Africa, like most other parts of the world, is battling a spiraling plastic pollution crisis. In Cameroon, one non-profit company is helping to keep waste plastic out of the ocean while also improving livelihoods and inspiring entrepreneurs in communities across the country.
Madiba & Nature's 'ecoboats'—made out of discarded plastic bottles—are helping fishermen while also creating jobs in the recycling industry, promoting ecotourism and raising awareness of the circular economy.
Earlier this year, the World Economic Forum's UpLink platform announced that Madiba & Nature was a member of its 'Ocean Cohort'—12 innovations that are tackling the biggest issues facing our seas. We spoke to Ismaël Essome Ebone, Founder and President of Madiba & Nature, about the inspiration behind the company, its impact on local communities, and his hopes for the future.
Ismaël Essome Ebone is Founder and President of Madiba & Nature, a company that makes boats out of discarded plastic bottles. Photo by Madiba & Nature.
Q: What does Madiba & Nature do, and what inspired you to start the company?
The inspiration behind Madiba & Nature was to help preserve the livelihoods of fishermen whilst also addressing the issue of marine plastic pollution.
Recovered plastic waste is used to create 'ecoboats' for fishermen in need. The waste is collected through beach clean-up activities, and now the strategy is to expand via the use of 'ecobins', allowing for the installation of the first selective sorting of plastic waste on beaches in an area of Douala in Cameroon.
Q: Why are the fishermen in Cameroon so in need of support?
The fisheries in Cameroon are affected by climate change in general and by plastic pollution in particular.
Douala is a megalopolis bordering the ocean, with nearly 5 million inhabitants and 600,000 tons of plastic waste produced each year, of which less than 10% gets recycled. This is mainly due to the lack of a management system for this waste, which flows into the sea before being swept up onto the beaches of Kribi and the main fishing area.
This reduces both the size of fishing areas and incomes, while threatening marine wildlife and ecosystems. Fishermen become more vulnerable and can no longer buy the expensive traditional wooden fishing boats. Young people head to the cities as a result, and often end up homeless or unemployed.
Without any kind of training in recycling or waste management, people in villages don’t take advantage of the opportunities that the circular economy is offering.
Q: What challenges did you have to overcome to get up and running?
Firstly, without funding and only with my determination to drive change, I was able to inspire six young engineers who decided to volunteer in the organisation.
Hundreds of students, women and local residents joined the weekly beach clean-up programme, cleaning both water and neighbourhoods and learning new recycling techniques.
By the first year of the project, we were able to federate two associations of fishermen and women from Londji in order to institutionalise and promote ecotourism.
This collaboration with the local populations coupled with our determination to move forward with the organisation has made it possible to diversify two income-generating activities; ecotourism and sales of ecoboats.
Q: What impact has Madiba & Nature had on local communities so far?
We have had a great impact on fisheries in Kribi, Londji and Douala with 50 ecoboats being used by 150 fishermen and tourist guides.
On the side of the selective-and-sorting system in waste management, Madiba & Nature is now managing 150 ecobins for a total yearly amount of 60 tons of plastic waste. By the end of 2020, the organisation will add on 50 more ecobins, upping its total to 200 ecobins and 67 tons of plastic waste.
The capacity building and training programme of Madiba & Nature is now impacting an average of 40 people per year, and the goal is to reach 50 fishermen and women in the villages by the end of 2020.
Our environmental education programme runs in 15 secondary schools and two universities and impacts some 100,000 students annually.
Q: Could your idea be replicated in other countries around the world?
Many Africans countries are facing the same huge problem of plastic pollution—given the current population growth and exponential rate of consumption—it’s clear that all these southern counties are in need of a sustainable way to manage their waste.
The innovative selective-and-sorting system of plastic waste based on ecobins that is working well in Cameroon could be replicated in other regions and countries across the continent.
Fishing is one of the main activities for communities in many African countries. Since there are so many households in need, it makes sense for the affordable ecoboat—with its easy accessibility and maintenance—to be replicated across these countries, for both fishing and ecotourism.
Q: What does the future hold for you, and where would you like to be in five years?
Given our goal to reach a production rate of 100 ecoboats for the next three to five years, in five years’ time the organisation will produce some 460 ecoboats and serve a community of some 1,380 fishermen. We will be operating in three regions: Kribi, Douala and Limbé—the coastal area of Cameroon.
If we can forge ahead in the next five years with a planned partnership with urban councils and city halls, Madiba & Nature could produce 500 ecobins a year to reach 2,200 ecobins across three cities.
This would mean we would be collecting up to 300 tons of plastic waste in these communities, affecting 5 million households.
For the next year, we are targeting training 100 people each year which will make a total of around 450 people impacted.
Q: What impact has your collaboration with UpLink had on your company?
Our project gained visibility after being highlighted on the different channels of the World Economic Forum, and also allowed us to be contacted by many volunteers who now assist us in the design and management of the web, as well as marketing.
We are also in talks with a volunteer in London to find buyers for our plastic raw materials for recycling.
Q: What resources or assistance do you need to achieve your ambitions that you currently don’t have?
Madiba & Nature is currently in its growing stage, meaning the challenges mainly lie in fundraising. Social impact projects in particular need strong resources in order to expand and reach all the community.
We have a two-fold mission in reaching our riverside community: a promotional new model of ecoboats in one hand, and waste management on the other. We need funding to be able to expand both.
Still, we lack the qualified human resources needed to enforce the capacities of team management, as well as those partnerships that would enable us to buy needed equipment to better process and recycle plastic, and diversify revenues within the community.
I tell others to go ahead and start your business, even without the means, as this will give you momentum and make sure you are ready when opportunity strikes.
For me, success in my business means being able to make a real change in my community and positively impact people's lives, while ensuring the sustainability of Madiba & Nature. Success is about creating adaptation and mitigation methods for climate change, while boosting the green economy and creating jobs for people in need in Cameroon.
This article was originally published on World Economic Forum on 29 October 2020. Used with permission.
Header image credit to Madiba & Nature.