Paraffin Lamps and the Informal Recycling Industry

Franco Mithika works in Gikomba, an industrial area in greater Nairobi. His job is to take scrap metal tin cans and a soldering iron to fabricate paraffin lamps. Paraffin lamps are used by millions of Kenyans, especially those who cannot afford or get electricity into their home for lighting.

Creating Paraffin Lamps in Gikomba

It costs about 110/= Kenyan shillings to make, and it sells for around 150/= ($1.90). You can buy them wholesale for 1550/= ($20) for 24 pieces. It takes about a minute to make one (less for the truly gifted fabricators).

Here is a video of him making one:



Thinking about the unofficial recycling industry

What’s particularly interesting here, is that this scrapes the surface of a rather larger recycling industry that hums beneath the surface of the city. How it works is this. The youngest and poorest go around the city and collect scrap metal of all types. These are then taken to a buyer who sorts them into their different types. This is who people like Franco then buy from and create their wares.

The scrap metal picked up gets sold for just a few shillings per kilo. When sorted, the tin cans that Franco buys, are sold for 300/= ($4) per kilo.

So, there’s a rather efficient system at work. It’s run by entrepreneurs who figure out a way to make things work. A byproduct is that everything (metal) is used, and much less waste than there would be otherwise.

Gathering and transporting the scraps:
Informal Recycling Industry

The scrap sorting place (Kawangware):
Informal Recycling Industry

The cans for the paraffin lamps sorted:
Creating Paraffin Lamps in Gikomba

Other “sorted” scrap metal items:
Informal Recycling Industry

9 comments » Write a comment

  1. Amazing post. When I discuss the developing world with other Westerners, there is often a subtle but pervasive attitude that people in the developing world are stupid or lazy. Your perspective shows the intelligence and resourcefulness of the citizens of Nairobi.

    On a recent trip to Afghanistan I was blown away at the complexity and sophistication achieved with mud construction.

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  3. Wonderful creativity in everything! How much would we westerners benefit through being mindful of the ways our “trash” can be put to better use?

    Forgive my curiosity, but I like his soldering method:
    What is he using for the flux(dope) and solder? Are they also found materials(my limited mind can only come up with battery acid and wheel weights)? Is the soldering iron being dipped into the solder to apply it and heat at the same time?

  4. It’s fantastic to see the informal recycling industry doing well. I just wonder if anyone can afford the paraffin to put in those lamps these days. Have you seen the price of the stuff?

  5. @Tracy – yeah, it’s getting more expensive than ever before. I think it might have been more expensive that normal petrol, last I was in Kenya anyway. What else do you use though?

  6. I love this whole idea. It’s a shame we haven’t figured out a way to get the garbage in Kenya more easily recycled, as in having a drop site for glass, papers, cans, plastic bags, etc. I know there are a lot of private initiatives like this one operating. Wish I could figure out a way to help. Being rather at the top end of this materials chain makes it feel impossible, but perhaps now I need not feel so guilty about throwing away usable stuff. What a great blog this is! I’ll be checking it daily via the feed. Thanks!

  7. We have same things here in Madagascar. Most of old things discovered in trash bins, there are people who live from recycling them into other useful items.

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