The recycling sector across Africa isn’t as robust as other regions in the world — in fact, Africa salvages just about 4% of the waste produced across the continent.
And with 70 million tons of plastic found in landfills and streets in Africa’s urban landscape every year, solutions need to be speedy and strategic.
Kubik, an upcycling startup in Kenya and Ethiopia, is hoping to use some of that waste for good.
By turning hard-to-recycle plastics — like polyethylene, polypropylene, and polystyrene — into affordable and low-carbon building materials, aptly called ‘plastic bricks,’ Kubik removes about 45,000 kilograms of plastic waste from landfills every day.
In addition to the environmental impact, Kubik is confronting an overwhelming reality: that Africa is the fastest-growing continent in the world.
“By 2050, more than half of the continent’s population will be living in a city, and every year, more than 60 million tons of plastic waste goes unrecycled in Africa,” Kubik co-founder and CEO, Kidus Asfaw, shared in an Instagram video. “This growth is also fueling a large housing demand, with over 100 million homes needed by 2030.”
Current costs for building materials means the current ecosystem cannot meet this demand, leaving millions of Africans unhoused.
Asfaw and co-founder Penda Marre realized the answer to this crisis was wasting away in landfills.
“These are plastics found in landfills, if we are lucky, and in rivers and streets when we are not,” Asfaw wrote for the company’s Medium blog. “Instead of tackling these problems individually, we need to find a system that can tackle these interlinked issues.”
The duo met while working on a plastic-to-schools project in Côte d’Ivoire, which was foundational to Kubik’s mission and technological development.
By seeing the deployment of non-toxic, durable, and fire-safe plastic bricks to build schools, the two realized: What if more of Africa’s residential, commercial, and community buildings could be made with the same stuff?
Kubik’s plastic bricks and other building materials (like columns, beams, and jambs) are 40% cheaper than regular building materials — and twice as strong and over 100 times more durable, thanks to the 1,000-year lifespan of many plastics.
And while it’s not great for plastic to sit in a landfill emitting greenhouse gasses, these products are about five times lower in carbon emissions than cement-based products, according to Asfaw.
“What we’re making is adult-size Lego that can make walls for any building,” Asfaw explained in an interview with African Arguments.
“We take plastic that is usually going into a dump site or that you find in your rivers. We separate it by the different plastic types and clean it to a point it’s safe. We then use varying proportions of those plastic types as a formula to make the material for these Lego blocks.”
Kubik is also able to buy its base materials from previously disenfranchised waste collectors and empower them with meaningful and ethical work.
This is done by paying waste collectors a direct market rate, instead of the pennies they might get from waste aggregators who have long made the majority of profits from plastic collection.
“We believe this is the right model because now you’re incentivizing waste collectors to strengthen the supply chain,” Asfaw continued in the interview. “At the same time, you provide them with a very dignified pathway to economic empowerment.”
That’s what’s at the heart of Kubik’s work: dignity.
“We are on an unwavering mission to build dignity through clean and affordable living for all,” Kubik’s website reads. “Growth does not have to be a dirty process.”
This funding can rapidly scale Kubik’s operations, allowing the company to expand beyond Ethiopia and Kenya and into larger factories across the region.
Kubik projects that this scale will allow the company to build over a quarter-million square meters of wall surface area every year. In other words: about 10,000 affordable homes, just to start.
“An African Renaissance is here,” Asfaw writes. “And Kubik is one of many companies who will build dignity for all Africans.”