Episode 3 – Innovation Action Insights podcast

Giulia Barbareschi  00:09

Hi, everyone, and welcome to our third episode of Innovaion Action Insights, a space where we share stories of amazing innovations and innovators who are working to tackle some of the biggest global challenges of our time. My name is Giulia Barbareschi and I'm joined by my friend and co host Ben Oldfrey. This podcast it's brought to you by the Innovation Action Collaborative Initiative, led by the Global Disabililty Innovation Hub, and funded by UKaid through the AT2030 and the COVIDAction programmes. Innovation action was created by a consortium of organisations that believe in the importance of connecting the dots, and that bringing people together can help spark and grow innovations that make a real impact on the lives of people that live in less resource settings. In our last episode, we looked at some of the incredible innovations that have emerged to address issues and needs generated by the ongoing Covid 19 pandemic. In this episode, we will focus on how the global climate and environmental emergency that is affecting us all has contributed to a drive for more sustainable innovations across the African continent. In 2019, the 16 years old Greta Thunberg stepped on the podium of the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, and invited us to stop hoping and start panicking. Her powerful speech reminded us that the climate emergency affecting our planet is a crisis concerning us all, and that tackling it requires transformation of global actions. In the last few years discourse around the need for more innovations aimed at lowering our carbon footprint, reduce waste, and harnessing clean energy sources had finally started to gain more traction as people realise the importance of environmental sustainability. However, much of this discourse is focused on high income countries, with little attention being paid to both the challenges affecting much of the global south, and the creative solutions that have been developed by many innovators. In this episode, we'll hear the amazing stories of two different ventures in Nigeria and Kenya, which hold innovation and sustainability at their core. And we'll learn about how they have been leveraging technology, partnerships and creativity to bring value to the environment and their communities. Waste Management is considered one of the biggest challenges that Nigeria is facing. Every year, the country is estimated to produce over 32 million tonnes of solid waste, one of the highest in Africa. Of that total figure, approximately 2.5 million tonnes are made of plastic, which end up in landfills, sewers, and water bodies due to the lack of an appropriate waste management infrastructure. But where many only see garbage, some people see the potential to help the environment and deliver value to their communities. Today, I have here with me, Victor Boyle-Komolafe, the co founder of Garbage In Value Out for GIVO for short, a Nigerian circular economy company that leverages technology to collect, process and upcycle plastic to create products that can be sold or donated, using processes that are geared 100% towards sustainability. Hi, Victor, thank you so much for joining us here today.

Victor Boyle-Komolafe  04:13

Thank you very much for having me. I'm glad to be here.

Giulia Barbareschi  04:16

So I was reading on the website that GIVO is described not simply as a recycling company, but more as a circular economy company. Can I ask you what that exactly means? And what is the difference between these two things?

Victor Boyle-Komolafe  04:35

GIVO is a circular economy company, not just a recycling company for a few reasons. First of all, the main output or the main thing that we do in our processes is really collecting data. And that is key. So we're first of all a technology company, right and this runs through everything we do. Secondly, the output of what we do is we make consumer and industrial goods. So we focus on also creating value, tangible value, from what we're collecting. And last but not least, yes, the waste management we do, which is again going to be linked to recycling. However, for the waste management, the key treasure for us is really the data that we collect in that process. So all in all, we try to facilitate or spur the circular economy, again, using technology in this way.

Giulia Barbareschi  05:28

That's really interesting. You mentioned that data makes a really big part of how GIVO operates, and that you leverage technologies at every step. I was wondering if you could go in a little bit of detail and explain to us how you managed to do that.

Victor Boyle-Komolafe  05:51

Yes, so especially in places like Africa, where we operate, and I mean, the rest of the developing world, granular data is very scarce data on individuals, right. And so when it comes to waste management, you have an opportunity there to have data on what people are recycling. And again, more than just the recyclables that are being collected, that data is potentially valuable. So throughout our processes, the way we leverage IoT, in this case, IoT just refers to Internet of Things. So having devices communicate wirelessly, is, for example, in our collection process, as in when we go to collect the materials from individuals, we're able to use Android devices that are, you know, that are connected to scales and printers wirelessly. And we're able to get the value of the material. Of course, in real time. Of course, because we have Android devices, were also able to get the location using GPS coordinates in real time. And by also having a KYC, (know your customer), done on each deposit or beforehand, put to use these data points to provide financial inclusion services for the customers. So this is an example of the data being more important than the recyclable material. Actually, another way we use IoT is regarding the machinery, right. So again, as a tech company, we also will always want to know what is being done in everywhere we're located. So our machines are fitted with IoT. So we know we know what they're doing, at each time or what they're producing, or the performance and those kind of things. We also use IoT in the collection of the data on those recyclables. So again, with the computer vision and artificial intelligence, we're able to identify each material and therefore identify the producer responsible for those products.

Giulia Barbareschi  07:59

This is incredible. So as you go through your various processes, you basically build a detailed map that goes from collection to actually recycling and then manufacturing afterwards, it's truly impressive, I have to say, as sustainability is a key part of your business. Could you tell me a little bit of how you manage to embrace it at every step? And what role does technology play in your sort of sustainability approach.

Victor Boyle-Komolafe  08:43

I would start by saying that I think I hope you didn't get tired of me saying this as, again, as a technology company, I think that was an advantage for us. Because when you think of a problem from a data perspective first, then you're able to put that into your processes, then that is it's easier to scale those processes. And so, from the beginning, being a tech focused operation, we've been able to almost embrace sustainability because again, that is our space. And for you to, again, for you to have an effective sustainable sustainability strategy, the core is data for measurement, you know, you need a baseline need to see how you're progressing and how you're making impact. And so, yes, as a technology company, we have 100% digitise all our processes. And this is key for our sustainability efforts also. Secondly, you know, I will speak about our franchisee model. So really, you know, the way we're expanding this across, you know, Sub Saharan Africa and the developing world is really to have a franchisee model that is based on on customised containers that have been fitted with our technology. And are running on solar power. So each of these centres can potentially collect and process 300 kilogrammes a day of recyclable material and make you know, 200 or 300 consumer goods each day. Now, the beauty of each of these setups is that it can be deployed modularly in centres. And so this is the second part that I would like to speak about, concerning the sustainability, we wanted from the beginning to create a solution that can be dropped into any part of the world and create value for those local communities. And with this, we have created a solution that, again, takes whatever recyclables in the area, again, especially plastic, cardboard, tins, and makes it into a new product. In that case, providing incentives for the customers in that community for the consumers, educating them in that community, but also creating a high value product that can make their lives better, and create entrepreneurship opportunities for the people in that community. So again, that that whole modularity concept, we apply that to the sustainability of distribution. And last but not least, is really about this whole idea of being a recycler versus, you know, being a circular economy company, right? We don't just take product and, and dispose or shred as a recycling company does. We focus on what is the way to maximise value from this product? What can we make, that would impact the community positively. So in the last few months, we've made over 10,000 units of face shields and face masks. And we've given 10% of that, to members of the community, again, using this our circular economy principle. So if you're able to consistently create products that the community need, from these materials, then sustainability wise, again, also employing people in the community and engaging people in the community, were onto something,

Giulia Barbareschi  12:06

I think you've really hit the nail on the head there, so to speak, because GIVO stands for garbage in value out. And and I really think that what you were saying to us today really shows how you've been able not just to recycle, but but to create true value in your communities. One thing that I'm really curious about because because you mentioned making face shields, and I must admit that when when we think about the pandemic, and the impact that COVID-19 had on a lot of processes and businesses, recycling and circular economies might not be the first thing that we think of. But I know for a fact that the Covid 19 pandemic had created both challenges and opportunities for you. Can you tell us a little bit more about that?

Victor Boyle-Komolafe  13:19

Yes, like like every business, we were impacted by the pandemic, and we are impacted by the pandemic is, you know, and it has thrown up a lot of a lot of opportunities and challenges like you did highlight, and I would touch on them. I will speak about a few of the challenges first, of course, as a, you know, I'll put on our waste management hat, we try to collect directly from the members of the community, because that's a big part of what we do. So again, advocacy, education, and facilitating recycling in those communities. Now, because you know, the virus, we haven't been able to continue our engagements as we would like with the members of that community. Again, we have to take maximum precaution in this. And so yes, that has really impacted our collection activities to a point. But we hope that you know, this will change by next quarter. Also, financially and economically. The the virus impacted you know, everybody, right, and so there's lower disposable income for in this country, right. I mean, it's already a poor country where most of the people live under $2 a day, the pandemic made it a bit poorer. And so you know, introducing new products, to a new to a market to any market is is a challenge compared to when you're doing it to poor country at a poor time. So those have, you know, been some of the challenges that we faced, but the opportunities are relentless. The first one is, is local production. What we'll find is again, right as demand increases for for products you know whether the consumer goods, industrial goods Especially because Nigeria is a is an importer of most products. When there was when COVID happened, two things happened. First of all, a lot of people weren't able to get the product in. And so again inflated the prices, so prices became or goods became more expensive. And the other thing is, of course, the value of the Naira is falling rapidly. And so people are looking for ways to replace the imported goods with locally made goods that are of you know, similar or higher quality. And I think there's an opportunity for other people out there. But this is something that we're taking advantage of as producers. Right. The other thing is new products and creating new brands from this, people are looking for alternatives, because they have less income. And so if you're able to provide good value for them, especially, again, manufacturing products, these are this is a big opportunity. Um, last but not least, for us, as a data company, there are so many ways that we we can potentially generate revenues from this, one of this I would speak about is the idea of enforcing extended producer responsibility. So governments all over the world are looking for new ways to generate revenue. And one of the industries that are getting more and more regulated, is again, with the recycling and waste management industry, a lot of companies are expected to do more. And there's this whole idea of extended producer responsibility laws in a lot of different countries, they can they call it different things. Now, the background to enforcing any of those laws is data. And so you know, the people that have the data, those are the people that the government are going to be speaking to very soon when they need to enforce this laws. And I think this is a virgin space, especially in Africa and developing countries because the the facility or the data necessary to enforce these laws do not exist. And that is why governments are not are not as aggressive. And again, this is another opportunity in the in the data space.

Giulia Barbareschi  17:10

Thanks to Victor Boyle-Komolafe for sharing with us the powerful story of GIVO. I got to say I'm absolutely intrigued, not just by the noble mission of GIVO and their commitment to sustainability towards the environment and the community, but also how they have been able to leverage technology to boost their operations and increase efficiency. What do you like about them, Ben?

Ben Oldfrey  17:37

Yes, I mean, as well as their technological approach to this problem, another thing I really like, about what GIVO are doing is this franchise model that they're using, this gives us gives them this real scalability, you know, this means that they'll be able to adapt to the context and the regions in which this model could be applied. And that goes across the whole value chain that they're working working on. They're not just working on waste management, specifically, they're also working on production. And by having these as linked ideas, it really pushes the idea that they are a circular economy company, not just a waste management company.

Giulia Barbareschi  18:18

Plastic packaging is currently one of the large contributors of environmental waste. And this is due to a combination of poor design, energy and material intensive processes, poor consumer awareness and lack of recycling infrastructure. Although many companies around the world I started to address some of this issues, very few have fully committed to embracing more sustainable approaches throughout older processes. One of these is SIL Africa, an East African company operating in Kenya, Tanzania, and Ethiopia, which focuses on innovative plastic packaging solutions. Since their creation, SIL Africa has adopted a circular economy mindset aiming to preserve material and energy while still producing quality products. Akshay Shah SIL Africa group executive director is joining us today to talk about how SIL Africa has embraced sustainability, and how through a series of partnerships with local organisations, they have been able to leverage their expertise to deliver products or sanitation and personal protective equipment to communities in need of them. Hi, Akshay. And thank you so much for joining us here.

Akshay Shah  19:37

Pleasure to be here.

Giulia Barbareschi  19:38

Manufacturing of plastic packaging, it's usually considered a highly wasteful form of production from an environmental point of view. How does SIL Africa manage to ensure sustainability throughout all your processes

Akshay Shah  19:57

So inputs that we use in the manufacturing of plastic packaging is obviously the plastic raw material itself is also energy. And there's water, those are the three main sort of inputs. Water is, is in a closed loop. So we never have water just being wasted, you know, with every cycle. So it's all conserved and it's recycled. As far as energy is concerned, the best way for us to be sustainable around that is to instal on grade photovoltaic solar panels. So in our Kenyan factory, roughly 10% of our total energy consumption is supplied by solar panels. And then the main one is really the raw material. So the manufacturing process can generate somewhere between 0.5% to 20% on the on the high end, as what is called in process scrap, or in process rejection. This really depends on what product, you know, one is manufacturing. So in our case, whatever technology we use to manufacture any kind of packaging product, our rejection rate, or the scrap rate will be somewhere between 0.5% to a maximum of about 2%. And that, again, depends on what's the nature of the product design, the manufacturing process. So we essentially make sure that all that scrap rate is recycled back either into the same product within the factory, so it never leaves the four walls of the factory, or it will be recycled back into another product, if there is for example, a coloration where you're producing a white product, and you don't want the recycle to affect the whiteness of that. So we don't have any waste, you know, that leaves the factory in terms of scrapping.

Giulia Barbareschi  21:53

That's impressive, and it does really show sort of a full rounded commitment. From your website, I could see that you're not only committed to promoting sustainability within the group, but also a community level. And I was wondering if you could tell us a little bit more about those initiatives for sustainability that you engage with at community level?

Akshay Shah  22:20

Yeah, I think it came about because I think historically, we were maybe a bit opportunistic about, you know, what's the demand for different plastic products outside of packaging, but that was never really our core business. Yet, having, you know, all these equipments, all this engineering capability, we have factories in three countries, why not? Why not allocate, you know, 10% of our capabilities, specifically to make products that have a social impact. So that was the initial thinking that, you know, let's, let's do let's do something like that, where we can give 10% of the SIL Africa's manufacturing capacity, and make products where possible out of recycled plastic. And those products can then have some sort of a social or an environmental impact in the communities where we operate. An example is a partnership we have with Lixil. Lixil is a Japanese company, one of the world's largest toilet manufacturers. And we produce our injection moulded plastic pit latrine made of recycled polypropylene. And that essentially goes to help with say sanitary sanitation. Water tanks is another example. So we make water tanks, obviously, to help with people, you know, with water shortage and water supply reliability issues. But we changed the design of our water tank to be three layers so that the middle layer can be made out of recycled plastic. And now we're making some more changes so that the outer layer and the middle layer can be recycled plastic, and the inner layer remains fourth grade, so that it's still safe to store drinking water inside. So I think every time we're thinking about coming up with a new product, we're always thinking, how can the plastic packaging waste be converted into a resource that could have a social impact, or could have a better environmental and we're constantly coming up, like, I think the latest idea was we've got a grid tile. So it's like, imagine an egg tray with you know, pockets in it but holes at the bottom and you can put a tile into the ground and plant your seeds inside it. So the pockets protect the soil and the plant and the root structure and the seed. So in case if there's soil erosion, then you know, this style essentially protects the soil and the investment in the fertiliser and the seed. And that ultimately, you know, is made out of 100% recycled plastic waste, but it improves food security.

Giulia Barbareschi  24:55

I have to say I love how many different things you managed to touch. In terms of like, community interest, you know, you mentioned sanitation, but also agriculture. Can I ask you how many of these products have you delivered so far.

Akshay Shah  25:11

So we already have the the grid tile, we have the water tank, which we also upgraded to become to be used for hand washing, contactless hand washing, we already have the latrine, three different models of latrine. I think off hand in terms of the products that kind of fall into our social impact space, there's probably about seven or eight different products that are specifically designed to be made from recycled plastic waste, and can have a social impact.

Giulia Barbareschi  25:39

It is it's truly impressive. One of the things that you mentioned was about, of course, sanitation. And I know that as part of the work supported by the Local Production Local Solution initiative, you are partnered with some local organisation to produce PPE caps and gowns. What can you tell us about this project in particular?

Akshay Shah  26:05

Yeah, so I think probably it was at the beginning of the pandemic, when there was a huge shortage of PPE. And, you know, we, we have a line that manufactures stretch wrap. So we thought we could modify this line and produce a more thicker type of material, which is still sort of tear resistant, it's stretchy, but it's transparent and thick enough, so that it passes our local standards, and to be used as protective where, in essence, we could make the material, but we couldn't actually make the gown with a cap because we're not a tailoring shop. So I then reached out to the CEO of the Kenya National Federation of Jua Kali Associations. His name is Richard Muteti. So Richard and I had a talk about this, you know, we said, look, we need, you know, not like two or three tailors, we need maybe dozens or hundreds of tailors. If we're going to be able to produce PPE at scale, we and we can automate that completely, right, because it's, it involves stitching and cutting. So, so that was the beginning of our partnership with with the Jua Kali Association and with Richard Muteti. And that led us to, you know, essentially using our strengths to manufacture the solid, the PPE plastic fabric, and then using the Jua Kali Association, and then the tailors and their strengths to be able to do all the sort of fine manual work with the cutting and stitching.

Giulia Barbareschi  27:38

There are so many things about this project that I absolutely love right. It's it's almost hard to articulate, on one side there is this notion of capacity building, but also the view, the scale ability that you have, and this approach, it's, it's impressive. I think the part that connects with me the most, it's how you seek rather than trying to do everything yourself, you seek for strategic partnerships with a set of interlocking expertise that immediately sort of boost that capability, but also the reach of these projects. So the the numbers of PPEs that that we're talking about are truly impressive. And while on on one side, I think this is amazing, one of the concerns that there is is that PPEs are all thin single use devices. And there is concerned that over time, they could add to significant amount of plastic waste. Although this might be unavoidable on one side, do you think the real possibility to develop a more sustainable approach that allows for better collection and recycling of them?

Akshay Shah  28:55

Yeah, absolutely. You know, when if we go back to like circular economy principles, it starts off by looking at, you know, can we get a renewable source of material? In this case, we can't. It's an oil based poly polyethylene. Then the second step is can we redesign the product so that it's much more easier to recycle. So we did that. We removed stitching because the thread would interfere with the recyclability of the gown. So wherever possible, where we could remove the the stitching, we've done that and replaced it with heat sealing. So there is no other material that is interfering with the recyclability. We then partnered up with a recycling. So it's a waste collection and sorting and recycling company called Taka Taka Solutions. The CEO is guy called DanielPaffenholz. So Daniel, Daniel and I, we've known each other for a few years, we talked about if we want to make the gown recyclable. Can you manage the rest of it after the gown is disposed? So we're working together to figure out how can we create maybe collection points or disposal points. So that Taka Taka Solutions can go pick up these gowns, they're already sort of segregated at source. Because we would want to have like, separate, you know, bags or boxes or whatever, you know, for those gowns, and then Daniel's looking at how can he use his recycling processes to convert his material back into a pellet. Now, technically, he can do that, and it can become a pellet. The challenge for us then is to see what can we do with a pellet of plastic? So we're also now looking back at our equipment and seeing how can we further modify and challenge the processing parameters, in an ideal world to make another PPE gowns out of the recycled VP? And if we get that, you know, first prize to everybody? If not, then we'll find another product. And there'll be second prize,

Giulia Barbareschi  31:03

Thank you Akshay Shah from the SIL Africa group. I think the most powerful takeaway I get from the incredible work done by the people at SIL Africa, is how they have been able to leverage their expertise and their expertise of strategic partners to develop new products that really address core needs of their communities in a sustainable way. Would you agree on that, Ben?

Ben Oldfrey  31:28

Yes, absolutely. And I think what what really shines in the work that Ashkay has been describing is the collaborative approach to pivoting to what the community around around them need. And by working together with different ventures along the value chain, they were able to rapidly respond to the sudden needs of COVID. And I think it's just as an example, to look to to look to for the future of how we can within the ecos local ecosystems, you know, identify where other ventures could be working together in a similar way.

Giulia Barbareschi  32:05

Today, we heard the incredible stories of two brilliant African ventures that are truly embracing the power of technology and innovation, to address challenges around environmental sustainability, but also address the needs of their local communities. I think what really strikes me here is this idea of developing innovative approaches that are able to keep both that local and the global picture in mind. What are your thoughts about that, then?

Ben Oldfrey  32:38

Yeah, and obviously the the pandemic has been a global experience. But what it's teaching is about resilience means resilience to yeh, could be future global scenarios that occur, but also just more more regional events that that could happen and affect businesses and their ability to supply what they need to the communities around them.

Giulia Barbareschi  32:58

I definitely agree on that. And I think this, as we said, it's something that shines through both stories that we heard today. I got a question for you. I asked this to both our guests today. So I'm going to have to ask you as well, how is Innovation Action, embracing sustainability? And why do you think it's such a key value for everyone in the consortium?

Ben Oldfrey  33:22

Well, with the ventures that we're supporting, through Innovation Action, you know, if these local approaches are going to be good for the local community as a whole, and they really have to take into account the whole of the value chain. So that's the materials they use the production process, but also what happens throughout the product lifecycle up until, you know, waste management is needed. And that's why it's so great. The, you know, the collaborative work that SIL Africa, the Jua Kali, Taka Taka   are doing on this topic, and outside the local picture. One reason for this is that the climate crisis on the whole is still argued to be a much greater problem than the current pandemic, and it hasn't gone away. It's just that we're focused on COVID response primarily right now. And and if the ventures we're engaged with, with Innovation Action, you know, are going to have truly long term prospects, then it just they simply have to take sustainability into account.

Giulia Barbareschi  34:14

I think I absolutely agree with your point here. I mean so many of us have been so focused on the event brought by the pandemic in the last year, but we really cannot afford to lose sight of the long term perspective and work on global actions and local actions that are needed to tackle the global climate emergency. I have one last question for you. And it's about keeping this sort of long term perspective. What else do you think it could and should be done to promote more sustainable innovations across countries in the global south?

Ben Oldfrey  34:56

Well, many hope that COVID could be the driving force. That brings in the changes that have been wanted and shouted about by many environmentally focus groups for quite some time. And a good thing that could arise from this is that you know that the stable business models, resilient business models that are good for local producers and the communities around them in these areas could very well be the exactly the same, but business models that are sustainable and better for the environment, you know, we're talking about shorter supply chains closer, you know, bringing consumers closer to the point of manufacture, and therefore, you know, better ability to produce repairable devices, maintainable devices, because you have the expertise and spare parts available in the local arena to keep products going and extend product life cycles. So just less has to be made, things can be maintained in a proper way. And also engaging properly with waste management services, and looping that back round into earlier parts in this in the value chain. So it could be that the short term approaches that we take now really could benefit the long term picture around the climate crisis.

Giulia Barbareschi  36:13

Once again, thank you so much, Ben Oldfrey for such an insightful technical commentary. It was brilliant to hear about the potential that sustainable innovations and strategic partnerships can have to help tackle both global climate and urgency and then local needs of communities in Africa. And also hear your opinion on how recent events could really shape what we do in the future and the actions that we take to become all in all more sustainable. I do invite the listeners to check out the podcast page of the website, InnovationAction.org, where they will be able to find links provided by our guests to access more informations about GIVO, SIL Africa and the larger Local Production Local Solution network. Thank you so much for listening to this episode of the Innovation Action insights, a space where we'll share stories of innovations and innovators working to address global challenges for social good. In the next episode, we'll talk about assistive technology and discuss the value of innovation for creating better products, services and policies addressing the needs of people with disabilities.