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Discussing waste management in Kenya with Anna Lelek co-founder of TakaTaka Zero.

TakaTaka Zero

Anna was raised in an international environment - she was born in Germany, then moved to New Jersey, USA and moved back to Germany. She then lived in India for four years, during her teenage years. This gave her a lot of exposure to different cultures and people. Through her travels she was always keen to help and find solutions to the problems the community she lived in were facing. The poverty and children living on the streets really shook her. Back in Germany, she lived near a refugee camp and was exposed to the mass flux of refugees coming into the country. These experiences shaped her passion and her solution mindset. University was the first time that she could put that mindset into action. Through the ENACTUS program, alongside other students, she developed Taka Taka Zero. It is a Nairobi-based social enterprise that uses non-recyclable waste to create energy, employ youths and clean the community. Taka Taka means rubbish is Swahili. 

TakaTaka Zero

What led you to start TakaTaka Zero? Could you tell us more about the team you work with?

The journey started four years ago, in the incubation team at ENACTUS. I started off with a friend from Kenya who grew up in Nairobi. What was interesting was the overlap between my experience in India and my friend’s experience in Kenya. Specifically when it came to urban poverty, youth unemployment and waste management.  It was important for us to find one solution that would address several different problems in an integrated manner. Our priority was to work with pre-existing organisations, infrastructure and community efforts.  

We are currently based at a school in Mathare slum which had a pre-existing community cooker. Unfortunately, it fell into disrepair as it was free to use for everyone and there was an accountability for maintenance. This is where we came in: we created a business model to go with the pre-existing cooker and give it value. That is how Taka Taka Zero came to life.

We have a team of 8 people in Durham, UK. They mostly work on building partnerships, getting funding and the organisational side of the project. In Kenya, we have a team of 12 youths working on rotation. They sort out everything on the ground, the logistics, the money coming in and the training. In Kenya itself we have a structure of leadership. We work with two youth groups led by a youth leader. We also have a project consultant who supports us in bigger project management.  

TakaTaka Zero

What problem does it seek to solve? What does the project do?

We tackle three main challenges. The first is the large amount of youth unemployment.  We work with 18-24 year olds from Mathare and Kibera slum that care about their communities and the environment. Most of them were unable to finish their education and/or struggle to find jobs. We work with these climate champions to provide training and employment to support their families and further education.  

The second problem we tackle is the abundance of waste. In slum areas there is no centralised waste management system which leads to  most waste landing in the rivers and streets or are burned unsafely. It is the root problem of a lot of the challenges faced by the community. Finally, we try to increase the access to cheap and nutritious food. 

The community cooker is at the heart of your project, how does it work and how is it sustainable? 

The community cooker is a large outdoor stove that incinerates non-recycled waste for heat energy. It is a large kitchen station that incinerates papers, cardboard, plastics and cloth. All that gets bundled into packages, and it gets put into the incinerator. On the top plates we bake bread. The incineration and baking happens in different places to ensure good hygiene. 

TakaTaka Zero

This is incineration and not burning – this is an important distinction. It is a confined area where waste is incinerated at 800 – 1200°C and reaches almost completed combustion. This means that it releases pure white gas of CO2 and there are no toxins in that fume. What you are left with is ash. 

Yes, releasing CO2 sounds counterintuitive. However, that waste would otherwise be placed in landfills which then creates methane. Methane has a greenhouse gas effect that is 80 times worse than CO2.

Importantly, since the community cooker is on a school compound, the school children are constantly exposed to food waste management practices. Through this hands-on education, we hope to change future generation’s attitudes towards waste. 

Do you believe that climate action in Western countries looks different to climate action in the developing world? 

I do. It is essential that in this narrative of climate action everyone is included. Solutions made in and for western countries do not necessarily work for the rest of the world and their smaller communities. We need to start thinking of relevant, affordable and accessible solutions that support this huge population that has not been included in the climate change narrative and who therefore do not have the means to address climate change. 

We work with local changemakers that have the energy to drive action and only  need a little support towards those goals. 

What impact have you realised your work has had on the communities that you work with in Kenya? 

We have noticed that it has changed a lot of the lives of the young people themselves. It has given them hope, the ability to use their skills for their community, and the ability to go to university again! That is very empowering. 

We have also been so efficient in our waste collection that we now struggle to find enough for the cooker! This is a huge win we achieved together with the community and a step towards long term attitudinal change. 

From a quantitative aspect, in a year we saved the equivalent of 97 tons of CO2 and have collected over 30 tons of waste.

TakaTaka Zero

What are your goals for the organisation in the next few years and do you face any challenges in reaching those goals?  

In the short term, we want to reach full financial sustainability. The costs of ingredients are high, and we need to make sure that the product we provide, bread, is affordable to the community. In order to cover our labour costs, we need to diversify our products. Once we have reached that, our goal is to expand in Nairobi and then globally. We have even had a different team come up to us, who want to replicate our project in Bangladesh. 

Concluding questions

Are you an optimist or a pessimist when it comes to climate change? 

I am an optimist - when looking at local communities there is a lot being done and people are willing to find solutions. I am optimistic about the effort we will put in and the human willingness to change. I worry more about if technology will be fast enough and if it will be able to be applied globally. 

What advice would you have for younger generations wanting to have a positive impact on the climate? 

My advice would be to look around us and see what is happening at a local scale to find where you can make a small change. There is a lot that individuals can work on, and we often forget that. As long as you listen to the people who are facing challenges and provide support you can come a long way.


Anna Lelek interviewed by Natalia Vasnier for The Conference Corner. Featured images provided by Anna Lelek.


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