Recycling plastics for reuse earns students a tidy sum

ISK Design Teacher Maciej Sudra at the Plastiki Rafiki workshop on December 7, 2022

In the not-so-distant future, you could be wearing a pair of sunglasses made from recycled plastic collected from the icy slopes of Mount Kenya or the shores of the Indian Ocean.

This is not a pipe dream but a work in progress by the team at Plastiki Rafiki, a student-led initiative at the International School of Kenya (ISK).

In 2017, Maciej Sudra, the design teacher at ISK, teamed up with a colleague and three students to moot the idea of a club aptly named Construction by Design.

Their goal was machine development. After two years of hard work, the team was able to, in-house, build a shredder, a compression and an injection machine, innovating as they went along. One of their machines has parts derived from an elevator.

“We noticed there was a market for products which led us to make a few prototypes,” says Mr Sudra on the evolution of the outfit from only machines to actual products made of recycled plastic.

They mixed colours as an artist would, coming up with an aesthetically pleasing product that was better in quality than what was already in the market.

Plastiki Rafiki was then born as a product design and marketing club set up and run by students.

Seeing the potential in the market, Plastiki Rafiki looked for partners and very soon found them in Mathare, Nairobi with Futbol Mas, a community group that ran (and still runs) an after-school sports and life-skills programme.

In a symbiotic venture, Futbol Mas would collect the raw material from within Mathare, and ISK would send them moulds and clientele, which they had a scarcity of.

Previously, companies dealing in recycled plastic products sold them on a doesn’t rot, doesn’t rust and won’t be stolen mantra. Plastiki Rafiki went in a whole different direction.

“People are willing to buy and even pay a bit more if the product is beneficial to the environment,” says Mr Sudra of their marketing strategy.

On school trips, ISK students carry rubbish bags and cart rubbish from their Mount Kenya, Maasai Mara and Tsavo National Park trips back to their premises.

ISK Design Teacher Maciej Sudra displays 3D-printed sunglasses on a mannequin at the Plastiki Rafiki workshop on December 7, 2022.  PHOTO | DIANA NGILA | NMG

From there, the Mount Kenya Collection and Marine Collection, among others, have been produced and sold under those monikers to much success.

Plastiki Rafiki is, however, a non-profit organisation. All proceeds acquired from the sale of items are ploughed back into their product design and machine development.

The students and teachers don’t pocket anything.

Mr Sudra, however, terms his programme ‘lucky’ as they are backed by the financial muscle at ISK and are therefore not particularly looking for profits but have kept true to the initial goal they had – creative product design.

From developing a cheap solution for rain collection (gutters) for a school in Kibera, Plastiki Rafiki can boast some more than impressive collaborations, having worked with The FlipFlopi Project, a like-minded initiative in Lamu that puts plastic waste to good use building boats.

They’ve opened workshops and empowered marginalised communities as far as Turkana and Mombasa and joined hands with UN-Habitat and Eco-World in Watamu.

They are also in advanced talks with a company that manufactures sunglasses, the frames of which will be produced from recycled plastic, a potentially lucrative venture that Mr Sudra is excited to share.

ISK Design Teacher Maciej Sudra with teaching assistant Anthony Brown at the Plastiki Rafiki workshop on December 7, 2022. PHOTO | DIANA NGILA | NMG

“The raw material is free or doesn’t cost much,” says Mr Sudra of the advantages of working with recycled plastic.

Their overheads are also at a minimum compared with their partners or competitors. They do not have the added burden of rent and power costs, being based at a school.

This helps with the cost of their items.

Education is often theoretical.

Mr Sudra says: “So often at school, you’re working but it’s hard to see the context that your work will be applied to.”

Plastiki Rafiki, however, brings it all home as the students are involved in the process from design to the marketing of a tangible product.

They even run the website and social media pages and given the tech-savvy nature of their generation, they are bound to be and stay ahead of the competition.

ISK Design Teacher Maciej Sudra showing the 3D printed gutters at the Plastiki Rafiki workshop on December 7, 2022. PHOTO | DIANA NGILA | NMG

He’s had his students go into design engineering inspired by the work they’ve done at Plastiki Rafiki.

“I’m still in touch with students trying to set up the same model at university in the US,” Mr Sudra proudly says of his baby.

ISK Design Teacher Maciej Sudra with teaching assistant Anthony Brown at the Plastiki Rafiki workshop on December 7, 2022. PHOTO | DIANA NGILA | NMG

As with any venture, there are challenges, more so a business that has students at its core.

A client may expect work produced by certain deadlines but Mr Sudra is always quick to remind them that they’re working with students “who have homework to do!”.

They’ve increasingly outsourced production to their partners, which also brings the added headache of quality control and who to contact in the inevitable cases that this happens.

“It’s grown a bit too fast, to be honest,” the design teacher confesses. He now has 40 students on the team and two other teachers who help with, on top of design and innovation which is his docket, administration, and finances as well as marketing.

Five years from now, if he’s still at ISK, Mr Sudra would like to scale back Plastiki Rafiki’s mandate. He’s cognisant of the fact that theirs is a school, a learning institution.

Mr Sundra says he would like to take the marketing and finances out of the equation and have them only run as a design and research and development (R&D) club.

“I’d like to see less manufacturing and more R&D.”

PAYE Tax Calculator

Note: The results are not exact but very close to the actual.