Riding on conservation passion to build business


In 2018, Nelly Gesare Oteki, then aged 26, sat in deep thought with only Sh8000 in savings. In front of her, her youtube videos about environmental conservation played, as she cracked her brain trying to find a way of starting a television show.

Her baby played beside her, unaware that his mother was worried about him.

“Toxins were everywhere, and my child shouldn’t have to breath and eat them,” Ms Gesare thought, as she wondered what she needed to change in her house and environment to make it safer.

Six years prior, when she gave birth to her first child, she produced a TV show, but it would gather electronic dust in her laptop for a while. Organisations said that kind of content wasn’t generating revenue. Because she did not have capital, she gave up temporarily.

The following year, she tried again. This time, working for ZDF German TV, she visited Nairobi’s Dandora dumpsite, and filmed artists generating ornaments from electronic waste. She then produced another show, which failed to run. This time, she decided to leave the whole project pending, until she picked it up again in 2018.

“I was looking at the episodes that I had posted on my YouTube channel, trying to revive an idea that would help me bring back my TV show. I started researching on what I can do, and what has been done internationally. I wanted to make people understand that we can work towards environmental conservation in our on small ways. That’s how I started Green Thing Kenya,” she recalls

With Sh8,000, she bought metal straws, to combat the use of plastic straws.

“If you go to dumpsites near restaurants, you will find mountains of straws, each of which, were probably used for a maximum of about 15 minutes, but will take forever to break down. Eventually, they break down into microplastics and pollute the soil,” she explains.

“Soil is powerful. We get our food from there, and the fact that we are polluting it with something that we could easily replace is wrong and we need to change our attitude. Plastic may not necessarily be bad, but we need to manage it,” she says.

“It has done so much, but we need to find a way to use our resources properly and dispose them well.”

Now, four years later, she is dedicated to using eco-friendly and toxin-free products to start conversations on climate change, climate adaptation, sustainable living and general wellness.

Apart from metallic straws, she makes toothpaste from arrowroot powder, biodegradable, organic, cotton reusable bags, sisal dish brushes to replace plastic and dish bars to reduce plastic packaged soap.

She also makes and sells concentrated organic liquid dish soap, bamboo toothbrushes, bamboo and cotton ear swabs, and cotton dish and bowl covers to replace cling film.

Others include reusable cotton bags, reusable makeup removers and cotton kitchen towels to reduce single use of kitchen rolls and serviettes, thereby reducing the cutting of trees. Loofas, natural scrubbers from the pumpkin family can be used to shower and scrub cooking pans. They are completely biodegradable,” she states.

These raw materials, she says, are sometimes sourced, and because of limited capital, the products are produced in small batches.

With five employees, they often overlap their roles between administration and accounting, marketing, photography and shop management, to help run the business efficiently.

“We stitch our products using solar energy. The processes we use to produce things also do not produce any emissions, and unnecessary plastics. We make sure that the carbon footprint is as low as possible. All the products produced are supposed to be conversation starters. They are supposed to evoke attitude change,” she emphasizes.

“For example, the reusable facial wipes. Imagine how many cotton balls you have to use if you do make-up every day. We needed a product that could replace 10 kilogrames of beauty-related waste from a home, and so we made them. They are made of cotton, grown and processed in Kenya. We source it and then take it to Kiambu, ask our audience for designs and when they approve or like it, we go ahead and produce them,” adds Mr Gesare.

“Yes we can plant trees to capture carbon, but if you are taught about the effects of plastic, then it’s easier to make the transition because people can then see the value of going green,” she says.

At school, she recalls being passionate about the environment, but that her understanding then, was that wildlife conservation was solely focused on generating revenue, and environmentalism was a synonym for planting trees.

“No one ever told us that we could conserve the environment and save on cost by using reusable bags. We were only told to plant trees and collect plastic waste, yet when you go to the market with your reusable bag, that translates to one less plastic bag in our landfills. You don’t have to be an environmentalist to save the planet or to demand for climate justice,” she explains.

She observes that Africans have always been into sustainability, possibly out of necessity and poverty, but is nonetheless engraved in their cultures. In her business, she has employed coastal women, who have dealt with leso material for years, to make leso wipes and baskets.

“This is how we can use indigenous knowledge to solve climate change. Every community, as diverse as they are, can collectively bring their minds together to be part of the circular economy,” she says.

She also notes that going green impacts positively on one’s pocket, as the reusable and multi-use products eliminate the need of frequent shopping.

“I feel it is important, when going green, to look at the numbers. If you have stopped buying reusable wipes and cotton balls, write down how much they were costing you, then buy the reusable pads, do the same, then compare how much money you have saved. In the long-term, you may realise that you have spent quite little,” she says.

She explains that although there is a narrative that green products can be expensive, it is because they are made by young Kenyans who finance the business with their pocket money.

Her future plans include setting up a podcast to conduct more climate change conversations. This includes holding politicians to account, and ensuring that they incorporate climate change matters into their agenda.

“If we don’t prioritise conversations about climate change that is killing animals, causing prolonged droughts, irregular weather patterns, hunger, famine and wildlife reduction in terms of numbers, then what are we doing? We need to find it necessary to consider the wellness of people a priority,” she concluded.

[email protected]