Chilean soluble bags innovator awes Kenya, to set up plant in Athi River

Maurice Asiala (left), Solubag founder and inventor Roberto Astete (Centre) and Solubag Co-founder and CEO Africa George Jomo display a water-soluble bag. [Maxwell Agwanda, Standard]

It looks and serves the same purpose as a plastic bag. The difference is that it easily dissolves in water within no time. Its inventors call it Solubag.

And that too is the name of the company: Solubag. Founded by Chilean scientists led by Mr Roberto Astete, 46, the firm is taking South and North America and Europe by storm.

Now it is setting up a unit in Africa. Its head office will be at the Export Processing Zone (EPZ) in Athi River, Machakos County, from where it will supply items to the rest of the continent.

“We have zero per cent plastic in our recipe. Our first customers were children because they got excited about this tough product that suddenly disappears in water,” says Astete.

Founded on a technology that first sought to produce a detergent, it is now being used to produce shopping bags, personal protective equipment, sugar bags, aprons, shampoo, hand soaps, tumblers and lab coats.

“This technology is an open book. There is no boundary yet as to how many more products we can make out of it. We can even replace the single-use plastic cups used in parties with dissolvable cups,” says Mr Astete.

For example, in Chile, Mr Astete says the firm is working on toothbrushes, crates, food containers and disposable dishes.

Mr Astete was in Nairobi recently, for the first time — during the fifth UN Environment Assembly that concluded on March 2 with 14 resolutions to curb pollution, protect and restore nature worldwide being passed.

It was a moment to introduce his technology to Kenya and environment enthusiasts. Mr Astete awed delegates with this invention that in 2018 saw Solubag recognised by Singularity University and Silicon Valley as the best innovation in Latin America.

During an interview with The Standard, Mr Astete submerged what resembles a plastic shopping bag in water. About a minute later, it had completely dissolved. Afterwards, he drank the water.

Mr Astete says while the patent runs for 20 years, it allows them to also patent any improvements made on the formula, making it possible to extend it. So what happens if one carries items in the solubag and it starts raining? The firm refined its formula.  Some of its bags can only dissolve in hot water while others dissolve only in cold water.

George Jomo, Solubag Co-founder and head of the African Branch showing some of their products. [Maxwell Agwanda, Standard]

Capsule shells

The soluble bags are yet to hit the streets in Kenya but will be priced just as plastics or synthetic bags. This is to ensure affordability.

Solubag’s technology is made of the same material used for manufacturing capsule shells for medical drugs. One of the ingredients is maize cobs while the rest of the recipe has been patented. Mr Astete’s fellow scientist Cristian Olivares, discovered the formula while experimenting with biodegradable detergent. They used polyvinyl alcohol that dissolves in water as their chemical base and then replaced the oil derivatives to ensure the bag would degrade over time.

The soluble bags, which physically look like plastic bags and can stretch out just like a paper bag when pulled, come in different designs — film bags, flat bags, long gusset bags, medium gusset bags and punched bags.

“If you don’t want to destroy it instantly with water, you can still throw it away and it will be destroyed by rain, moisture or sun unlike plastics that take 150 years,” explains Mr Astete.

Solubag has now created Solubag Africa — the unit that will sell its products across the continent. Its offices are going to be in Kenya.

Co-founder and director for Solubag Africa, George Jomo, says the firm wants to build upon the overwhelming reception it received at the UN meeting.

“Nairobi, being a business hub gives us room to start strongly in Africa. We are going to start the production factory for raw materials and finished products in Athi River,” says Jomo.

“We have already hired about 600 seamstresses to come and stitch or carry out commercial heat-sealing. We will be scaling up the number as demand picks.”

Solubag plans to set up distribution points in other countries but production will be done in Kenya to ensure quality is not compromised.

The technology’s first client in Kenya was the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) which used the bags to plant 300 trees to mark the United Nation’s 50 years in the country.

Corporates keen on sustainability agenda such as Safaricom and KCB have already made orders, with the telco requiring about 1.3 million bags a month for its activities.

Laundry bags

Carrefour, which utilises about 950 million bags a week across its branches, will also be among its first customers. Solubag has spent about $4 million (Sh450 million) to set up a factory as it seeks to meet the demand in a country that outlawed single-use plastic bags in 2017.

The firm is also talking to hospitals to produce for them water-soluble laundry bags to store contaminated clothing. “The operators handling the clothing will only have to take the bag and put it into the washing machine without having to be in contact with the dirty or contaminated clothes since it dissolves in hot water,” says Astete.

This, he says, will lower the risk of contracting an infection from the clothing and also save hospitals part of their waste management costs.

But it has been a journey of over two years for Solubag to receive approvals from the National Environment Management Authority (Nema) and Kenya National Bureau of Standards (Kebs).

“They (Nema and Kebs) didn’t know where to place it since it is neither a plastic or paper,” says Mr Jomo.

“This required many laboratory tests before finally getting approval to enter the market.” Solubag’s raw material can be extruded in any plastic extrusion machine — a feature that allows it to be scaled very fast.

Mr Astete says the firm is seeking alliances with plastic bags producers.

“In the same machine that companies used to make plastic bags, you simply replace with our material and produce bags that either dissolve in hot or cold water. We are ready to supply the material to them,” he says.

This could offer a lifeline to the many firms that had to close after the State introduced the ban on single-use plastic bags.

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