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How that smelly baby diaper can steady Kenya's tottering economy

By Isaac Kalua | May 8th 2022 | 3 min read
Disposable diapers littered at Nanyuki dumpsite. [Kibata Kihu, Standard]

We can make money, create jobs and lift our economy through disposable diapers. Yes, those smelly diapers! The usefulness of diapers does not have to end after the baby is done with them. This is exactly what circular economy entails.

As aptly described by the European Commission, circular economy encourages maintaining the value of products, materials and resources for as long as possible by returning them back to the product cycle at the end of their use, and minimising generation of waste.

I just returned from a crush programme specialisation course at the University of Copenhagen where I represented Kenya Association of Manufacturers supported by the Danish Government. This leadership course led by Prof Maj Anderson was about strategising for the green and circular economy.

Together with me were distinguished Kenyans Tobias Alando, Henry Ochieng, Caroline Kungu, Fredrick Mukabi and Victor Kenga. Our team prepared various striking presentations on circular economy, one of which focused on an innovative approach towards disposable diaper management.   

At the heart of this presentation are critical circular economy insights that can change the way Kenyans relate with disposable diapers and in the process, create jobs.

Let me emphasize that the circular economy approach is very profitable. According to a study by McKinsey, by 2030 circular economy could boost Europe’s resource productivity by 3 per cent. This will save Europe Sh73.6 trillion annually and trillions more in additional economic benefits. What is true for Europe is true for Kenya.

Child population in Kenya is 53 per cent. That is anticipated, considering that Kenya sees an average of 5,500 births daily. Reportedly, the average baby uses as many as 7,000 diapers in their lifetime. Consequently, there is a mountain of disposable diapers accumulating in our landfills daily.

Globally, 20 billion diapers are estimated to end up in landfills annually. Millions of others are incinerated. Neither of these waste management options are sustainable. Land filling results in an array of problems like water pollution, odour and methane emissions. On its part, incineration uses a lot of energy and releases harmful gases into the atmosphere. That’s why we need a different approach.

This year, the global diaper market is predicted to exceed Sh8.2 trillion. However, this staggering profit come at a huge cost to the environment. This is particularly true for Kenya because we are already struggling with solid waste management. According to the Ministry of Environment, Kenya produces about 8 million tons of waste annually. Reportedly, 800 million diapers are cast-off in Kenya annually. Since these diapers take about 400 years to decompose, we must deploy social innovation in tackling this challenge starting with a practical partnership with the initial producers to create a collection chain leading to upcycling. 

Disposable diapers contain fibre that can be harvested and channeled into multiple uses. The starting point towards this is a reward system for collection and delivery of materials from the households to a processing center. This fiber will then be used to produce a variety of products including reinforced concrete, shopping bags or even furnace for factories as the technology possibilities advance. Therein lies the jobs.

Considering that Kenya’s construction sector is a multi-million-shilling industry, inserting diaper fibres into the construction value chain will complete the circular economy of diapers.

Against this backdrop, it is evident that we can infuse value into used disposable diapers. Training of youth will lead to elimination of existing curtails in this sector and a systemic change in our waste management, especially as regards disposable diapers. County governments should institute symbiotic public private partnerships for the collection, sorting and transporting of diapers to processing plants. Before that can even happen, these plants must be set up through the same partnerships.

Even more important than these critical actions should be a circular economy uprising among ordinary Kenyans. Think green, act green!

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