Eco Brixs: Tackling plastic waste and creating jobs in Uganda
"What really inspired me to start the organisation was the ability to provide people with a new opportunity to earn their own money, allowing them to develop and build their own way out of poverty, whilst having a positive impact on the environment."
Andy Bownds, founder of Eco Brixs
Andy Bownds founded Eco Brixs in 2017 after witnessing first-hand the extreme levels of plastic waste and youth unemployment across the Masaka District in Uganda.
Eco Brixs operates as a closed-loop recycling system, which starts with community members depositing their plastic waste to satellite collection stations in return for payment. The plastic waste is then made into one of three products: plastic sand composite used for construction materials which are stronger, lighter and cheaper to produce than concrete; PPE face shields for frontline workers; or plastic lumber which acts as an alternative to timber for furniture and decoration.
Over the last year, with support from QCT, Eco Brixs has expanded from 16 Community Collection Centres across Masaka to 25. The recycling sites employ some of the most vulnerable and underrepresented community members: youth and those with disabilities.
Beyond its core operations, Eco Brixs also sets out to reduce the country’s plastic consumption as a whole through education and has established 27 ‘Eco Clubs’ in schools across the Masaka District. Students participate in interactive lessons where they learn about the dangers of plastic and are given practical methods to reduce their usage at home, as well ideas for implementing sustainable systems at school.
Working with QCT, Eco Brixs has been able to invest in a collection truck, which collects from all 25 collection centres and strengthens their processing lines. Eco Brixs will also continue to grow its existing activities via the launch of their first factory to help unlock further growth potential.
To support ongoing programme delivery during the COVID-19 outbreak, QCT provided an emergency grant to allow Andy and his team to support the local hospital and establish a food planting programme in order to build greater resilience in the community.
Continue reading to learn more about Eco Brixs, and hear from Andy in the Q&A below.
Eco Brixs works towards SDG 10. Reduced Inequalities, SDG 11. Sustainable Cities and Communities, SDG 12. Responsible consumption and Production, and SDG 13. Climate Action.
In Uganda, more than 600 tons of plastic is disposed of each day. With no formal waste collection, over 90% is sent to landfill or burnt illegally. The small percentage that is recycled is often shipped abroad instead of being leveraged to support the local economy. With 26% of the Ugandan population living in poverty, and 83% of 15-24-year-olds currently unemployed, solutions that provide fair economic and environmental benefits whilst creating new jobs are urgently needed.
Eco Brixs has designed a system that transforms plastic waste into marketable products whilst providing new income streams for those in Masaka. The Eco Brixs sites also provide a range of employment opportunities for the most vulnerable, reducing the number of people out of work. Eco Brixs also sets out to reduce the country’s plastic consumption as a whole through establishing ‘Eco Clubs’ in schools across the Masaka District.
Eco Brixs creates both employment opportunities and environmental impact. To date, Eco Brixs has created income opportunities for over 2,500 people and provided 15 full-time jobs. The organisation has also employed 13 disabled staff who manage the community collection sites. Since their launch, Eco Brixs has recycled over 300 tons of plastic, and is now working to increase their capacity through the opening of an Eco Brixs factory.
"QCT were the first major funders to believe in our vision and have been more than essential to how we have grown to the size we are now."
Andy Bownds, founder of Eco Brixs
Getting to know Andy Bownds
Tell us a bit about yourself.
My name is Andy Bownds and I am the founder and CEO of Eco Brixs. My path to reach this point of running a growing recycling social enterprise has been awesome! At the start of 2015, I moved to Masaka, Uganda, to work as part of a team implementing the Uganda Marathon, which has now grown into an incredible fundraising event supporting sustainable charitable enterprises across the country.
The experience of running the main event and being part of the year-round activities that happened alongside it gave me the essential skills and understanding to work effectively in a new culture. I want to stress that the skills I have learnt have come from the team I have been fortunate to surround myself with. From the very onset of moving to Uganda, I have worked with incredibly passionate and skilled individuals. These people have been the fan to my fire, helping the embers ignite and turn the passion I’ve always had for sustainable development into tangible positive change.
Masaka is a small community which provides the ability to network and make friends quickly. This has meant I have been able to continue my hobbies of running, football, dancing (although I definitely can’t compete locally in this area), writing and hospital clowning (where I bring a smile to patients and staff alike!) – all with new friends.
Life in Uganda is truly incredible; I would recommend to everyone to visit this country, as I know once you have you will want to come again!
Why did you decide to work in this area?
In Uganda, the plastic problem is not hidden in closed-off landfill sites, it is very visual and ever-present. On any walk you will see piles of trash alight and smell the fumes of plastic burning and polluting the atmosphere. It was seeing this that made me want to start Eco Brixs back in 2017.
What really inspired me to start the organisation was the principle of turning this same trash into cash for local community members to benefit from. It was the ability to provide people with a new opportunity to earn their own money, allowing them to develop and build their own way out of poverty, whilst having a positive impact on the environment.
Things really took off when our now board member Father James Sendege joined the team. He saw Eco Brixs as an opportunity to really make a difference in Masaka and provided us with land to operate on. It has not been straightforward, working in this area, but every time we have looked like we were about to get stuck, someone has offered their support and now we are approaching a point of sustainability.
I got into this line of work for the impact it can have, but I stayed in it because of the incredible people who have supported us along the way.
What were your first steps to get the project off the ground?
Having witnessed the plastic problem first-hand, I began some initial research into the problem. After 6 months of research and knocking on doors, I brought together a team of Eco Warriors: Johnson, Dan, Sinan and Sarah.
I first met Johnson when he came to my gate one day and asked if I had a job for him. Together, we spent the next year doing odd jobs around the house and bits of gardening. But the whole time his potential wasn’t being used. The birth of Eco Brixs was an opportunity to utilise Johnson’s wide range of skills. He came on as a collection manager and now oversees the staff team and manages all working accounts daily. It was with Johnson that we started collecting plastic in my garden and within one month had over 2 tons plastic heaped up.
Soon after, a team of students from Makerere University recognised us recycling in the community after we’d spoken at an event at their university. They came asking to see how we could partner to spread awareness on the plastic issue and help them develop sustainable solutions to plastic waste. It became apparent very quickly that they were the right team to take on the challenge of developing our circular economy recycling system. Now working with us full time, these now graduates lead on designing new innovations, raising awareness through movement-building, and implementing marketing and sales to ensure we grow towards full sustainability. We now have three recycled plastic products on the market: plastic pavers for construction, plastic face shields for PPE protection and plastic lumber as an alternative for timber, which also helps to prevent deforestation.
I think we can all say we learnt that if you’re open with people then a chance meeting can develop into something great. It was truly a team effort that has allowed us, in three short years, to build a full factory line, produce a range of eco products and have a community-led collection network that now recycles up to 20 tons a month.
What challenges have you faced along the way and how did you overcome them?
The greatest challenge has been changing mindsets in the community. In Uganda, recycling is still a very new concept, so convincing people of the dangers to the environment and encouraging them to change their practices has been hard. However, giving immediate cash rewards for plastic, talking in schools and setting up local community collection sites has helped to change these attitudes faster than we expected. We now know our model works and want to continue to expand our convenient collection sites to bring recycling to more communities.
What has been your proudest moment within this work?
We are really proud of the unique solutions we have created which are providing an environmentally friendly way to solve the plastic problem in Uganda, and have an opportunity to be scaled up.
Each product created from plastic waste took months of trial and error before a certified marketable product was ready. Now we have viable products in place, we are able to increase the collection sites and provide thousands of more income opportunities for vulnerable community members.
What is the most important thing you’ve learnt?
Without question, it is to surround yourself with like-minded individuals with the same passion for the work as you have, and find a great partner who really buys into your vision. I have been fortunate enough to have found this in Georgina Elliot, who brought a whole set of skills I don’t have to Eco Brixs. This taught me to recognise that, as an individual, you may not have all the skills, so it’s key to find the right people to bring those outstanding talents to your vision.
What are your future goals for your project?
Once the factory has been in operation for 6 months and is a proven concept with accountable facts and figures, we will have demonstrated to the world that it is possible to create a sustainable closed-loop recycling system in rural communities. We plan to expand across Uganda, moving into all 5 major districts outside of Kampala. And after that, we believe that Eco Brixs can be replicated across the African continent and beyond.
Why do you think it’s important for young people to be equal partners in driving change in the world?
The world is going to be inherited by the young, so it is only right that they steer us in the right direction. Especially when you think it has been previous generations that have all but ignored climate issues which has led to us being more dependent than ever on unsustainable systems in our everyday lives.
In Uganda, with 85% of the population under the age of 35, the country has an energy that if harnessed can rally positive change. But, this can only be done by having young people as key partners in driving the change we want to see.
What are your top 3 tips for young people who have a great idea, but are wondering how to get started?
1. Strong teams lay strong foundations. For me, a key element to starting anything is to have a strong team around you. Before you start your entrepreneurial journey, gather the right people, then with the correct support and skill-sharing, anything is possible.
2. Network. The phrase ‘you are only as strong as your network’ should not put you off taking on an entrepreneurial challenge; you can build a network as you go. However, I would also add that you need to not fear putting yourself out there alone and then discover the right circles that will aid in your network growth in the field you need. Eco Brixs started with minimal knowledge into waste management, but through gradually developing a network we have been able to continue to grow.
3. Share Your Vision. This can be scary; when you tell people your vision and that you are going for it, you feel a level of accountability to make it happen. But this pressure can be good, and as you tell people you will find that both your strong team and network also grow. Allow your passion to shine through in your conversations, wherever you may be and whoever you may be with.
What does working with QCT mean to you?
QCT were the first major funders to believe in our vision and have been more than essential to how we have grown to the size we are now.
Article updated: December 2020
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