Ecoforum: JILALI and Plastic

The Land of Jilali

As I traverse the vast expanse of the Chalbi desert in a landrover, racing at astonishing speeds, I am captivated by the sight of the setting sun casting its soft, radiant glow over Mt Kulal’s silhouette. Small Rendille camels graze peacefully in the twilight of the satellite camps, unaffected by our hurried pace. We, too, are in no rush, and during a momentary pause, we examine the crusty, salt-encrusted surface of the Chalbi. When rainfall exceeds evaporation, minerals and salts are extracted from the soil. Countless years of rain have concentrated soda on the wind-swept floor of this once-inland sea. It is hard to imagine that this land was once abundant and lush.

I am journaling the adventures of Project 3.1.5, a team from the Kenya Agricultural Research Institute (KARI) dedicated to studying natural resource management in Marsabit District. Our mission is to evaluate environmental degradation and the potential contribution of sedentarization to desertification around settlements and the grazing lands.

The year is early June 2000, and Kenya is facing a confluence of crises: power shortages, water rationing, and a decline in informal sector employment. The drought has crippled the economy, giving rise to unique expressions of social tension. In Nairobi, rioting school children seize a Tusker truck and drain it dry.

But we are far from the chaos of Nairobi. As we emerge from the desert, we enter a glade of stunted doum palms. We have arrived in Maikona, a small cluster of houses that appear to have mushroomed out of the sun-baked mud of the Chalbi in the shimmering starlight. A small crowd gathers, and over a plate of tough meat, I inquire, “Habari ya Maikona?” The response comes, “Jilali tu” (Drought, only). A hyena crosses our path as it leaves the town.

On our journey here, we passed through Isiolo, shortly after the clashes between the Waso Borana and the Degodia Somali. These pastoral communities fought over land rights, while others invaded Laikipia ranches in search of grazing. Here, in the remote north, the camel-herding populations teeter on the edge of survival, facing the looming disaster brought on by jilali.

Jilali describes the conditions in the rangelands of Marsabit after three consecutive seasons of failed rains. Compared to Isiolo and Laikipia, this land appears desolate. People tell us, “Since El Niño, it has rained only once, and that too for just a few hours.” Undeterred, we press on, reentering the Chalbi and heading towards Kalacha. In the days to come, I discover that the landscape appears less bleak under the cool, muted light of the night.


The Gabra people extend into Ethiopia, but their primary settlements are located on the fringes of the Chalbi, where the most reliable water sources are found. With each passing jilali since 1971, more nomads have been forced to settle around these springs.

The influx of pastoral dropouts has swelled the population of Kenya’s desert towns. Relief food serves as the pull factor, while the loss of their herds exerts the push. This demographic shift is believed to be a driver of environmental degradation. Settlements have led to increased fuelwood consumption, depleting the tree cover around these communities. The settled herds also degrade forage resources beyond the plains’ bare zones. In reality, degradation has been an ongoing process since the emergence of Homo sapiens .

Aviator game plane

Reshaping our relationship with Plastic

Plastic in Our Lives

The train rumbled forward, heading towards the town of Dandora. As we passed Buru Buru, I couldn’t help but notice the empty grounds beyond the estate, scattered with plastic bags swirling in the wind like tumbleweeds in an old western movie. Yet, there was nothing romantic about this scene.

Plastic has seamlessly integrated itself into our lives to the point where we barely even notice its presence. Just take a look around your house. One morning, as I leisurely shaved and pondered this article, I realized that my razor had a plastic handle. The comb I used also had a plastic grip. Even the buckets and toilet seats were made of plastic. And that was just in my bathroom.

Life hasn’t always been like this. Not too long ago, Uchumi supermarkets provided shoppers with paper bags—remember those? Nowadays, Uchumi and other supermarkets, big and small, primarily offer plastic bags to their customers. The economic factor plays a significant role in this shift; plastic is cheap. And it’s not just supermarket managers who have embraced the use of more plastic.

Even buying magazines contributes to the plastic count. Many newspaper and magazine vendors in Nairobi now wrap the magazines in plastic, free of charge. This plastic packaging prevents damage, discourages casual browsing, and gives the publications a perceived upscale value. However, it’s ironic that these environmentally-conscious consumers, who should be aware of the dangers of plastic, should be at the forefront of discouraging excessive plastic wrapping. (Ecoforum, which was also guilty of plastic-sealed packaging until this issue, has learned from its mistake and requested its distributor to test a few packaging-free issues. And to those reading in the store, this is not a library. – ed.)

The Unseen Impact of Plastic

Plastic has insidiously become a welcomed but often overlooked guest in our lives. According to Ramesh Babu, the Factory Manager at Cosmos Plastics, Kenyans consume at least 6,700 tonnes of plastic per month. With 22 years of experience in the plastic manufacturing business, Babu is well aware of the scale of plastic consumption. Cosmos Plastics produces, among other things, the plastic bags distributed by Uchumi.

Let’s break down Kenya’s plastic consumption: 3,000 tonnes in the form of buckets and cups, 2,500 tonnes as plastic sheets for milk preservation, 1,000 tonnes of polyvinyl chloride (PVC) used in various household and industrial applications, and 200 tonnes of mineral water bottles.

In my conversation with Babu about the raw materials and manufacturing process of plastic, memories of my high school organic chemistry class resurfaced. Everything seemed to end with “-ene”: low-density polypropylene, linear low-density polyethylene, high-density polyethylene, and polypropylene. These materials arrive in Kenya as pellets, graded for different uses and sourced from countries like Saudi Arabia and South Korea. The pellets are then molded into plastic products using injection molding, blow molding, rotation molding, and stretch blow molding techniques.

For instance, basins, cups, sachet-like milk packets, and tomato sauce bottles are made using polypropylene. The injection molding method is employed for basins and cups, while milk packets consist of three plastic films fused together, with a black sheet protecting the contents from light. Water tanks, in high demand, are made from linear low-density polyethylene and high-density polyethylene. Another material, ABS, is a non-“-ene” plastic used to produce cutlery and telephone sets.

The Environmental Challenge

Plastic offers affordability, excellent food preservation properties, and versatility in shaping it for various purposes. However, there’s a substantial downside: plastic is not biodegradable. Its longevity, a strength in terms of usability, becomes an environmental concern. If nature were a drainpipe, plastic would be the material guaranteed to clog it, causing long-lasting blockages. Moreover, some by-products of the plastic manufacturing process are hazardous.

Dioxin, a toxic chemical produced during PVC plastics manufacturing, ranks among the world’s most dangerous chemicals. Classified as a persistent organic pollutant, dioxin accumulates in the fatty tissues of animals and humans, spreading through food chains globally. Living near a PVC plant is not necessary to be affected by dioxin; simply residing on Earth exposes you to its presence.

While scientists haven’t fully grasped the workings of dioxin, they do know it accumulates in animal fat. According to the United States Environmental Protection Agency, dioxin levels increase in the following order: beef, dairy products, milk, chicken, pork, fish, and eggs. Dioxin is linked to a 50% decline in male sperm counts over the past 50 years, as well as increased rates of cancer and endometriosis.

Samuel Ochieng from the Consumer Information Network in Nairobi believes that it’s crucial to educate consumers about the potential hazards of increased plastic consumption and discourage its excessive use as much as possible.

Exploring Solutions

After our brief encounter with the ghost towns of plastic bags, the train finally arrived at Dandora station. Accompanied by Parselelo Kantai, photographer Gitahi Thomas, and pointman Philip Karecha, I embarked on a visit to Nairobi’s infamous dumpsite.

Once we reached the site, a man named Odongo volunteered to be our impromptu tour guide. He showed us the various piles of plastic and explained the sorting process. Broken basins were grouped together, as were cooking fat containers and polythene paper. Such sorting activities were happening at various locations within the dumpsite.

Interestingly, the companies that produce these plastic products also buy them back. For instance, Kenpoly, the manufacturer of basins, purchases broken basins. Cooking fat companies repurchase their own containers. Polythene bags find a new purpose as filling material for pillows. Scavengers are paid around four shillings per kilo, and on average, a person can collect about five kilos a day, earning 20 shillings (25 US cents) by rummaging through other people’s rubbish.

This process of converting discarded plastic bags into pillow filling exemplifies post-consumer recycling. Reprocessing is another form of recycling, where clean but imperfect or damaged plastic products are transformed back into raw materials for the production line. For example, Cosmos Plastics reprocesses all the rejected bags and other products.

At the back of Cosmos’ compound, amid the rumble of a 500 kVA generator, rejects are fed into a machine that transforms them into long, thick strings. These strings are then cooled in water and chopped into pellets. Another machine shapes these pellets into the familiar 20-liter black jerry cans found across Nairobi.

Babu mentioned that many plastic products are reprocessed in Kenya, except those made from ABS and PVC due to the unavailability of appropriate machinery. Anything that cannot be reprocessed ends up in Dandora or someone’s backyard.

In the virtual skies of the Aviator game online, players navigate through treacherous environments, striving for the highest altitude before cashing out ahead of an unpredictable crash. This digital challenge mirrors the real-world mission of Project 3.1.5 in the arid expanses of Marsabit District, where the team confronts the harsh realities of environmental degradation and desertification. Just as aviators must skillfully manage their ascent to maximize gains without succumbing to the crash, the researchers in Kenya’s deserts and towns are tasked with balancing human settlement and natural resource management to prevent ecological collapse. The aviator’s gameplay, a metaphor for the delicate equilibrium between progress and sustainability, reflects the urgent need for innovative solutions in both the virtual and real worlds. As players in the aviator game navigate their aircraft through a landscape of risk and reward, so too must communities and scientists navigate the challenging terrain of environmental conservation, drawing parallels between the strategies employed in the game and those required for effective environmental stewardship and plastic waste management.

Small-Scale Solutions with Great Potential

However, perhaps the most intriguing aspect of Kenya’s plastic waste story unfolds in the quiet town of Gilgil. There, artist Astrid von Kalckstein has organized a family initiative to recycle used plastic bags. Working alongside Esther Gitau and Gitau’s daughters, Naomi and Julia, during school holidays, they cut and crochet clean plastic bags into bath mats, shower curtains, dog mats, table mats, shopping bags, and other attractive household products. These items sell for prices ranging from Kshs 200-2,000 ($US 2.50-25). Being made from plastic, they are not only aesthetically pleasing but also durable and robust.

Von Kalckstein was inspired to experiment with recycling clean plastic bags in this way after witnessing similar products in South Africa many years ago. She believed it was a useful approach to tackle Kenya’s growing plastic problem. The East African Women’s League collects clean bags for the project, and following a recent exhibition of their products, the Yaya Centre has agreed to serve as a collection point.

Mo Albrecht, who supported the Yaya exhibition, believes that innovative ideas like this should be embraced by as many people as possible. The plastic bag project offers a simple yet impactful way to breathe new life into the environment. It requires minimal startup costs and has significant potential for income generation.

Reflecting on von Kalckstein’s initiative, I couldn’t help but recall Odongo’s remark during our tour of the Dandora dumpsite: “The boys here are idle. What they need is something to occupy them.” At the dumpsite, many displays of ingenuity are already visible, such as women creating tin lamps from various discarded waste materials. The plastic bag project, along with other similar endeavors, could provide valuable opportunities for productive work in such environments.

There are other ideas related to plastic bags worth exploring. The Rhino Ark Trust, an NGO, has been fundraising to fence the Aberdares to protect the forest, water catchment areas, wildlife, and surrounding small farms. Out of the total 380 kilometers, 112 kilometers have been fenced so far, using increasingly expensive and rare eucalyptus poles. However, the trust discovered machines in the United Kingdom that can produce fence posts from plastic, which prompted them to import a pair for £12,000.

The first machine chops up plastic bags, whether clean or dirty, and transforms them into pellets. The second machine molds these pellets into 10-foot fence posts. These machines have been donated to the Kenya Wildlife Service and are currently undergoing testing at the ‘Higgins farm’ in Naivasha.

Since Naivasha has numerous flower farms that consume substantial amounts of plastic, the raw materials for the machines are readily available nearby. Sarah Higgins expresses optimism about the machines’ prospects, noting that park benches made of “plastic wood” planks have gained popularity in European parks due to their durability and wood-like appearance.

Plastic is undeniably here to stay. The real question is whether we will invest in initiatives like these that retain the benefits of plastic while significantly reducing its associated problems.