Kenyan named UNEP young top scientist

Wednesday, December 16th, 2020 00:00 |
Nzambi Matee. She has been named UNEP top scientist. Photo/COURTESY/UNEP

A Kenyan, Nzambi Matee, 28, has been named UN Environment Programme (UNEP) top scientist as its 2020 Young Champions of the Earth.

The prize is awarded annually to seven entrepreneurs under the age of 30 with impressive ideas to sustain environmental change.

Matee was named alongside other seven young scientists, engineers, entrepreneurs and activists from across the globe. 

Four years ago, Matee, a Materials Engineer, developed a model for a machine that turns discarded plastic into paving stones through her company, Gjenge Makers.

The firm churns out over 1,000 plastic pavers, helping to reduce tonnes of kilos of plastic from the environment.

Globally, one million plastic drinking bottles are purchased every minute while up to five trillion single-use plastic bags are used annually.

Decent shelter

Reacting to the news of the award, Matee said plastic is misused and misunderstood; yet it can be a solution to the provision of cheap but decent shelter.

“It is absurd that we still have this problem of providing decent shelter – a basic human need whereas plastic – which can be disastrous after its life - has enormous potential,” she said.

In 2017, Matee quit her job as a data analyst and set up a small lab in her mother’s back yard.

There, she began creating and testing pavers, a combination of plastic and sand, UNEP said in a statement.

Her neighbours complained about the noisy machine she was using, so Matee pleaded for one-year grace period to develop the right ratios for her paving bricks.

“I shut down my social life for a year, and put all my savings into this,” she said. 

Harvests water

“My friends were worried, but I continued and now the results are phenomenal.”

UNEP Executive Director, Inger Andersen, said that with solutions to harvest water from the air; recycle plastic into paving slabs, and motivate fishing boats to haul tonnes of plastic out of the ocean, Matee and the other young champions of the Earth are change-makers.

She said the champions have demonstrated how innovative ideas coupled with ambitious action can help solve some of the world’s most pressing environmental challenges.

“Globally, young people are leading the way in calling for meaningful and immediate solutions to the triple planetary crises of climate change and pollution – we must listen,” said Andersen.

And as we enter this decisive decade where we work to cut emissions and protect and restore ecosystems, UNEP Young Champions demonstrate that all of us can contribute, starting where we are with what we have, she added. 

Matee’s company produces sustainable low-cost construction materials made of recycled plastic waste and sand that are already being used by schools such as the Mukuru Skills Training Centre in Nairobi’s Mukuru Kayaba Slum.  

Following a competitive public nomination,  a global jury of experts picked the seven prize winners  aged 30 years or younger.

 The 2020 Young Champions of the Earth include; Xiaoyuan Ren (China, 29), Vidyut Mohan (India), Lefteris Arapakis (Greece,26); Max Hidalgo Quinto (Peru, 30), Niria Alicia Garcia (USA, 28) and Fatemah Alzelzela (Kuwait, 24).

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