Fast forward, part VI
This is the sixth article in a weekly series of interviews with young Kenyans who are helping to develop their nation from within. Read the first article on photographer Boniface Mwangi here, the second on political strategist Nerea Musita here, the third on course leader Eda Esilaba here, the fourth on a newsletter for the refugees in Dadaab camp here, and the fifth on small loans for slum dwellers here.
Having grown up in a slum in Nakuru, a town north of the Kenyan capital, Nairobi, Lorna Rutto knows what it’s like to be poor. But the 28-year-old considers herself lucky. Her parents struggled against poverty, but made sure their five children could go to school.
After graduation Lorna found a job at a bank and could afford a house outside of the slum. But the job did not satisfy her. “I felt out of place,” she says. “I kept thinking about how people were suffering in the slums. What I really wanted to do was to help eradicate poverty.” From her childhood Lorna remembered the huge amounts of plastic waste in the slums and how it already bothered her as a child. “It would litter the streets and block the sewage, making the raw sewage find its way into the houses. Disgusting.”
As a child she used to pick up plastic bags, clean them and turn them into ornaments. She discovered that she could actually make some kind of living out of selling the ornaments. One thing led to another, and in the end she started a business, EcoPost. Over coffee Rutto talks passionately about her vision to fight poverty through recycling plastic.
“When I was young I saw people collecting the plastic, taking it to factories and coming back with some money. I discovered that there is so much you can do with plastic waste. I decided to settle for the easiest thing, which is making plastic poles. Making other products is very capital-intensive. So I am now making simple poles for fences. One of my customers is Kenya Wildlife Service, who uses the poles to fence off national parks. In three years time we have grown considerably. There are 25 people working in the factory right now. And we work with around 300 women and youths who collect the waste.”
The plastic collectors were living in extreme poverty. By giving them a job they are able to generate some income for their families. Do you see a difference in these women already? Are they getting wealthier?
“I can’t say that they are really growing wealthier, but now they have food on the table, they have health insurance and they have a place to go home to. These people used to live at the dumping ground and find food in the trash. I can only afford [to pay them] the minimum wage of 330 shilling (3 euros) per day. That’s almost nothing. Sometimes I feel so bad about that. But I know that they are much better off now.”
Why do you work with women?
“Actually I am more passionate about children than women or men. When a child suffers, it really hurts me. When the woman has money, she will feed her child. A man will most likely go out drinking. Almost all men [in the slums] are drunk. The women are the ones who feed [their family].”
Do you think running a business and offering jobs is the best way to eradicate poverty?
“Businesses are very important, because they provide people with a source of income. If I manage to expand my business and buy another machine [to produce poles with], my business partner and I could employ another 1500 people. That means less people living at dumping grounds. As for the people who are already working for me, I don’t think they will be living in the slum next year. The profit margin will increase, so I will be able to pay them more, which will enable them to move house.”
Banks generally don’t loan money to start-ups, which made it hard for you to keep EcoPost running in the first year. You survived by winning several business plan competitions, which gained you a lot of publicity, as well as some money. Should rich Kenyans invest more in businesses like EcoPost?
“Yes. It’s the best way the country will get out of the situation it is in. Rich people should be business angels in our own country instead of stashing their money away in a Swiss bank account.”