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UNEP: Five young entrepreneurs embracing sustainable business models


From forests to farmlands to oceans, ecosystems provide the natural resources that underpin the global economy. But as the world’s population rises,

A recent report from the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP), titled Becoming #GenerationRestoration, found that one-third of the world’s farmland is degraded, about 87 per cent of inland wetlands have disappeared, and ecosystem degradation is affecting the well-being of 40 per cent of the global population.

In 2021, UNEP and partners launched the UN Decade on Ecosystem Restoration, an ambitious drive to draw together political support, scientific research and financial support to help revive millions of hectares of terrestrial and aquatic ecosystems.

In South Africa, reversing land degradation would lead to economic gains: new study
At the United Nations Environment Assembly (UNEA-5.2), which is taking place this week in Nairobi, leaders are expected to discuss ideas for a low-carbon recovery from the COVID-19 pandemic and how to ramp up ecosystem restoration. That kind of rebound could cut planet-warming greenhouse gas emissions by 25 per cent by 2030, while creating jobs, improving health, making cities more liveable, and safeguarding the environment for future generations.

Micro, small and medium-sized enterprises have a crucial role to play, given they comprise 90 per cent of businesses and are responsible for more than half of global employment. That’s why experts say it’s encouraging that more and more small-scale entrepreneurs are launching businesses designed to protect the planet. UNEP profiles five young entrepreneurs who are doing just that.

Alzelzela’s home country, Kuwait, generates 1.5kgs of trash per person per day – twice the global average – and 90 per cent of it ends up in landfills. Kuwait is yet to embrace sustainable waste management – and Alzelzela is aiming to change that.

She co-founded Eco Star, a non-profit that recycles trash from homes, restaurants and schools across Kuwait. She used her own cash as start-up capital and built her consumer base by educating people about recycling on her social media platforms, which now have more than 20,000 followers.

Since its launch in 2019, Eco Star has recycled more than 3.5 tonnes of plastic, 10 tonnes of paper and 120 tonnes of metal. “We can all take action and inspire others to take action on a bigger scale,” says Alzelzela.

“Don’t quit your day job” – or so we are often advised. But Matee did quit her day job. And her social life. And invested all her savings into an experimental project in her mother’s back garden. “My friends were worried,” she admits. “Everyone thought I was crazy and so many people told me to give up.”

Matee is the founder of Gjenge Makers, a company that uses discarded plastic to produce building materials. Having observed the volumes of plastic bags polluting the streets of Nairobi, she developed a machine that compresses a mixture of plastic and sand into bricks. Lighter and more durable than cement, they are affordable and have been used to pave walkways for homes and schools – including those in low-income areas where students would otherwise have to walk on dirt paths.

Her business now produces 1,500 pavers per day – proving that it is possible to move from a linear economy toward a circular one, in which products and materials remain in use for as long as possible.

Meet Nzambi Matee, UNEP Young Champion of the Earth.

Lefteris Arapakis, a fifth generation fisher, was concerned when he saw the boats around his Greek hometown hauling in nets filled with plastic waste and not fish.

“I was deeply concerned that my father and brothers could not make a living out of this job,” said Arapakis. Indeed, projections suggest that there could be more plastic than fish in the sea by 2050.

Arapakis’ concern inspired action – he founded Enaleia, the country’s first sustainable fishing school, teaching fishers to adopt more eco-friendly practices. “We want to empower every fisherman to catch plastic and then bring it back to the port and upcycle it,” he said.

The school also brings together the local marine community to collect plastic pollution – an exercise that has resulted in the removal of more than 80 tonnes of plastic from the sea. In partnership with a Dutch organization, Enaleia has started to upcycle fishing nets, turning them into carpets, socks and other consumer products.

Meet Lefteris Arapakis, UNEP Young Champion of the Earth.

In rural China, even water that looks clean may not be safe to drink. According to some estimates, as much as half of the country’s shallow groundwater is polluted.

“Imagine two glasses of water, both looking the same, but one is clean and one could make you sick,” says Ren. “How do you choose?”

Ren’s company, MyH20, removes the guesswork by charting water quality. A data platform and mobile phone app, it collates information gathered by a nationwide team of youth volunteers. It provides users with current information about local water quality, offers solutions for purifying water and connects communities to companies specialized in treating contaminated water sources.

MyH20 has helped provide clean water to tens of thousands, but Ren is not finished yet. “What motivates me is galvanizing others to take action,” she says. MyH20 volunteers – who are students of science, technology, engineering and medicine – “will go on to develop careers in these fields and create solutions to some of the environmental problems they have seen while working with us.”

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