A fantastic use for plastic in Tanzania

Irish expats are employing locals to upcycle plastic into everything from pouffes to pool tables, while also tackling pollution and sending Tanzanians to school

In the savannahs of east Africa, somewhere between the Serengeti plains and the foothills of Kilimanjaro, the future is happening.

Two Irish expats have begun making furniture using plastic bottles and bags, in the unlikely setting of the sprawling Tanzanian city of Arusha.

Dunia Designs pays teams of workers to clean discarded plastic bottles and bags they collect in the thronged city’s townships and incorporate them into hard and soft furnishings. And then they give away their profits.

It sounds good, if aesthetically problematic. Walking into the Dunia Designs workshop in Arusha’s Ilboru quarter (after a death-defying ride on a “picky picky” motorcycle), I expect to find uninviting objects of austere minimalism.

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Not so. The company's founders, Evanna Lyons and Alexis Cronin, wanted to make furniture they would buy themselves. "That was our whole aim all along," says Lyons, a psychotherapist from Meath who also works in the local hospital. "It had to be impossible to tell it from any other furniture. And nobody believes it until you sit on it."

I ask to see some samples – and am informed they are all around me, and indeed under my backside. Most of the furniture is made using upcycled plastic, local fabrics and frames made of “greenwood” (processed street waste made into planks as durable as any wood).

Inside every seat, sofa, footstool table and desk, meanwhile, they pack as many cleaned bottles and plastic bags as possible without compromising the aesthetic.

An unlikely start-up

Sub-Saharan Africa seems an unlikely place for a funky recycling start-up, but Dunia Designs is thriving. Parts of the eastern city are wealthy by African standards, due to a combination of safari tourism and a coterie of expats drawn to its superb climate of equatorial sunshine tempered by altitude.

The company supplies local IT firms, libraries, offices, restaurants, international schools and tourist lodges eager to showcase their green credentials. In turn businesses give them their used bottles and bags.

Which is all well and good, you might think – two more Wild Geese making a few bob abroad, albeit in a particularly exotic location. Except Dunia Designs isn’t just about making its owners a few bob.

In the teeming, chaotic, rutted streets around Ilboru, there are several schools, but they don’t come free. Lyons and Cronin want to spend half of their Dunia profits sending as many children to school as they can afford – currently three in primary, five in secondary and five in tertiary education.

Less than a year ago, Lyons went around asking the neighbourhood’s many underemployed teenagers and adults if they wanted a job. One of those who put their hands up, Maasai Lazero Lepajaro, became a star employee and asked to be sponsored so he could go back to school. Lazero is now head boy of a highly rated secondary school of 1,300 pupils. Lyons takes delight in the fact.

“It makes all of the hard work this year worth it. We could have just educated the next president of Tanzania. He still comes and works on his holiday, and we go ‘the Laz for president’. He loves the idea.”

Aside from 10 locals helping to make furniture, they have local teenagers and a team of women collecting plastic bottles and bags from streets, homes and businesses.

“We want to grow our team of women,” Lyons says. “After they collect, they sit out washing and drying the bags throughout the day. It’s great to see.

“They’ve already cleaned up Ilboru [district]. They’ve moved to another borough where plastic is strewn across rivers and roadsides. There are plastic bags everywhere here.

“I wanted a business model that wasn’t just about personal gain. If we do make a lot of money, great, and we can put it back in to educating people about the environment, and ultimately replanting forests, which is really what the world needs.”

Aside from the social good it is doing, Dunia’s progress in helping to remove rubbish from the rocky, muddy thoroughfares that count as streets in some of Arusha’s most crowded townships is a visible reminder of the work being done.

Tidying up the mess

To the northwest of Arusha district, between the city and the Serengeti, lies Olduvai gorge. There, remains were found of Homo habilis, probably the earliest known ancestor of today’s humans at 1.9 million years old. The work Dunia is carrying out 100km away might prove crucial in ameliorating the mess their descendants have made of the past 100 years.

Think that’s an exaggeration? Outside of perennial poverty and armed conflict (the latter long absent from Tanzania), there are few problems in the developing world more visually striking than rubbish strewn across pristine landscapes.

Plastic is the most insidious, the most lasting and the most poisonous to man and beast. The only thing stopping swathes of Africa from becoming casual landfill is relatively low disposable income. We in the global north have no such restraint.

Since the second World War, humans have made enough plastic to coat the Earth entirely in cling film. Last year about 1 per cent of plastic produced worldwide was recycled. More than 6.4 million tons of plastic debris, meanwhile, ends up in the sea. Nine out of every 10 seabirds have plastic in their guts. One sperm whale that washed up on the coast of Spain had swallowed 17kg of the toxic stuff.

“It’s really serious,” Lyons says. “By 2050 there’ll be more plastic in the sea than fish. Here, especially, it can be a real hotbed of diseases, because rats and mosquitoes breed in bottles near water.”

With 32 per cent of adults illiterate and 12 million living in dire poverty, binning rubbish isn’t high on the list of concerns in Tanzania, and there is scant social taboo in throwing rubbish down.

Dunia Designs has been able to remove a lot of plastic from the streets, thereby preventing it from being washed into the waterways or being openly burned, which is the most common form of disposal in many areas.

“It’s bad for the ozone, water and marine life and the soil, which in turn affects food sources,” Lyons says. “Single-use plastic is an issue, so we’re trying to hide it away for the time being in furniture.”

What lies beneath

A man beckons me over to the other side of the workshop. Despite his Greek name, he is a thoroughbred Cork man and, like many of his kind, he is handsome: a cross between Lionel Messi and Chris O’Dowd.

It is Alexis Cronin, and he gives me a peek at a selection of the furniture, with plastic bottles and shredded plastic bags inside. Cronin, a graduate of Waterford IT, worked as an architect in London before moving to Arusha in 2012 to help build the huge Pallotti community project in the slums of Esso, home to several Irish expats.

The Dunia Designs idea started off as “a challenge from Evanna to make something recycled that looked decent”, he says. “We found a few young, willing workmen and made a footstool with plastic, and it rapidly mushroomed to a seat, a pouffe, table and couch.”

Eleven months on, and they are making pool tables, looking into making bricks out of shredded plastic and are about to supply furniture to Fumba Town, a new eco-city in Zanzibar.

Once completed, Fumba Town eco-city will comprise 1,500 houses, plus apartment blocks, hotels and restaurants on the semi-autonomous archipelago, which is particularly plagued by plastic refuse.

"Fumba Town alone would keep us in business for five years, easily," Cronin says. "Phase one has already been sold. Being pitched against Ikea feels great.

“If we get 10 houses in the first month, that’d be amazing. The developer is very keen to support the Dunia Designs ethos.

“As well as ‘hiding away’ the plastic, we’re also trying to show an alternative use. Imagine if everyone in Arusha and other places were able to bring their bottles to a drop-off centre to give it an immediate second use?”

In the medium-term, they want to establish local satellite companies in cities in Tanzania and other developing countries and, eventually, bring their business model to rich countries, where most of the world’s plastic is consumed (and then often recycled into landfill in the developing world).

Often in the environmental debate people feel powerless. Beyond throwing our 7 Up bottles in the green bin, what can we do as individuals?

Given Arusha’s huge inequality, dire infrastructure and administrative difficulties, it’s impossible not to be impressed that two Irish people have, from a standing start, carved out a business here that would be considered forward-thinking in the most advanced of western cities, and yet seems necessary in so many ways for the developing world.