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The activist who got Kenya to stop using plastic bags

The activist who got Kenya to stop using plastic bags

James Wakibia, a young man from Kenya, began photographing the piles of garbage that accumulated in his city in 2013 and sharing them on the networks. This awareness-raising task had its repercussion four years later in the local government.

James never imagined that he would end up being an environmental activist. Nor that with his campaign on Twitter with the hashtag #banplasticsKE (ban plastics in Kenya) he would attract thousands of followers to replicate his photos. His cape had such an impact that finally in 2017 the Kenyan government passed a law banning plastic bags.

We reported on Kenya's proposal to ban plastic bags a while ago. Now, it's a reality https://t.co/dblEbsaYN5 #resilience #banplasticsKE pic.twitter.com/wyRmcn6JuL

- Thomson Reuters Foundation (@TRF) August 29, 2017

James's story

Every morning James walked the road through Gioto to go to work looking at the largest landfill in the city of Nakuru, 150 kilometers from Nairobi. From there there is a fantastic view of the city surrounded by green hills that end at Lake Nakuru, a gem of a natural park in the Great Rift Valley. But he was outrageous at the amount of accumulated garbage and plastics that exceeded the limits of the landfill: “The bags hung from the trees, the soda bottles accumulated in the ponds, and the goats that grazed there found only that to eat" remember.

It was in 2013 when he decided to do something and with a camera he began to photograph the piles of waste, most of them single-use bags from supermarkets, that he had accumulated. The images were uploaded to his Twitter account calledThe streets of Nakuru (the streets of Nakuru) where he called for the closure of the Gioto landfill. At the same time, he managed to gather more than 5,000 signatures from neighbors, which he sent to local environmental authorities. "We made a lot of noise until we got the government commitment that the landfill would be better managed and the garbage would no longer accumulate on the road”. But with the arrival of the rainy season, the water and the wind again dragged mountains of plastic in the same place.

"ANDThen I realized that the problem was that we used too many plastic bags”. He puts as an example: "Two years ago when you went to the supermarket they gave you more than six bags: one for bread, one for cereals, one for sanitary napkins and other things in the bathroom, another for food ... And since it was very heavy, they would put one more on you! big so it wouldn't break!”.

A United Nations study carried out before the ban put a figure on this waste: every year in Kenya 100 million plastic bags were sold in shops. In a country with serious deficiencies in waste and garbage management, their fate was to end up burned in uncontrolled landfills like Gioto's or accumulate in the country's rivers and lakes until reaching the sea.

Two years later, what until then had been a hobby to help the community became an obsession for Wakibia. He made time from wherever he went to combine it with his work and his family: “Every day he would tour the city, take photos, post them on the Internet, write articles for newspapers calling for a ban on plastic bags, organize demonstrations ... Although he was not making money, he was determined to continue”. With a lot of effort and persistence, the accounts that he managed in networks reached more than 20,000 followers, with hundreds of retweets in Nairobi and Mombasa that allowed him to connect with other environmental activists in the country. The campaign was givenlikes other journalists, bloggers, artists, designers, models and moreinfluencers ... Until the cabinet member of the Ministry of Environment and Natural Resources Judi Wakhungu tweeted with her hashtag: #IsupportbanplasticKE (I support the ban on plastics).

Now #ReThinkplastics

Today, James walks through the Nakuru market with his camera on his shoulder and a T-shirt that reads #Rethinkplastics (rethinking plastics). He stops at a store, asks for a pound of sugar and they give it to him wrapped in plastic. "This is illegal, you can't sell it to me like this" He says. "Sorry, I have the cloth bags here”The saleswoman excuses herself. Although situations like this are not entirely strange, James assures that “plastic bags have disappeared from day to day, now the streets of Nakuru are much cleaner and people are more aware”.

From Nairobi, Amos Wemanya of Greenpeace Africa also sees the streets of the capital less dirty, and believes that the ban is being respected in shops and supermarkets. Wemanya highlights the importance of the measure being extended in recent months to all types of single-use plastics such as glasses, bags, straws and bottles that can no longer be used in natural parks, beaches and protected forests in the whole country.

Amos admits there is still a lot of room for improvement: “With the current ban we only solve half the problem since there are still many other plastics that are used daily and that end up in the environment”. Another challenge that he points to is the need to tackle the illegal smuggling of bags from Uganda "so it would take a common legislation throughout East Africa to prevent it”. Rwanda and Tanzania have already taken this step.

Although there are alternatives to plastic, it is true that jute, paper, cloth or sisal bags are more expensive to produce and the cost is passed on to consumers. But for Wemanya they are the only possible alternative, in addition to the investment and the bet "in ecological solutions that allow reuse or in refillable bottles”.

Raising awareness about consumption and taking steps towards banning plastic bottles are the next campaigns that James is proposing, who is now connecting with activists in Austria, Sri Lanka or Zambia to exchange experiences. He is clear that although there is less plastics on the Nakuru highway that he takes every morning to go to work, the problem is still far from disappearing.

With information from:

Video: Cameroon: Cobblestones from plastic bags. Africa on the Move (October 2020).