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Good for the environment and the wallet: plastic recycling in Cameroon

With plastic waste recycling in Africa, you kill two birds with one stone, figured Roblain Namegni and Thomas Poelmans. Their organisation NAMé Recycling recently won the competition Entrepreneurship Without Borders. OneWorld spoke with the founders.

"Eighteen months ago we started dreaming," says Namegni. The born Cameroonian came to Belgium twenty years ago to study economics. He shares his Flemish accent with Poelmans. If there is anything that they want to convey during the interview, it is their ambition to succeed the plan. In this they are supported by Dutchman Wim Hardeman. Poelmans: "The three of us have the right characteristics to start a recycling business in Cameroon: Roblain knows the country inside out and has a large network. I have a lot of experience in setting up recycling plants in Africa and Wim is our technical expert. "

Tackling the huge quantity of plastic waste, why do that and how?

Namegni: "Globally plastic is a problem, because it keeps stays on the ground and does not decay. In Cameroon plastic waste is often thrown along the side of the road. Yet, you can easily turn it into something valuable, such as new bottles. Unfortunately developing countries do not have the capacity to recycle all plastic. The amount of plastic waste continues to grow. On the other hand, there is often unemployment, there are so many people in Africa who cannot earn their bread. Imagine - because something always starts with 'Imagine' - that we can find people to collect the plastic. That we can recycle it and can sell on the international market. That would be perfect! "

But should you not try to change the mentality of the people so that they do not just throw away plastic?

Poelmans: "We must be aware of how this awareness in Western Europe has developed in the past. Over the past fifteen or twenty years’ people became increasingly more aware of the fact that plastic cannot simply be thrown on the ground. In Africa that consciousness is not there yet. You can go and start big campaigns, but that takes a lot of time and money, and that role is more suitable for the government. "That's why we focus on recycling where money can be made, says Poelmans”. "with all successful recycling programs in Africa a financial incentive is crucial. The fact that we are going to pay people to collect creates a win-win situation. That is how you give people who are unemployed a chance to get an income by picking up bottles alongside the road. "

That's why they want so start a factory that can recycle plastic waste into new plastic. The factory is in Limbé, the city were Namegni grew up himself, 70 kilometres from the main port city of Douala. Namegni calls choosing Limbé "their best move yet": Limbé is a growing city where at current time warehouse prices are five times lower than in Douala. Although the plant is in Limbé, collection will be all over the country, starting in Douala. Per Poelmans they have a scoop: "currently there are no parties that do what we do: large-scale recycling and thereby meeting all European quality requirements, but also connect to the local informal sector."

How could you see the connection with the informal sector happening in real life?

Poelmans: "We are currently establishing a network of collectors who will collect for us. Because we are going to use processing machines, we can pay a higher price than if they would sell their plastic to a Chinese or Lebanese trader. So, we're going to enable people who are already collecting plastics especially in slums to do our plastic collection. "

Do you employ these people?

Poelmans "No, they are paid per kilogram." Namegni: "At the moment it is still informal. But we eventually want to provide them security of pay. If one is sure of one hundred euros per month, they can continue with their lives and send their children to school. "

Poelemans: "Indeed, we want to offer them contracts to give them more security. On the other hand, we want to make sure that it is based on performance, so we do not pay people to do nothing all day. "

Are you focusing exclusively on plastic litter?

Poelmans "No, we want to collaborate with manufacturers and importers of plastic." Namegni: "In Cameroon and in many other countries, it is legally required for producers and importers to recycle their waste. But there are only few opportunities for recycling. That is good for our business, because we can fill that gap. We can focus on the obligatory recovery, because those companies will also have to pay us. "

Where does your plastic ends up?

Poelmans: "At local soft drink or beer producers, but also on the international market: we know companies in the Netherlands and Belgium who are highly interested. So we try to sell locally as much as possible and what we cannot sell locally we provide to international companies like Coca-Cola.

What is your biggest challenge?

Namegni: "Locally we are fine. I myself will start operating in Africa and of course I know my way. But money is the biggest challenge. We need 400 000 euros to buy machines that are able to process the plastic. Those machines are necessary in order to be able to build a successful business. "

Poelmans: "What we have started is now purely financed from our own resources. We have a warehouse, we pay people to collect for us. But we need those 400 000 euros to be invested by a party that believes in us from a social and environmental perspective, but also from a business perspective. Because we are both entrepreneurs it is clear to us: we want to not only change the world, we also want to make a profit. "

Recently they have tested whether they could collect enough plastic. "It's a great success! "says Namegni. It sharpens their trust. Also winning Enterprise Without Borders in 2015 contributed to this trust. The jury called the plan "social, sustainable and realistic," partly due to the take-back obligation of plastic waste in Cameroon. Namegni looks back: "At Enterprise without Borders we were challenged to look at our plans again and test the opinion of others. Our winning gave us the reassurance that we have a solid business plan. "

Ultimately, they want to grow, concludes Namegni: "I hope in a decade or so we can start operating in many other countries in Sub-Saharan Africa, because the plastic issues are evenly relevant over there." Poelmans agrees: " we want to demonstrate that plastic recycling can work in Africa. It can generate profits while taking care of people and the environment. "

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