A fantastic use for plastic in Tanzania

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.

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.