Nairobi entrepreneur sees opportunity in hazardous waste recycling and disposal


Richmond Gatu of Sintmond Group demonstrates how a bulb recycling machine works at the company’s Advanced Recycling Facility on Mombasa Road in Nairobi on December 8, 2014. PHOTO | SALATON NJAU

Before sending out a business proposal or applying for a tender, Richmond Gatu starts with meticulous research as long as it falls within his purview of engineering and his desire to protect the environment.

He says this is the criterion that guides Sintmond Group as well as its four divisions — energy, infrastructure, transport and environment.

And this how he ended up starting the Advanced Recycling Facility (ARF) for incandescent and energy-saving bulbs.

Mr Gatu, 39, says the idea to enter into the bulb recycling business was not his initial plan back in 2010. In fact, he wanted to supply 1.25 million bulbs to the Kenya Power and Lighting Company, now Kenya Power, for its compact fluorescent lamps (CFLs)/energy-saving bulbs exchanging project.

Although he did not clinch the tender, he got thinking about what the company would do with the used bulbs at the end of the project.

“I saw the component that required end-of-life mitigation was the lead oxide in the incandescent bulbs which is not only hazardous to the environment but also highly carcinogenic,” he says.   

That same year, he went to Sweden to visit a factory that designs and makes bulb recycling machines. He also toured facilities in Italy and Germany in the same business and got convinced that bulb recycling venture was a viable idea.

On his return to Kenya, his first stop was at the offices of the National Environmental Management Authority (Nema) with a proposal.  

Sintmond Group’s beginnings can be traced back to 2005 as Sintmond Technical Services which was offering industrial and automotive solutions.

Five years later, it was incorporated into a company. In 2012, the firm was changed to a group of companies, offering engineering, procurement and construction services.

“We needed a facility and this was a business that we were not guaranteed of. But I engaged an expert at Sh250,000 to do an environment and social impact report. We followed up and got a licence for the facility and the project,” says the mechanical engineering graduate of the Thika Technical Training.

By the time the contract was signed with Kenya Power in January, ARF – now a subsidiary of Sintmond Group – was ready to get down to work.

“We have invested in a bulb crushing and separation machine as we wanted the rest of the process to be manual once the lead oxide had safely been extracted from the bulbs,” he says.

Mr Gatu says the project, which lasted 11 months, involved crushing 30,000 bulbs on three days of the week and employed 27 people, mostly women.

E-waste menace

In the end, he had 117 tonnes of glass, two tonnes of aluminium, 600kg of lead oxide and 1.5 tonnes of paper. The lead oxide is set for refining while he is looking to sell off the glass.

With the project over, he has since visited the same Swedish company and ordered another machine that can crush both CFLs and fluorescent tubes which contain hazardous mercury and methane compounds.

“We wanted ARF to offer solutions on recycling and safe disposal of all types of bulbs but with a focus on general e-waste,” he says. “E-waste has a lot of hazardous materials like mercury, lead and cadmium, among others.”

With the Nema’s e-waste regulations pending parliamentary approval, the company hopes it will play an even bigger in recycling of electronic waste.

If passed, the proposed regulations would require all importers and producers of electronic goods to pay a recycling fee with a percentage going to e-waste recycling facilities like ARF.

However, absence of such legislation means ARF will have to come up with innovative ways of solving the e-waste menace in partnership with organisations like Kenya Power and Nema.

“I think for those trying to get into e-waste recycling should have the mentality of getting rid of hazardous waste not just to make money,” he says.