A young Cameroonian entrepreneur has come up with a way to use plastic waste instead of cement to make 'eco-friendly' paving slabs. His initiative, which makes a point to give jobs to at-risk street children, has been growing, but still faces challenges.

In Cameroon, plastic waste has become a major problem. It blocks drains, pollutes rivers and wreaks havoc on the environment.

"The paving stones are solid and cheaper than typical paving slabs"

Pierre Kasoumloum got the idea for the slabs from childhood memories.

As kids, we would collect plastic cups and melt them in the wood fires used to heat our homes during the winter. We'd mix the melted plastic with water and shape it into small balls. We had a game of rolling them along with sticks.

In Cameroon, huge quantities of plastic bags and packaging are thrown away. One day, about 15 years ago, I was thinking of this childhood memory and I came up with the idea of mixing sand into melted salvaged plastic to make a solid, durable material. I imagined using it to make paving slabs.

With the aid of an investor, I was able to carry out tests in a lab and create a formula that resulted in solid enough slabs.

There are several steps to production. The plastic serves to bind the materials together. But before you can use it, you have to separate out any plastic containing chlorine because it becomes toxic if it's chemically altered. The rest is then melted in a vat over a wood fire. You then add sand and mix it. Then, you pour the mix into a mould and let it dry for 15 minutes.

This is the plastic waste used to make paving stones.

Vats in which the plastic is melted.

Employees pour the mix of plastic and sand into vats.

... and the final result.

(All these photos were taken and sent to the Observers by Benjamin Ambela, who works for the French start-up Djouman. The organisation promotes sustainable innovation in Africa and is now actively supporting the paving stone initiative.)

As an added bonus, these 'eco-friendly' paving slabs are cheaper than the classic model. According to Pierre Kamssouloum, one square metre of slabs each around 5 centimetres thick costs 3,500 CFA francs [Editor's note: 5.35 euros], whereas the same quantity of cement slabs costs 5,000 CFA francs.

Cameroon's handball federation used the new material to pave the courtyard outside of their headquarters.

But the initative also includes a social project. 

I got started the business in Yaoundé in 2008. Over the years, I've expanded my initiative to Burkina Faso, Sierra Leone, Nigeria, and Cameroon, with the support of NGOs. Every time I open a new business, I do my utmost to employ and train local street children. We help them find some stability and stop them sleeping rough. Today, we have 15 employees, and we've been training another 20 young people with the help of an NGO set up by former footballer Roger Milla.

We had even more kids in our training programme to begin with, but, unfortunately, many of them lost their enthusiasm. It's not always easy. We get a reasonable number of orders, but often our clients don't pay, and if they do, they often pay late. That creates financial problems. Right now, we are still hand-making these paving stones. I'd like to get the production line semi-mechanised. But for that, I'd need some 7 million CFA francs of investment.

In June 2015, the initiative did get a big help helping hand from 'Coeur d'Afrique', the NGO set up by the legendary Cameroonian footballer Roger Milla. The NGO now takes care of the company's young trainees.

It has also launched public awareness campaigns in two schools in Yaoundé, encouraging schoolchildren to collect, sort and recycle plastic in their neighbourhoods. Pierre Masoumloum has used three tons of plastic waste collected by these children. Over time, the NGO hopes to teach some 2,500 young people how to sort and put plastic waste to good use, something that could bode well for any future projects spearheaded by the Cameroonian entrepreneur.
Article written with
Corentin Bainier

Corentin Bainier , Journalist