Continuing our celebration of Women’s Month, we spoke to Kenya’s Lorna Rutto, the second Cartier Women’s Initiative finalist, who founded and runs Ecopost that manufactures durable fencing posts from plastic waste as an environmentally friendly alternative to timber.
1. Was there an aha moment when you recognised the problem (plastic pollution) and realised you had a solution?
Every single day 2 400 metric tonnes of waste is generated in Nairobi, 20 percent of which is plastic. There’s no proper waste management system and therefore this waste is crudely dumped, resulting in heaps of garbage littering the streets, clogging the sewers and even encroaching on people’s homes. It is so bad that UNEP (the United Nations Environment Programme) has classified it as one of the worst humanitarian crises in the city. So yes, I was very excited to realise that I could actually provide a solution and provide a suitable alternative to timber by manufacturing posts from plastic waste. I am actually turning the trash into cash while creating job opportunities, especially for the youth and women who are generally marginalised. Nothing makes me happier.
2. What part does women play in this recycling project?
So far, we have created 15 direct jobs at our factory and over 300 indirect jobs; most of these are done by women. We buy plastic waste from our collection yards across the country where women by waste plastic from unemployed young people, and then sort and clean it before selling it to us. This makes them entrepreneurs based on our entrepreneurial efforts and helps them earn a livelihood and provide good nutrition and education to their children.
3. Are you concerned about competition from other companies that may enter the field?
The industry is still in a state of flux with few market leaders. Players include Devani, Green Africa and A1 Plastic. The market for posts is very big and hence there is no rivalry among the few existing firms. Research we carried out in 2008 and 2009 shows that more than 200 000 timber posts are sold every month in Nairobi and its surroundings. This makes timber posts our biggest competition.
There are barriers that prevent others from entering the industry. The first is the high initial capital investment required for purchasing and installing a plant. The second is the knowledge required to ensure that it is fully functional and efficient, and to build the necessary economies of scale. We differentiate our products on quality, uniqueness and price, and are introducing coloured products with UV stabilisers and flame retardants which our competitors currently do not offer. We will also implement a cost leadership strategy as we intend to be more affordable.
4. Have you considered making other products from the recycled plastic? And if so, what are they?
Yes. Our main products, the fence posts, are suitable to be used on farms, at homes, national parks and game reserves, and commercial premises such as cattle ranches and tourist resorts. We customise our products to suit the client’s needs and have, for example, made support beams for low-cost housing, green houses, cowsheds and garages. We have also made pickets and bollards. Smaller posts can also be used to make chicken houses, rabbit houses and kennels and we intend using our custom products for outdoor furniture and paving.
5. You are changing lives and creating jobs, but how are you personally benefiting from all of this?
I get a lot of fulfillment and satisfaction when I contribute to our environment and especially our people. Poverty scares me and it disturbs me very much when I see people overcome by it. That is why I am committed to helping others and I enjoy doing it. I love my work. Each day when I go to work, I feel that am serving my purpose in this world and working towards our goal to transform Africa’s waste into wealth. This renews my strength every day.
6. Are there many challenges facing women in this kind of industry?
Yes, I have experienced difficulties in accessing credit. It is mostly men in this industry and women are discriminated against. I do not fit the normal profile and thus am scrutinized, which takes a long time and delays us. My current challenge is our low production capacity. We cannot meet demand with the few secondhand machines we have and need a loan to purchase better and automated machines to increase our production. Sometimes I also experience technical challenges in areas such as electrical and machine maintenance. Outsourcing this can be pretty expensive. It, however, boils down to capital. When we get a loan, we will be able to bring in the trained experts we need.
There also isn’t a coordinated effort among key stakeholders, including the government, who can advise us on sources of funding and provide us with a market. We are competing with more established firms that still supply timber posts to the government. There is also a cultural bias; most people in our society still believe that a woman’s place is in the kitchen. On average, people don’t take women seriously. It can be challenging to get people to listen to me and I need to be either very persuasive or assertive.
7. Are there many women entrepreneurs in Kenya? What unique challenges do
Kenya has a patriarchal social structure and most women look to the men in their lives – husbands or fathers – to make decisions for them, which goes against the spirit of entrepreneurship. The pressure to take care of their children and family conflict also hamper them. In addition, they appear not to be driven by profit growth but by the need to provide for their families. They see a business as a means of setting them free from ‘begging’ from their spouses for money for the basic necessities such as food, clothing and health care. Everything they earn then goes toward their families, which prevents them from investing profits back into their businesses, taking bigger risks and growing it from being ‘survival’ micro-enterprises. Most female entrepreneurs I know go into the same type of business, which is selling household products such as groceries, clothes and ornaments, which then becomes very competitive and has less capacity for growth. Because they lack collateral, their chances of securing loans from banks are small. A lack of sufficient education and training also plays a role; very few Kenyan women have the same opportunities as men to study.
8. What special qualities do women bring to business?
Women are better managers. They are highly self-motivated and ambitious and have a clear vision of what they want to achieve and are thus fearless when it comes to getting the job done. Most female entrepreneurs have good communication and networking skills that help them to expand contacts, create business opportunities and maintain good relationships. Although they are very understanding and empathetic to their workers, suppliers, etc., they can be persuasive and assertive when need be. Women tend to be more focused on the details and open to new creative and innovative ideas. They are strong decision-makers, able to think quickly on their feet and set things in motion. However, the best thing about female entrepreneurs is that they have an inborn responsibility toward society and aspire to help others and enjoy doing it.
9. If you should be named a Cartier Women’s Initiative winner, how would you spend the $20 000 prize money?
I intend to grow our business and improve the living standards of the many women we work with, and would like to use the funds to set up at least another 10 collection yards. It will therefore provide a great entrepreneurial opportunity not only to me but also to the women who will set up and run the additional collection yards. It will also enable us to secure enough raw materials to take our business to the next level.
10. Are you excited about visiting France? What do you look forward to most?
Yes. I am overwhelmed with joy. I am truly honoured and humbled to be given this opportunity. I have always wished that I could travel to France, the fabled land of remarkable beauty and tranquility, of royal chateaux, of good food and wine, of landmarks known the world over and secret landscapes. This is a dream opportunity for me. And I look forward to meeting the international network of women entrepreneurs, Cartier team, coaches, jury and investors as well as all the role models from all over the world at the Annual Global Meeting of the Women’s Forum. It is going to be a once-in-a-lifetime experience for me and I’d like to take this opportunity to thank the Cartier Women’s Initiative for making my dream come true. May the Lord bless you all abundantly.