo bicycles called WeCycles to provide convenient waste collection and recycling services to households across Lagos in Nigeria.

Born and brought up in Lagos, one of the most populated cities in the world, Bilikiss understood the challenge and threats posed by the lack of proper waste management. This inspired her to start the company to offer waste collection and recycling services.

Lagos has a population of 18 million residents, 60% of whom live in low-income settlements, and WeCyclers targets this group fueling social change and environmental conservation by allowing people in low-income communities to get value from their waste.

The software engineer quit her job at the IBM Corporation, a five-year career in the organisation, to focus on her venture.

Bilikiss Adebiyi-Abiola

The company motivates families to recycle plastic bottles, plastic sachets, and aluminum cans. Families are encouraged to put together the waste, which is then measured for its weight and collected on given days of the week. The families are then given ‘Wecyclers’ points for every kilogram of materials given. The points are redeemable for goods such as cell phone minutes, basic food items, and household goods. Families receive collection reminders and reward updates directly on their mobile phones, making the benefits of recycling immediate.

After collection, Wecyclers combines the materials which they sell to local recycling processors, bridging the gap between the recycling companies and communities that provide waste which is their raw material.

Bethlehem Tilahun Alemu – soleRebels, Ethiopia

Bethlehem Tilahun Alemu

Bethlehem Tilahun Alemu is Founder and Managing Director of soleRebels, a social enterprise that uses locally sourced and recycled materials to make African footwear. Born and brought up in Zenebework, a poor village in the suburbs of Addis Ababa, Bethlehem’s venture is today, the world’s fastest growing African footwear brand and the first to emerge from a developing nation.

soleRebels Footwear is distinctive in that it is 100% handmade using locally-sourced and recycled materials like old car tires, discarded clothes and hand-loomed organic fabrics. The enterprise employs experienced and highly-skilled local craftsmen who convert the recycled products into top-notch footwear products.

Bethlehem Tilahun Alemu

Bethlehem started soleRebels in 2004 with less than $10,000 in capital she raised from family and friends. Today, the company has more than 100 employees and nearly 200 local raw material suppliers and produces over 70,000 pairs every year. The eco-friendly brand of footwear now sells in more than 50 countries around the world, including the USA, Canada, Japan and Switzerland. She now aims at opening another 50 to 60 stores in the next few months. soleRebels is the first footwear company in the world to be certified by the World Fair Trade Organization.

Mabel Suglo – Eco-Shoes, Ghana

Mabel Suglo

Mabel Suglo is the co-founder of Eco-Shoes, a Ghanaian based social enterprise that reinvests in the environment and in society by upcycling waste and employing people with disabilities. Mabel was inspired to start the venture after she witnessed a disabled person being insulted for begging. This, coupled with the fact that her own grandmother suffered from severe leprosy, she decided to start Eco-Shoes in 2013 and employed artisans with disabilities to make marketable shoes from used tires and recycled cloth. The enterprise collects discarded car tire stockpiles and waste materials in Ghana which pose environmental and health hazard and turn them into fashionable and comfortable shoes. Through Eco-Shoes, Mabel empowers and transfers the skills of shoe-making to individuals living with disabilities to hand-make shoes from car tires, discarded fabric, and other sustainably-sourced materials.

By selling durable and versatile footwear made from upcycled tires and fabric waste, Mabel’s venture creates jobs that benefit people with disabilities and the communities in which they live while inspiring people to get creative about re-using materials, extending their life-cycle, and, at the same time, contributing to waste reduction.

Mabel Suglo

Eco-Shoes has had a steady growth over the years. In 2013, the year of its inception, they produced 500 pairs of shoes. The demand then increased threefold, and in 2014, they produced 1500 pairs of shoes. The company has also added a line of handbags and they anticipate to produce between 1000-1500 handbags per year in addition to the shoe line.

She was named the 2015 Second Runner Up of the Anzisha Prize. This won her $12,500 that was injected into her company.

Upcycling is the process of transforming waste into new and better products; making new from old: creating beautiful new designs by renovating, repurposing or redesigning unwanted items or materials.

Yaye Souadou Fall – E-cover, Senegal

Yaye Souadou

Yaye Souadou Fall is the Founder and C.E.O of E-Cover, a social enterprise that repurposes and recycles tires into useful products. Born and brought up in Senegal, Yaye has always had an interest in environmentally-friendly products and technology. She noticed how tires and plastics littered the environment, and this inspired her to start a venture that would give a solution to this problem.

The startup purpose was to alleviate poor waste management by upcycling in an eco-friendly way in order to create marketable resources, i.e., recycles the tires into shoe soles, tiles, and floor mats, among others.

Yaye Souadou

E-cover has employed six people and is hoping to increase that number. Yaye is responsible for the marketing and the management of her business. Her impact goes beyond the employment opportunities she offers. Many businesses, sports centres, and individuals in several municipalities are benefitting from the eco-friendly products her startup produces.

Chineye Okoro Onu – Mosaic Inspiration Project, Ghana

Chineye Okoro Onu

Driven by her passion for art and the environment, Chineye Okoro Onu co-founded Mosaic Inspiration Project, a startup that transforms trash into art and trains other young Africans in the art of recycling. She launched the initiative while studying at Radford University College in Ghana with the aim of creating a platform through which she could teach fellow students and artists how to create great art pieces using trash such as plastic and polythene waste. The Mosaic Inspiration Project also proposes to empower young artists with entrepreneurial skills and training, who then generate a monthly income from the sale of art and exhibitions. Some of their signature artworks are paintings and mosaics of people who have brought positive change to the world.

Chineye Okoro Onu

Chineye has managed to build the venture over the years despite the negative stigma that comes with working with trash, safety concern, and lack of capital. She became an Anzisha Fellow in 2012 and since then, Mosaic Inspiration Project has grown from a local to global startup. She also spends time with her three other co-founders, helping young Ghanaiansrealisee their potential to make a change in their communities as entrepreneurs through the Afri-One Youth Forum, a transformational platform that empowers, inspires, and connects the youth.

Cyrus Kabiru- C-Stunners, Kenya

Cyrus Kabiru

Electronic waste is one of Kenya’s environmental challenge and Cyrus Kabiru offers a solution to that challenge. The young Kenyan sculptor creates ingenious and outstanding spectacles famously known as C-Stunners from recycled electronic waste and objects he finds in the streets of Nairobi. Cyrus has managed to forge a unique path in the creative and fashion industry in Kenya by the different wearables he makes. C-stunners is an eyewear and has gained admiration from fashion and art lovers for their flamboyance designs which often cover the entire face. Cyrus got the desire from his childhood fascination of owning a pair of glasses, which he never did. His work fall in various categories of art ranging from performance, sculpture and fashion. His products especially C-Stunners have become common among the youth who are often seen in the streets of Nairobi adorning Cyrus’s stunning C-stunners made from electronic waste. At the moment he is working on a series that uses thousands of bottle caps sewn together to depict African culture.

Cyrus Kabiru

He has exhibited his work in various countries including the United Kingdom, the USA, Sweden, the Netherlands, Italy, Turkey and South Africa among others.

Mohamed Semdoe- Semdoe Eco-Enterprises, Tanzania

Mohamed Semdoe

Mohamed Semdoe is the proprietor of Semdoe Eco-Enterprises, a start-up that deals with recycling. The 38-year-old holds a Master’s degree in Environmental Management and it is from his educational background that he desired to have a business venture that explores existing social and environmental challenges and come up with possible solutions based on available resources in the respective environment.

Irked by improper plastic bags disposal in the environment, Semdoe Eco Enterprises collects plastic bag waste and uses them to produce mattresses, carpets and flowers. This inventive start-up does not only help in environmental conservation but also creates employment among the youth and women.

Mohamed Semdoe

At the moment he only sells his products to the local market but plans to expand and reach out and create a huge market for his products.

Maurice Oniang'o
Maurice Oniang'o is a versatile award-winning Kenyan Journalist. He has produced for highly rated Television programs such as Project Green, an incisive environmental show and Tazama, a half-hour documentary series, which were broadcast on Kenya Television Network (KTN). He has a keen interest in stories about environment, corruption, technology, security, health, education, human rights and governance. He has won various awards including: Environmental Reporter TV- AJEA, Thomson Foundation Young Journalist of the Year (FPA), among others. He is a Bloomberg Media Initiative Africa Fellow (Financial Journalism), Africa Uncensored Investigate 101 Fellow and a member of Journalists for Transparency (J4T), a collective of journalist and storytellers that seek to explore issues of transparency and corruption around the globe. Maurice is currently a Freelance Documentary Filmmaker and Writer based in Nairobi, Kenya.