Sustainable Manufacturing and Environmental Pollution Programme

The SMEP Programme: Highlighting the socio-economic impact of grant spending in underserved geographies

The Sustainable Manufacturing and Environmental Pollution (SMEP) Programme supports the piloting of solutions for manufacturing and plastic pollution mitigation across target countries in Sub-Saharan Africa and South Asia through grant spending. In addition to piloting innovation through practical science and business action, SMEP champions social and economic inclusion in all 25 of its pilot projects.

Investing in donor grant spending in underserved geographies can significantly transform marginalised areas by stimulating local finance flows and local economic opportunities. We highlight two of the SMEP-funded projects which are designed to provide opportunities to those communities in difficult-to-reach areas and marginalised groups. Effective ways of attaining SDG 10, Reduced Inequalities, amongst others, is by ensuring that resources and opportunities reach the furthest communities, and that projects remain viable long after SMEP grants and are scalable to other geographies. SMEP, therefore emphasises the importance of the sustainable business model, and sustainable relationships with stakeholders, including the communities where projects operate. Grant funding is temporary, but if these aspects are prioritised, the socio-economic benefits are more likely to be sustainable at the end of the grant funding cycle.

This article addresses the question of the efficacy of grant funding for the sustainability of solutions in underserved geographies, referencing two SMEP projects: the Plastics-to-Ghar Hub in Nepal and the Flipflopi Project in Kenya. While addressing the impact of plastics pollution, these projects have addressed the challenge of effectively using the wastes for remanufacturing locally relevant and marketable products that are technically viable and economically feasible in low-income geographies. The projects have been designed with the local environment at the forefront and, two years after the initial contracting, have shown significant benefits for marginalised communities.

The Plastic-to-Ghar (P2G) Hub – Nepal

The Plastic-to-Ghar (P2G) Hub in Nepal, led by the University of Cambridge in partnership with Impact Hub Kathmandu, has taken a “bottom-up” approach to project implementation. The Hub acts as an incubator for new and emerging small-scale businesses working to provide solutions that address plastics waste challenges in Nepal by remanufacturing plastic waste into durable, long-lasting housing products.

The project research lead, Dr Curie Park of the University of Cambridge, proposed the project to SMEP in 2020 as a direct response to the “stranded pilots” that she had observed of plastic waste recycling and remanufacturing projects. These stranded pilots were conceptualised outside of the project areas and were later dogged by challenges, such as inadequate feedstock supply, insufficient buy-in and malfunctioning machinery. These were often due to the lack of consideration of local plastic waste collection dynamics and the lack of local capacity to service and maintain the imported technologies.

In contrast, the P2G project presents an approach to plastic pollution mitigation with a foundation of understanding local needs and building the local capacity to meet those needs. The high-altitude village homes in Nepal are located in remote and perilous locations that are surrounded by protected Himalayan forests. Their remoteness leads to numerous logistical challenges with high costs associated with the transport and delivery of goods and services. This has impacted waste management and housing in these villages, as there is no reliable plastic waste collection or recycling service and building resources are costly to acquire. These marginalised communities are particularly impacted by this as many people lack home insulation in the cold climate and are still rebuilding after the 2015 earthquake.

The P2G project aimed to address these dual challenges by using plastic waste as feedstocks for remanufacturing into products used for home insulation and home building. Community involvement and solution co-creation were at the forefront of the project’s design – social inclusion was key. The project began by undertaking extensive community consultation to develop a holistic understanding of the challenges, barriers and opportunities associated with both plastic waste and housing. This included the types of plastic waste most prevalent, the extent to which the problem was growing, and the existing means of waste disposal and collection. They also investigated the most pressing infrastructure challenges, specifically focusing on housing, building materials, insulation, and home heating.

The next step was to call for local would-be entrepreneurs and innovators from the highland belt to submit concepts and co-create innovative housing solutions. Two MAKEathons – an open innovation competition – were hosted by the Hub in 2022 during which participants actively experimented to further develop their innovative product prototypes and business concepts. The winners of the competition, five start-ups, were enrolled in an ongoing incubation course, which to date has included two rounds of masterclasses and 21 bi-weekly business and technical coaching sessions focusing on operations, business development skills, and GESI (gender equality, diversity and social inclusion). They were also awarded pilot seed funding, secured by the Nepal Social Welfare Council. Additionally, P2G Hub offers a franchise model to the start-ups, whereby the Hub supplies the basic small-scale mechanical equipment for plastic upcycling required for the start-ups’ operations at a waived rental and maintenance/supervision fee. This model offers numerous benefits and has resulted in the establishment of small-scale plastic upcycling production units across Nepal. Further, by franchising the units near the target customers, supply runs cover shorter distances. This effectively lowers the costs and the complex logistics inherent to transporting goods across the region’s mountainous topography.

Three of the five start-ups have successfully registered as companies with the local government in Nepal – a huge step for a group of young individuals with no previous business experience. The P2G project highlights how grant funding, when applied to projects with a context-specific design and emphasis on community involvement and co-creation, can make significant impact in marginalised communities. In this instance, community engagement and social inclusion have ensured local ownership and sustainability of solutions, with solutions designed by the locals, for the locals.

The Flipflop Project – Kenya

The Flipflopi Project, has established Lamu Archipelago’s first operational waste management system by implementing locally-led waste collection and clean-up solutions for the marine and coastal environment. Collected plastic waste is upcycled into marketable products, the most famous of these being the traditional Flipflopi dhow made entirely of recycled plastic. Flipflopi took a ‘full systems’ approach to their work in Lamu off the coast of Northern Kenya, using a combination of:

  1. Education and awareness: Leading to behavioural change, to promote the waste separation at source and collection infrastructure;
  2. Innovation: The remanufacturing hub innovation making locally relevant products, specifically sailing dhows and water taxis, heritage furniture and building products; and
  3. Advocacy: Campaigning and support to influence legislative change at a local level with respect to waste management, and more broadly to end single-use plastics.

The project has succeeded on many levels, not only demonstrating that the boat building is feasible and a potentially viable business model, but also facilitating inclusive training on boat construction and mechanical recycling and prototyping a range of products including heritage furniture. The project has succeeded in establishing significant community buy-in and supports as many as 700 people who are involved in the waste collection value chain.

The boat building artisans of Lamu Archipelago rely on locally harvested hardwoods to build their traditional boats, dhows. However, the supply of hardwoods is shrinking, and sourcing this building material is becoming increasingly unaffordable. Flipflopi, through its plastic waste upcycling, is offering an alternative material to the hardwoods for traditional boat building, thereby tackling both plastic waste and deforestation challenges as well as supporting the traditional local economy. The waste collection provides economic opportunities for the most marginalised. Flipflopi purchases plastic waste directly from community and grassroots organisations, with direct cash transfers to waste collectors from lower-income communities. Women comprise more than 50% of the income earners, with many of the small island buy-back hubs led by women.

The Flipflopi training and capacity building is designed with the objective of spinning the project off in the longer term – to be entirely locally led – and the project management includes many locals. The boat building academy is another flagship output, with training including entrepreneurship, leadership, and technical skills development (plastic upcycling processes and professional heritage boat building from the upcycled plastic).

The project has also just started a three-month course attached to Lamu Vocational Training Centre (formerly Lamu Youth Polytechnic) that accommodates ten students, offering hands-on practical experience. Flipflopi hopes to use the training centre as a stepping stone, providing support directed towards economic empowerment for the waste pickers and have offered a place to study in this course to a young female waste picker. 

In Lamu society, women are generally excluded from the professional artisanship of traditional boat building. However, the Flipflopi project encourages gender inclusion in its training programmes through several initiatives and strategies, including targeted outreach for women. The programmes gender-responsive curriculum addresses the specific needs and challenges faced by women in Lamu, including topics such as gender roles, empowerment, and addressing gender-based violence. Special training sessions are organised for women, providing a safe and supportive environment for them to learn and participate. Trainers are guided to create an inclusive and supportive learning environment which is sensitive to any gender biases that may present but maintains a focus on equal participation and opportunities for all trainees.

“One of the most significant impacts is to see how young women from this relatively conservative society have embraced traditionally and stereotypically 'male professions' like carpentry and boat building. Equally, the males have also been welcoming and supportive. It was a pleasant surprise to see this happen through all our courses where about 30% of the 84 students we have had in the past two years have been female”

With the foundation of localised beneficiation and social inclusion in these underserved small islands, the Flipflopi project is now focussing on the commercial sustainability of the remanufacturing hub to ensure long term support for localised waste management and local socio-economic spin offs through the manufacturing facility. The project impact is highlighted in the 2023 Impact Report and 2022 Impact Report.

Reflection from SMEP-funded projects

By prioritising community involvement and fostering a sense of ownership and partnership, grant-funded projects can be more sustainable, impactful, and responsive to the needs of the communities they aim to serve. The impact of grant funding in underserved and marginalised areas is significant in achieving SDG 10 through ensuring greater inclusion and reducing inequalities. By considering the local context and community involvement at the forefront of grant project design, these communities are capacitated to implement innovative solutions for their local challenges and effectively overcome their resource limitations in the short and long-term.

Author: Faith Gara

Author: Faith Gara

Project Manager and GESI Coordinator, SMEP Programme

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