The importation of second-hand clothes has been growing in East Africa with the value imported in the EAC (East African Community) in 2015 amounting to $151 million. SHC (Second Hand Clothes) are deemed to be cheaper and of better quality than the new clothing available on the market, hence the demand for SHC is quite high in Kenya.
The SHC are cheaper than the new clothing in all the EAC States and the largest importers of SHC into the EAC are from USA, UK, Canada and China. There is generally a negative impact of SHC trade on the fashion industry and our environment. We are also contributing to this problem by purchasing so many clothes and then tossing them out with the rest of our waste.
There are various documentaries that show most of these clothes end up in landfills, so how can you change this as an individual? Well we had the opportunity to talk to Alex Musembi from Africa Collect Textiles. Africa Collect Textiles is a social impact enterprise that collects used textiles and footwear for reuse and recycling in Africa. In our interview, Alex gives us an insight on how to get involved in upcycling and repurposing fabrics and material.
In terms of promoting upcycling and recycling, what inspired you to go green?
We have seen the waste created from used textiles and wondered; why are clothes only collected in North American, European and Asian countries? We have also seen that recycling techniques have become more and more accessible.
Moreover, we believe we do not really have a choice. It is unlikely that in 10 to 20 years our clothes will be produced or organized the same way as they are now. We simply cannot produce enough new cotton for everyone in the world. We believe the only way to support our planet and to make sure people can be dressed decently is by becoming circular and making sure we use our items and materials to their full potential.
Then there are a lot of problems created by the current textile industry. Textile burning and dumping cause many environmental hazards like toxic fumes, blockage of drainage system within our cities, polluting our rivers and killing sea animals that consume the micro plastics.
What are some of the products you have made from upcycled fabrics?
If our collected items cannot be worn again they are processed into carpets, shoes, bags, blankets and patchworked sheets (to make new clothes from). Although in the future we would like to process collected materials into fibres or granulates, to be used as filling, pressed plates and eventually new fabrics. Together with partners we would like to design and develop circular clothes and footwear that are designed to be recycled.
What do you do in a situation where a fabric or an item cannot be recycled because of the material?
The issues with garments start from the design stage. They are not designed with future recovery and recycling in mind. Nevertheless a lot of the items we collect can be reused, recycled or at least down cycled, for example in cleaning materials.Of course there are materials that are of such bad quality or unclear mixed materials that cannot be reused or recycled. We keep them until we find a solution for them. When specific waste streams (e.g. cotton, acrylic, polyester, etc) are big enough, only then it becomes interesting to design a solution for them and invest in the required recycling machinery.
We also emphasize that the items need to be collected clean and dry. When they are wet, dirty or greasy it becomes very challenging to recycle them. That is why we also create our own collection system as we cannot afford them to be mixed with other materials, for example with food waste.
Are you only based in Nairobi? Where are your drop off locations located in Nairobi?
We started in Nairobi, but we are branching out to Diani and Nakuru and also exploring Rongo in Migori. Last year we did a feasibility study in Lagos, Nigeria and we will roll out sometime this year.
We have about 25 collection points in Nairobi, for example in the Village Market, Strathmore university, check out our pick up points . To avoid the collection bins to fill up too quickly, people can also request for a pick up for bulky donations or large items like mattresses.
E4Impact Accelerator Kenya awarded you a trophy (congratulations on that), what innovations made you different and helped you receive that award?
ACT was previously accelerated by E4Impact and was awarded a grant from E4impact Foundation. We received the trophy because we are rolling out a new service in Africa that is recognized as having a big potential for environmental impact, but also for job creation.
Therefore we won because we are kickstarting circularity for fashion & textiles and because we have a clear roadmap for that. We know what we started and we know where we are heading
What are some of the challenges you have come across in your textile collection model?
The biggest challenge is to build up the correct infrastructure for the volumes we collect. As we are growing our volumes we have to jump into bigger spaces and take up new recycling processes. This requires a leap of faith from investors, which we receive from DOEN Foundation. Their support has been phenomenal in helping us implement our goals. Together we are building a balanced eco-system where we collect used textiles, sort them and where they leave again for a new life.
Next to that we are experiencing a challenge in changing people’s narrative about used textiles. We are building a culture of handling textiles in a sustainable manner and discourage people from mixing their textiles with other waste. In our journey we also have to change people’s mindset and behaviour.
The Corona Virus has enforced us to use disposable face masks for almost a year now. We have seen many people littering the environment with the masks. Is there a solution to recycle and repurpose the masks?
We believe there is always a solution for recycling materials. Even downcycling is OK when there is no better option.
Facemask can be cleaned, shredded and used as filling material or they can be pressed in building materials. In theory it is even possible to produce new facemasks. The question is if it can be competitive or financially sustainable. What are the investments required to collect, sort, clean and process used materials compared to using new materials. By the way, ACT (Africa Collect Textiles) masks have a care label, to inform the user how to use it and how to dispose the mask after use.
In general we have to compete with unsustainable practices which are in most cases more affordable. Sourcing and processing new materials for such applications is much easier, more reliable, consistent and therefore more affordable. Entrepreneurs ought to take up such activities to make a profit. Recycling facemasks is technically possible, but for many entrepreneurs not very interesting. Such processes just need more financial support than usual activities and there is where it often gets stuck. We all believe it should be done, but it requires and extra effort not many of us can take.
Our current goal is to collect used textiles clean and dry. We are still at the forefront of our mission but our goal is to recycle all textile products. By carefully sorting we create reliable waste streams in order to justify investments in recycling machines. Our calculations are considering the entire range of items and materials. Some activities will cost more than they generate, but overall we aim to keep afloat.
In general, it would be great to change our mindset about profitability or value. It would also be good to channel profits from polluting companies to companies that clean up the mess. Unfortunately we cannot wait for that to happen before we kick off a textile recycling sector. We simply have to play by ear and make the best out of it, one t-shirt at the time.
What are some of the memorable moments you can share with us in your journey of going green?
What causes tears in our eyes is when people approach us saying; I like what you are doing, how can I help? We are working with volunteers to promote the cause and save more textiles from the landfills. When people want to support our mission free of charge it feels as one of the biggest compliments we can get.
Also, more and more people are calling us for individual textiles pickups, for bulky donations and even matrasses, which translates they are supporting our mission.
Last, but not least, Africa Collect Textiles donates textiles to those in need. Clothing is a basic need and everyone should be decently dressed. We have partnered with Mathew 25 Children’s Home where we support them with not only fitting clothing and shoes, but also with bedding. It also excites us and puts a smile on our face when we know we help those in need.
What are some of the UN Sustainable goals you have been able to attain?
We aim to tap into quite a number. Africa Collect Textiles’ main mission is environmental conservation by fighting pollution on land and in water, but through our processes we create jobs, fight poverty and support vulnerable groups like orphans that receive clothes in their size. We are inclusive and welcome people from all backgrounds.
Moreover we believe that we are beyond that point that only NGO’s can do good and that the main goal of a company is to make profit. We would like to use our system and partnerships to leapfrog towards a better world. We all know deep down in our hearts what that means. Let’s take care of each other and let’s take care of our planet. It is time to do the right thing.
Have you done any projects or established partnerships with the second hand market traders?
We have seen that there is a lot of waste or unsellable items shipped to Kenya. There are documentaries and reports that state 20%, other studies state even 40% of a bale is unsellable. Some items are already ripped on arrival or the sizes are so uncommon that it is challenging to find a buyer.
We have a network of people at the Gikomba market as we believe every material can be recycled, it is just a matter of creating volume and finding the right application. When we are short on recyclable jeans to produce our carpets, we take up some of those unsellable items from the second hand market traders.
We can also see that mitumba (second hand clothes) is slowly being replaced by fast fashion and counterfeits. This is a worrying development, because they are mostly low quality items with a short lifespan made out of plastic or mixed materials. Meaning they are challenging to reuse or recycle. We are curious to see if in 1 or 2 years we will see more and more of such materials in our collection bins.
Next to that, we would prefer to replace foreign mitumba with local mitumba. Not only should we support local production of durable clothes, we should reuse and resell those as much as we can, to limit foreign imports.
What do you think is the most iconic piece that Africa Collect Textile has ever made?
The Cotton Candy carpet. It is designed by Eno Andrew-Essien from Nigeria and produced in Nairobi. It is my favourite piece. I just love how the afro does not fit inside the carpet. It is a powerful piece made by strong and amazing weavers.
Share a piece of advice to enlighten people on how textiles cause waste and how designers can start going green.
First, we aim to pass on our clothes to others to ensure many items are already used to their full potential. Compared to many countries we are not doing that bad. Although, eventually all items get to the landfills or worse, tossed in rivers or burned in the open air. We should keep all of them in the loop.
Secondly, there are a lot of items that are sitting in closets waiting to be used again. Underutilization is also a waste. When garments are not used any longer it is better to pass them on. We also know that distributing your own used clothing is not always that easy. Will the receiving person really fit or appreciate the item? What will the person think when he/she receives my old shirt? What will he/she do with it or do when wearing it? Africa Collect Textiles takes away that burden. We will make sure items are reused or recycled in the best way possible.
Finally, designers have to consider how their product is traced, reused, repurposed or recycled at the end of their lifecycle. When fashion and product designers require a specific material or color we welcome them to check our inventory first before they purchase new materials. We love to discover new designs together!