New app to help Kenyan youth collect and recycle plastic waste along lakeshores

  • Plastic pollution the grim reaper to the lake’s crippled fishing sector
  • Two teenagers are developing a mobile application targeting the youth to help collect and recycle plastic waste

By Laura Otieno

With Kenya’s plastic ban entering its fourth year in June, plastic pollution still remains a threat to the environment and various stakeholders are now calling for a people-led campaign to eradicate plastic. The United Nations warns that by 2050, there will be more plastic than fish in the world’s waters. 

To combat the surge in plastic pollution in Lake Victoria, a teenage duo in Kisumu, Kenya is embracing technology along the shores of the lake, with the aim of incorporating younger generations into restoring Africa’s largest freshwater lake. 

It’s 7 a.m. at Dunga beach in Kisumu county, and fishermen slowly drift ashore after a long night fishing. 50-year-old Benard Ndege is back after 6 hours in the water, his catch just two fish. The fishing business he says, is a pale shadow of its former self.

“In the past, we used to have plenty of fish; we could catch big Nile Perch when we set out, but people started using the wrong fishing gear and that’s how the stocks went down,” Ndege said (translated to English).

Fish stocks in Lake Victoria have been declining since 1987, with improper fishing gears contributing to the alarming drop. However, as Benard tells us, the situation over the years has worsened, with plastics emerging as the grim reaper, threatening to deal a final blow to the already crippled sector.

“Right now if I set my hook with bait and cast it, more often than not, I draw up a plastic bottle,” Ndege said (translated to English).

In 2017, Kenya introduced the gradual ban of plastics in the country. On 5th June 2020, the ban extended to outlaw usage of single-use plastics in protected areas such as forests, beaches, and conservation areas. At Dunga Beach in Kisumu, the presence of hotels dotting the shoreline has proved it an uphill task to implement this ban. 

According to a 2015 study by a team of scientists from Tanzania, 20 percent of fish samples drawn from southern Lake Victoria contained microplastics. The most common types included disintegrated particles from sponges, silicone rubber used for coating electrical cables, and polythene bags, which accumulate toxic chemicals in fish livers that are then consumed by humans, according to a 2013 study.

Men removing plastic battles from River Rwizi, Uganda in February 2021. River Rwizi flows into Lake Victoria

Harnessing technology to pick up trash

At a facility in Kisumu, we meet 15-year-old Michelle Muchilwa with her 13-year-old brother Jeremy. It’s a busy day, as they work with their mentor to finalize the prototype of a mobile application that will assist them in their quest to eradicate plastic pollution in Lake Victoria. This app was inspired by a clean-up along the Industrial area strip in Kisumu last year when the Restore Lake Victoria campaign was midwifed, which is currently at its teething stage.

From left ;Jeremy Muchilwa(13), Michelle Muchilwa(15) with their mentor, Zachary Okari at the Kenya Marine and Fisheries Institute(KEMFRI) headquarters in Kisumu, make adjustments to their mobile application prototype

“There is a major issue in Kenya, where the youth are not connected to their natural environment, and I had the same problem,” Muchilwa said. I began noticing the disconnect when I asked my mom about the kind of fish she used to eat, and I had never tasted them. I was wondering what happened in these 15 years that I have been around that has caused these species of fish to go extinct.”

According to a 2018 IUCN report, out of 234 fish species assessed, 99 are critically endangered and dozens more are vulnerable in Lake Victoria. Pollution is a threat to 90 per cent of freshwater fish that are native to the lake basin, the report concludes – and more than 99 per cent of the lake’s fish species are also highly sensitive to climate change.

Once the youth group completes the application, it will have an interactive interface that will require a user to key in their name and location. The app will then move to a data page, where the user will upload the number and type of plastic collected in their specific location. Using GIS technology, the application will then direct the user to the nearest recycling plant to ensure proper waste management of the plastics collected. 

A snapshot of the mobile application prototype

The app will target especially young people between the ages of 10 to 35, because this demographic is the most involved in carrying out occasional clean-ups around the lake, according to the developers. With the support of the National Environment Management Authority, the app will also include the locations of various recycling plants as partners. 

The developers, juggling coding and schoolwork, hope that the application will be complete by the end of the year.

“I believe that when it comes to the environment, we really need young people, because most of the older generation have very set minds, but we as the young people we are still exploring and so we are open to change,” said Jeremy Muchilwa. “Even if you look at the environment champions, they are young people because if you teach them that the environment is important, they will easily understand and appreciate the role of everything.”

Plastics spotted at the shoreline on Dunga Beach Kisumu, Kenya

While Bernard paddles to seek today’s catch, he carries the hope that the Lake will be kinder and offer him a better catch, just as the four million people that depend on Lake Victoria for their livelihoods. 

More plastic than fish?

The United Nations Environmental Program has sounded a warning bell alerting the world to a possible scenario of having more plastics than fish in the world, should the current trend of dumping plastics continue. 

“Normally in waters, we have more plants than in the terrestrial world,” said James Njiru, the CEO of Kenya Marine and Fisheries Research Institute. “We call them phytoplanktons and they produce half of the oxygen we breathe. And even in this era of global warming, it is the oceans; it is the waters that are acting as a buffer by absorbing the warmth, so if we destroy the waters we are actually destroying our own livelihoods.”

Muchilwa, the environmental activist, said it was the time for youth to go out and determine their own future.

“You should think like, what do I want Kenya to look like as a developed country? Do I want it to be a developed country with a dead Lake Victoria, or do I want it to be the country that managed to develop without destroying its natural resources?”

This InfoNile / MESHA story was produced with support from JRS Biodiversity Foundation and Code for Africa as part of the WaterCommons initiative and the Code for All Exchange Program, funded by the National Democratic Institute and the National Endowment for Democracy

Data Visualizations by Jennifer Kwon, Sakina Salem and Emma Kisa.

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