A Kenyan environmental law student is seeking a patent for her healthy, edible cups and plates, designed to wage battle against the mountain of plastics that threatens marine life. She already has an airline customer lined up.
By Sheila Mwalili, bird story agency
Daring, beautiful dreams are spiritual fuel for 22-year-old Sheryl Mboya. She’s an environmentalist and law student at Mount Kenya University who’s on a quest for a cleaner and healthier environment. And she believes she has the answer: edible cups, plates, and spoons.
Mboya’s answer may sound fanciful but at just 22 she’s got the credentials to make her case. So much so that a national airline has signed on for her first products.
Snackuit – edible cups, plates, and spoons that substitute single-use plastics tableware – was born out of the anguish Mboya felt after seeing thousands of plastic cups being tossed into trash bins at eateries, after use. This was happening everywhere she looked, including hospitals, offices and get-together spots.
What disturbed her most was that the destination for the trash was not only dumpsites but, all too often, rivers – and the ocean.
“Whenever I would go to a hospital or an office and I felt thirsty, Iâ€™d pick a cup, drink water and throw it only to pick another one a few minutes later. This is what everybody does. So I felt that this was happening because there was no alternative.” she explained.
According to the UNEP’s From Pollution to Solutions report of 2022, 400 million tonnes of plastic are produced annually and 7 million of those manufactured between 1950 and 2017 have become waste. The report further states that the equivalent of a garbage truck is dumped in the ocean every minute, threatening biodiversity and damaging marine ecosystems. At the same time, greenhouse gas emissions associated with plastics are expected to rise to 6.5 gigatons by 2050.
To do her part, Mboya resolved to avoid single-use plastic and started carrying her water bottle around to use. But this, she realised, was not solving the problem in the larger scheme of things. She was just a lone warrior in an overwhelming anti-plastics war.
So Mboya and a team of 20 young people founded GreenX Telemechanics Limited to be part of the solution. The result of their research and early testing is their first product: Snackfruit.
“I love to term Snackuit as a similar way you can eat the ice cone once you’re done eating your ice cream, gelato, or sorbet. So once you finish your dinner or coffee, you can then eat your cup, plate, or spoon.” Mboya explained.
The team, which has already set its eye on mass production even as it awaits intellectual property approvals, partnered with Kenya Airways through their Fahari Innovation Hub to facilitate the adoption of the product in the aviation industry.
“During the research process, we identified the aviation industry as one of the largest users of plastics, so we wanted to cater to that need, but ultimately we also target every single market, including individual consumption.” said Mboya.
Kenya Airways, for its part, would be more than happy to replace single-use plastics used for in-flight meals. This would be a first for any airline.
“Edible cutlery is a brilliant concept that will revolutionize food packaging and how we eat. It is a fantastic, healthy solution for the entire ecosystem. We ardently support and co-develop innovations by the youth and entrepreneurs that seek to secure a healthy planet for all.” Kenya Airways Innovation Hub Lead, Grace Vihenda said.
The Snackuit idea is currently under intellectual property protection locally through the Kenya Intellectual Property Institute (KIPI) and globally through the World Intellectual Property Organisation (WIPO).
“Snackuit is an excellent idea. It’s tasty and one can snack on it as they consume their meal or even afterwards. It’s also good for the entire ecosystem as it doesn’t contain toxic chemicals. I believe the innovation deserves all the support we can master as a nation.” David Owino, an Artificial Intelligence technician at GreenX explains.
The biggest challenge to Snackuit so far has been viability, explained Mboya. Would it hold hot drinks and meals? How palatable would it be?
To address this, the team came up with a product made of gluten-free wheat flour and sugar substitutes to ensure it is sugar-free but still tasty. It is also cholesterol-free.
It also comes in a variety of flavours such as butterscotch, and if it is not consumed by the users and ends up in any water body, it will dissolve within a day, making it “good food for marine life and plants, too”.
“In the testing process, we noticed that the cups leak when we put water in them. We went back and made some adjustments but then noticed they became too hard.
Fortunately, we have now found the right formula that holds the product together and softens it as you eat or drink.” Mboya explained.
She’s also not oblivious to market forces.
“Plastics have a huge market, and to find an alternative, you must move systematically. For a start, we’re looking to start with the aviation industry, then the hospitality industry, before moving towards the larger individual consumer market.” she said.
Nutrition Association of Kenya chairman Henry Ng’ethe said a positive market reaction to Snackuit would allow Mboya’s team to place a premium on their product early on and then wait for mass production to reduce costs. Market sentiment would allow for higher costs thanks to the social – and in this case, environmental – good of the product.
“Gluten-free flour costs about 200 Kenya shillings (approximately 2 US$) per kilogramme. The cost of production for mass consumption of Snackuit is therefore likely to be very high.” says Ngethe.
“Overall, it is a very good initiative and should be supported because if we eradicate plastic pollution in our water bodies even by 10 per cent it’ll help address climate change, resulting in improved rainfall and ultimately food security both nationally and globally.”
For now, however, Mboya’s greatest bet is the GreenX team, family, friends, mentors, and university fraternity.
“Innovation is the solution to a myriad of challenges facing humanity; it is what will lift developing countries out of poverty. I appreciate the Snackuit idea that Sheryl has come up with, and I appeal to those willing to partner with her to support her in fully developing the innovation to encourage other young people with great ideas. This will not only make them productive but also self-reliant.” said her mother, Ruth Areri.
In 2017, Kenya announced a total ban on single-use plastic bags to clean up the country’s rivers, seas and waterways, making it one of the first African countries to make such a commitment.
Mboya’s icon is the late environmentalist Wangari Maathai who used the story of a hummingbird to drive her point home that every individual effort, however, insignificant it may seem, counts in keeping the planet healthy.
Like the hummingbird, she says: “I might be insignificant, but I certainly don’t want to be like the human beings watching the planet going down the drain. I will do the little I can.”
Bird Story Agency