Lorna Rutto
© Lorna Rutto
Laureate 2011 for Sub-Saharan Africa

Lorna Rutto

EcoPost, KENYA

EcoPost manufactures durable fencing posts using plastic waste, an environmentally friendly alternative to timber.

www.ecopost.co.ke

Plastic waste is a frequent blot on Kenya’s beautiful landscapes. In spite of a government ban on the use of plastic bags, which came into force in 2007 when Kenya was producing 48 million of them, plastic of all kinds and shapes litters the land or piles up in open tips.

Founded by Lorna Rutto in 2010, EcoPost collects this plastic waste and manufactures fencing posts from it. ‘That includes any type of plastic that can go through the extrusion process,’ she says, ‘such as polypropylene* and polyethylene**—the material used to make those carrier bags that clog the landfills. We can recover and use all of these for our posts.’

Waste not, want not

Lorna has been troubled by this plastic litter ever since she was a schoolgirl. At the time she used to collect bits left lying around and turn them into earrings, ‘though it wasn’t really the earrings I was interested in—I just wanted to find a way to get rid of all that plastic!’ After graduating in commerce and accounting five years ago, she started a career in banking to play safe in a tough employment market, but ‘something felt wrong; I was working on systems and structures and not with people and science, which had been my other passion at school. I wasn’t comfortable about it.’ Two years ago, she took the entrepreneurial plunge.

Her love of the environment found an echo with a young biochemical engineer she met at her first job, now her business partner, who brings his technical expertise to her financial and managerial know-how. After researching potential avenues for their cause they found that plastic was the best place to start, much to Lorna’s delight!

Protecting timber resources

Kenya has barely 2% of forest cover, yet high demand for posts to make fencing around the country’s houses, plantations and huge game reserves. For years these were made from red cedar trees, which are now an endangered species; a presidential directive has made it illegal to chop them down since 2007. Those looking for an alternative can bank on EcoPost, which recycles waste and helps the environment.

Every month, EcoPost uses approximately 20 tonnes of plastic waste. Utilising dirty plastic to make a product that saves wood is not just an environmental plus, it boosts employment: alongside its 15 permanent staff, to source its raw material EcoPost hires the services of hundreds of women working as casual labour to collect the plastic and sell it to them by the kilo.

More jobs should be forthcoming; demand for its product is so high, EcoPost can barely keep up and is seeking capital influx to rapidly scale up. It has already acquired a new extrusion machine that will double current output to 7,200 posts a quarter, an eightfold increase since the company started. Rising timber prices are another good factor for greater growth potential.

Muscling in on the market!

While there are other firms working in the field, Lorna is not concerned by the competition, a majority of whom are large manufacturers recycling their own waste. The only hurdle she really has to face is to make her mark as a woman in this industry. ‘It can certainly be challenging to get people in administrative and regulatory bureaux to listen to me,’ she confides, ‘but I have acquired powerful negotiating skills! It’s also a manual activity that requires strength and muscle; I’m very hands-on, so it’s keeping me fit!’ Lorna has big plans for her business and new uses for the final material, which requires no binding agent or complex processing to manufacture and is currently being developed into a furniture line. The hard-wearing posts can also be employed as structures to build greenhouses and even boats.

In its first eight month of operations, EcoPost manufactured 5,000 posts, removing 300 tonnes of plastic waste from the environment. ‘That’s 500 trees that won’t be chopped down,’ Lorna states. And who knows, some might even end up fencing the forests they have helped to save.

About the project

What's new?

‘‘I can’t believe I have got this far, it’s a dream come true. The Awards have given us a real competitive advantage and have served as a major stepping stone for EcoPost.’’

The first thing that Lorna Rutto did when she returned home to Kenya after the Awards, was use part of the money to buy a truck. It is a major factor in the company’s increase in revenue since the bags and waste can be collected much faster. Revenue is set to grow higher thanks to government approval (In 2012) for use of EcoPosts as signposts around the country.

To deal with scaling up, EcoPost now works with three extra plastic collection sites, creating dozens more indirect jobs. With 40 to 50 tons of plastic waste being made into posts each month, compared to 20 tons in summer 2011, Lorna needs to invest in a second machine to increase the company's growth.

Since winning the competition, Lorna was named one of the 20 Youngest Power Women In Africa 2012 by Forbes and one of Africa's top 25 Women Achievers by The Guardian. Congratulations to her!

Lorna has also been featured in Ventures Africa.

Cartier récompense les initiatives vertes et féminines, zegreenweb.com.

Five minutes with Lorna Rutto, Elle.co.za.

Cartier 2011 Women's Initiative Laureates are announced, Popsop.com.

Wonder Women, Arise Magazine.

Lorna Rutto, la poto mitan, Brune Magazine.com.