As the new home of Folio Nigeria, a subsidiary of Folio Media, Open Country Mag is republishing culture stories that first appeared on the site under its CNN affiliation. This story was first published in 2020.
When she was a child, Intissar Bashir-Kurfi used to ride her bicycle on the tree-filled campus of Ahmadu Bello University, Zaria. Her parents work in the university: her father is a professor of business administration and her mother, who studied public administration, is a non-academic staff member. She and her sister, her only sibling, grew up on the campus, cycling in their large compound in the staff quarters. Even as a child, Intissar, who traveled a lot then, was taking note of her surroundings: the fruit trees, the soil, the houses. When they went to their village, she began to ask why the mud houses were cool inside, why they felt different from the cement houses.
Today, as the woman whose eco adaptation company, Ifrique Eco Solutions, and its social responsibility subsidiary, Sustainovation Solutions, are at the forefront of the fight to preserve the environment in Abuja, Intissar laughs recalling the memories. “It was a fun childhood,” she tells me on the phone.
Last month, she was featured on BBC Pidgin for her new venture: collecting nylon and converting them to interlocking tiles. Recycling waste as resource may not be a novel idea, but in Nigeria, her nylon method is, and so is her journey to it.
Influenced by her mother, she’d studied architecture at Zaria, where her undergraduate project assessed, interdisciplinarily, the compliance of sustainability in selected buildings in the campus, comparing structures erected in the 1960s onwards. It furthered her research into eco-friendly materials. After National Youth Service in 2016, she obtained an advanced diploma in interior designs from Albedo Designs School, Abuja, in 2017, and she founded Ifrique Collections and Designs, an African art interior designs company. That year, the United Nations announced the 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). “I felt like they were meant for me,” she recalls.
It was four years later, in 2019, on a Corporate Social Responsibility visit to a Fulani community in Gwarimpa, Abuja, that Intissar had the idea to co-found Sustainovation Solutions with two friends: Nura Adji and Wajim Nuhu. It was during a two-day SDG summer camp sponsored by Ifrique Designs, where she spoke to students about the 17 SDGs, as well as about biogas, agricultural waste, briquettes, eco-friendly cooking stoves, the nylon tiles, and career opportunities in entrepreneurship and AI.
“We showed them these things so they would be open-minded,” she says.
The community near Gwarimpa had no electricity, drinking water, and toilets. They gave them solar lamps for their homes and radio solar lamps for their mosque. Then they dug a well for them, because her plans for a borehole were made impossible by the lack of funds.
With her focus shifted and her vision clear, her designs company, Ifrique Collections and Designs, was adjusted into the eco-friendly adaptation organization it now is: Ifrique Eco Solutions.
Sometime in 2017, Intissar had taken note of the amount of dirt on the streets of Abuja, a city which produces 1,191 tons of waste daily, and was bothered by its consequent blockage of drainage and the resultant flooding in the rainy season. So she began research: Nigeria generates 32 million tons of solid waste annually, and sachet water nylon constitutes a bulk of it; and this nylon had durable properties that were recyclable into something of utility, something like tiles.
For two years, she tried to get the idea formalized. “We were doing trials and error, we couldn’t commercialize it,” she says. Then, last year, she succeeded.
When she first went out to source for the nylon, people poked fun at her, most of them jokingly. They called her Mamanbola, the Hausa term for scavenger. They didn’t understand why a trained architect, from a background of academia, would be picking nylon on the streets. They didn’t understand her mission. She moved her sourcing of nylon from the streets, where most of the material was beyond use, to supermarkets and sachet water factories, where she got clean ones.
The sourcing of the nylon material was only the first step. After that was the sorting, cleaning, and drying. And then the melting in a drum of fire, and then the mixing with sand. Then she put them in moulds, and put them out to dry. Because she cannot yet afford major equipment, staff wearing coveralls, gloves, and masks work to do these with shovels and melting drums.
Each tile takes 500 sachets — one kg of nylon — to make, and is customizable: there are reddish, greenish, and dark ones, and all, depending on the customer’s tastes, could be embossed with images or logos. While the company’s production range, for now, is restricted to individual orders on a low scale, it is getting ready to go to the market.
The nylon tiles offer more crucial advantages: they could be used right away, compared to the 28-day wait period for normal tiles; they outlast normal tiles by a ratio of 3:1; and the plastic properties prevent weed and resist the wear that happens on tiles in salt water areas. Even more than these, her tiles could be used in road construction. At the moment, she is working on a pilot nylon road for the Federal Roads Maintenance Agency (FERMA); if it is successful and they are open to it, she could be contracted to parch roads across the country. “That’s what they use in India and some European countries, it’s better than normal coal tar,” she says.
In the meantime, she is talking to young people, providing the next generation with the impetus to take the lead in saving their environment. In February, she went to a secondary school in Gwarimpa, spoke to the senior students about the importance of preserving their environment, and inaugurated an SDG Club, whose membership depended on passion. In exchange for bags of nylon, she gave them solar-powered lamps for reading. “They are happy to be among people helping their environment,” Intissar says about them in the BBC Pidgin video.
“It’s not to exploit them,” she adds to me. “It’s to make them aware of what is happening and of the dangers of plastic.” I agree, and point out that the arrangement, however negligible the nylon quantity coming out of it, does offer empirical education that the students might never get anywhere else, and she says, “Yes. But so many people ask us about [exploitation].”
She continues, “We will have a good plan for them, in terms of paying school fees and other incentives that will benefit them.”
At the theoretical stage is another eco-friendly idea truncated by the lack of funding: using sand-filled plastic bottles to build houses, laying them as blocks are laid, with their added advantage of being insulating, bulletproof, and adaptive to weather: the rooms would be cold in hot weather and warm in cold weather. “The same thermal comfort that a mud building gives,” she says. They would also be used to build toilets in communities like the one in Gwarimpa, which have none. There are, according to UNICEF, up to 46 million Nigerians with no choice than to practice open defecation.
In an interview with Daily Trust, Intissar said that her company, when fully operational, could provide up to 500 jobs. At the moment, Ifrique Eco Solutions has a staff strength of nine, counting a social media manager and a researcher but not counting two directors. While she is the founder and CEO, she prefers to describe herself as “co-founder” and “managing partner.”
Meanwhile, she is teaching her three children how to dispose specific waste — rubber, paper, wood, metal — and they are learning about the SDGs. The men in her family, her father and her academic husband, are supportive. “My father believes in me,” she says. “He is happy that he has two female children and we are making him proud.” Her sister, a graduate of electrical engineering, is currently in piloting school in South Africa.
Intissar hopes to convert all nylon waste in the country to tiles, and for the tiles to be used not only in constructing durable roads but also in building houses, schools, and public toilets. But the idea needs financing.
“I have asked so many people I know are influential who have the resources to start off the business,” she tells me. “I told them that it would have impact, but most of them, that’s not what they want to invest in, they just kept mute about it.” ♦
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