Skip links

3 Rs in Kenya: why Cut + Paste doesn’t work for Comms

Guest blog by Celia Breuer

This blog looks to unpack the ‘3 Rs’ in Kenya – why cut + paste doesn’t work for Comms campaigns.

Along with much of the world, we have been following the developments at COP26 with baited breath. But while we wait to see exactly what its outcomes will be, we’ve been grappling with the scale and complexity of the challenge that the climate crisis presents – particularly in the African context.  

Take plastic, for example.

Regardless of what happens at COP26, one of the things we will have to do in the coming years is ween ourselves off plastic. This is going to have to involve two elements. First, a raft  of regulatory and policy changes from governments across the world. And, second, excellent messaging to drive the behaviour change that is needed. 

Celia Breuer, a development worker and anthropologist in Nairobi, has been reflecting on how Kenya’s Government approaches the fight against plastic waste. She was kind enough to write not one but TWO guest blog posts about how Kenya approaches plastic waste – one about its approach to communications and the other about its regulations.  

In this blog, Celia emphasizes how you can’t simply cut and paste communications strategies from other contexts and expect them to work.

Next week she will offer some suggestions for how Kenya could go about improving its plastic-related regulations and governance.


Why you shouldn’t recycle Recycling Awareness campaigns

Kenya’s messaging around plastic waste is very much in line with global trends. It is aimed squarely at consumers and prioritizes the ‘Three Rs’ –Reuse, Reduce, and Recycle.

This messaging playbook could have been copied and pasted from a host of countries using the exact same approach. But while this might be effective in other places,  it just doesn’t make sense in the Kenyan context.

For starters, a consumer-focused communications campaign placing emphasis on Reuse feels incredibly out of touch in Kenya, where many keep their Daima yoghurt cups and Bahari Fry cooking oil containers for years. Where a photo of two Nivea deodorant roller bottles used as salt and pepper shakers in a restaurant made the rounds on Twitter. Where there are warnings of surgical face masks being picked from the side of the road, washed, and sold on the street again. Kenyans most definitely do not lack imagination or effort when it comes to reusing.

Nivea men pic
Source: @JelaniMK on Twitter

The small servings problem

There are also problems with telling Kenyans to simply Reduce their plastic consumption without understanding why this is difficult to do.

One of the reasons for this relates to the role that “pro-poor” neoliberal market strategies play in the proliferation of waste plastic in Kenya.

For example, what C.K. Prahalad calls Bottom of the Pyramid (BoP) schemes that try to solve poverty by envisioning the poor as just another (formerly untapped) market.

Companies following this approach offer products in smaller quantities for a fraction of the price, creating an illusion of affordability that appeals particularly to consumers with limited and volatile income. Instead of buying a 50g tin of coffee or 500g of washing powder costing the equivalent of a day or two’s income for someone below the poverty line, consumers can purchase one serving of instant coffee or detergent for one round of laundry in a small sachet.

These sachets have become hugely popular in Kenya, particularly among lower income households; but you also find middle and upper class families opting for a box of sachets instead of the tin box.

The problem: Sachets lead to higher quantities of plastic waste, they are made of flexible material that is harder to recycle, and they are often contaminated with either residual product or with other waste. Ultimately, while making products more accessible to the poor, the highly praised BoP approach simultaneously promotes consumerism and contributes greatly to single use plastic waste.

Additionally, offering things like milk or yoghurt in smaller quantities is vital for households  who struggle with food preservation, illuminating the complexities of the call to Reduce. Do we reduce plastic use at the risk of increasing food waste, or worse, the health of those that cannot afford a fridge?

The existing recycling infrastructure doesn’t work.

There’s also a problem with the third ‘R’, Recycle. Recycling infrastructure is not widely available, which means that most people can’t, in fact, recycle.

In Kenya, there is no standardized system in place for garbage collection or segregation. Households in wealthier neighbourhoods pay private service providers to collect their garbage, which is largely dropped at open dumpsites. For the majority who can’t afford to pay for this service, recycling is simply not an option.

Changing this status quo is also not straightforward. Let’s say the Government introduces a law that requires segregation at the source: Who provides the different bags to keep the segregated waste visibly separate? Who pays for collection in neighbourhoods where the private waste collection companies are too expensive for the majority? And, even more importantly, what happens to the existing dumpsites?

It’s also vital for many people’s livelihoods.

Having private waste collectors leave segregated garbage at open dumpsites is by no means a good recycling system. But it is a system that currently sustains many Kenyan’s livelihoods.

Informal waste collectors play an integral role in Kenya’s current recycling value chain: They search for PET bottles and other recyclable plastics at dumpsites or go through the large black bags left outside compounds in neighbourhoods with garbage collection. After carrying massive bags filled with their collected plastic to collection centres, they can sell it at about 19 Kenyan Shillings (approximately 0.13 GPB) per kg to recycling companies, such as Mr Green Africa. Mr Green Africa’s price is 30% higher compared to other local waste buyers and thus an attractive livelihood opportunity for waste pickers despite the occupational hazard. On average, waste pickers deliver between 10 and 20 kgs every day or every other day, resulting in a monthly income of about 4300 to 8500 Kenyan Shillings (ca 29-57 GBP).

Innovative informal structures and grassroots income-generating initiatives fighting plastic use have also emerged, including recycling “banks”, where people can bring as little as a single PET bottle and receive credit to purchase basic food items.

The upshot of this is that there is a complex recycling value chain in Kenya that cannot be uprooted and replaced without causing great harm. Messaging (and policy-making!) about recycling needs to take all of this into account.

We need a home-grown awareness campaign

Kenya has made important strides in the fight against plastic use but it also has a long way to go.

One of the things that we should work on is in developing a home-grown messaging campaign, informed by what’s happening in everyday households, rather than cutting and pasting one from other places.

Messaging that doesn’t take local context into account risks irrelevance and dismissal.


Part Two coming next week!

Sign up for the BrightGuide Africa monthly newsletter and follow us on socials to get more insights like these!