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Eco-entrepreneur making a fortune from plastic poles

Victor Ooko goes through a process called mixing where different plastic material and recycled waste are mixed to detect metals so that they can be removed from that waste. [Silas Otieno, Standard]

Inside the factory, a mild explosion occurs followed by a plume of smoke. A little sparking follows, and finally, out of the extruder machine’s barrel, a man pulls out a plastic pole.

The pole is quickly splashed into water to cool. A crusher machine continues to roar. The pole-making process began here with plastic being crashed into fine pellets that pass through the extruder.

Sacks of plastic pile against the factory walls and there’s a buzz of activity as workers sort the plastic waste ahead of mixing. 

This is Joel Alogo’s playground. 

The eco-entrepreneur converts plastic waste - which would otherwise remain in landfills seeping into water systems and back into humans as very minute particles - into solid eco-friendly fencing poles.

High-density polyethylene (HDPE) and low-density polyethylene (LDPE) are the main types of plastics that Mr Alogo recycles.

HDPEs include plastic bottles, milk jugs, shampoo bottles, bleach bottles, cutting boards, and piping. LDPEs include plastic bags and squeezable bottles.

The end products include fencing poles, roofing terraces, garden stakes, building, sign and barrier posts. 

The start

This project started in June 2021, but the dream was born several years back.

“I used to do garbage collection in Baba Dogo. But soon, everyone got into the business and I had to shift focus,” he tells Enterprise.  “In India, plastic waste has for long been used to tarmac roads and even make roofing tiles. This gave us an idea and we got into the business of recycling plastic waste.”

Mr Alogo, who had studied lean manufacturing in school (minimising waste within manufacturing systems while simultaneously maximising productivity) and did several manual jobs in Nairobi’s Industrial Area, says he had gained plenty of social capital wealth before joining the business. 

After multiple partnerships and contributions, he opened Vigingi Afrika Ltd, located along Wundanyi Road off Nanyuki Road in Industrial Area. “The dream was to use tonnes of plastic waste that was being dumped all over to make products that could be valuable to customers and that solved harmful dumping in the environment,” he says.

With collectors trained to sort the plastics and only package for the company what can be recycled, Mr Alogo launched his pole manufacturing company.

Garbage to gold 

As companies that produce bulk plastic waste dump it, collectors are waiting at the site and sorting it to ferry it to Vigingi Afrika. These collectors are paid between Sh15 and Sh25 for every kilo of waste they package. Every week, between 15 and 20 tonnes of plastic waste is processed in this industry.

Joel Alogo displays plastic and waste materials use that he uses to recycle and produce plastic post or Eco post at his plant in Industrial area in Nairobi on October 18, 2022. [Silas Otieno, Standard].

The waste is then taken through an agglomerator- a machine that breaks down the plastic bags into tiny granules and also dries the feedstock.

There is manual mixing of the broken-down plastic, which includes passing a magnet through the feedstock (raw material to supply or fuel a machine or industrial process) to remove any metallic materials that could have fallen in.

The plastic pieces are then emptied into the barrel of the extruder machine which, under high temperatures and pressure, can coalesce the particles into one solid form.

This extruder can churn up to 72 poles a day but has to be stopped every time a pole is produced. Mr Alogo hopes to procure one that has two taps so it can churn poles from two barrels simultaneously, and thus increase production.

Every pole is 10 feet long. The poles are three to six inches wide in diameter.

The three-inch pole costs Sh70 per foot, the four-inch one costs Sh130 per foot while the six-inch one, whose target market Mr Alogo says includes The Kenya Urban Roads Authority (KURA) for use as guardrails to arrest vandalism, costs Sh300 a foot.

Market challenge

Outside the factory’s massive doors, these poles lie piled one on another, waiting for buyers.

Mr Alogo says that one of the main challenges the company has had is the consistency of the market marked by fluctuations despite their best online and social media marketing attempts.

Yet the benefits of these poles abound, he says, with cost-effectiveness at the top of the list. “You use these fencing poles and you are sure that you will not need to replace them in 30, or even more. Plastics - and in this case fortified - are long-lasting,” he says.

Mr Alogo also says that any champion for environmental conservation is against the cutting down of trees to avail fencing poles. He is one of the conservationists and is, in producing plastic poles, providing an alternative to wooden poles.

For fencing of poultry coops or cowsheds or other livestock houses, he says that these poles are ideal because, unlike wooden ones, plastic poles do not absorb chemicals that may be sprayed as pesticides and therefore “are generally more hygienic”. “Termites also will not attack plastic, you know, and there is no chance that rust will lead to the degradation of your fencing material,” he says.

They are also difficult to burn so vandals can’t turn them into firewood. 

Inside the enterprise

Mr Alogo employs 15 people inside his factory - from those sorting the feedstock to those operating the crusher and the intruder. They work in two shifts - day and night. He also has another six people conducting sales and another 50 in the field, seeking business openings.

They have met conservancies to discuss using these plastic poles in fencing wildlife, with claims elephants have a tendency of bringing down wooden ones.

As new regulations on the handling of waste are developed, companies are now becoming more conscious of how they dump their unusable plastics.

Some are keen to sign deals with Vigingi so that they can deposit their waste at his factory, which will reduce some of the logistical challenges of ferrying waste from dumpsites back into Industrial Area, where a lot of the waste originates.  

One of the challenges the company faces is passing moist waste through the extruder and thus getting lumps, instead of finely made poles.

These lumps are not discarded - they can be mixed with fresh feedstocks and reprocessed. That is, however, expensive.

With what he terms high energy costs and inconsistent energy - power failures affect production, damage machines and cause disgruntlement among customers - any repeated process is costly.

He is planning to have an agglomerator which, by drying the feedstock, will reduce the chance of the formation of lumps and repetition of the extrusion process.

Homeowners

His machines are fabricated locally, and repairs could get unaffordable, he says.

People fencing homes are his most prominent customers, with developers selling land or building off-plan units gradually coming on board.

For the six-foot pole, Mr Alogo says it could be used to support guardrails.

In case of accidents, he says, the impact on cars could be a little more cushioned than is with steel. The vandalism along highways, as people seek scrap metal for sale, would also be addressed.

Mr Alogo advises Kenyan entrepreneurs to go into manufacturing, which creates transgenerational income-generating sources.

And although he has not received any external funding to boost his business, he prides himself in creating an opportunity to empower people while providing a much-needed solution to society.

He hopes to grow the company even bigger as more customers come on board and embrace the use of plastic poles.

Ahead of COP 27 - the 2022 United Nations Climate Change Conference in which environmental conservation and mitigation of effects of climate change will be discussed, Mr Alogo is doing the best he can to play his role in saving a world threatened by plastic and that could choke under this biodegradable waste.

The three-inch poles are the most purchased, he says, but for fencing exceeding two acres, he advises that one uses the four-inch ones or a mixture of there and four-inch poles in a 3:1 ratio.

An acre needs 89 poles.