Today, Kenya is taking the historic step of banning non-biodegradable plastic bags (flat bags and carrier bags), following closely in the footsteps of her neighbour Rwanda. The move by the Ministry of Environment and Natural resources comes after years of stakeholder consultations and failed attempts to implement the ban. Anyone caught manufacturing, importing or using a plastic bag faces a hefty fine of 4 million KES (Kenyan Shillings) or up to 4 years of jail time.
The motivation behind this ban is not hard to decipher. Plastic bags which wholesale for as low as 1 KES are widely used across sectors (hospitality to agriculture), and once thrown away are detrimental to the environment; choking out greenery, suffocating aquatic life, littering rivers, and blocking drainage systems.
My opinion on the ban? I think it’s magnificent; the eyesore that is plastic waste has spiralled out of control over the last decade. Thankfully, supermarkets, businesses, stores, and individuals have numerous alternatives for shopping and storing waste, including but not limited to traditional hand woven bags, wicker baskets, biodegradable plastic, canvas, jute, paper, and nonwoven geotextile bags, all of which are available in Kenya. And let’s not forget the innovative manufacturers who are creating bags out of recycled plastic bags and plant waste.
So is there a problem? Well, in the move to ban plastic bags and implement greener packaging, small entrepreneurs have been forgotten. The kidogo economy (micro economy) in Kenya is thriving, with many people dependent on income arising from the sale of vegetables, fruits, cooked food, snacks, toiletries, and other household utilities in very small quantities. While these entrepreneurs can afford the 1 KES plastic bag, the greener packaging which starts retailing at 5-10 times the price of the plastic bag (for the cheapest and smallest option) is completely unattainable.
Large supermarkets can absorb the cost of greener packaging and medium-sized businesses can even pass on the cost to customers. However, kiosks and other micro business vendors who make as low as 5-10 KES per sale cannot afford any of the current alternatives.
What will be the result of this ban? Will consumers stop purchasing at kiosks because of packaging inconveniences? Will micro entrepreneurs have to turn away customers because they have no bags to put their shopping in? It’s hard to have a definitive answer at this time.
Make no mistake; the plastic bag ban in Kenya is necessary. However, failure to find solutions for micro entrepreneurs will dilute the impact of the ban. Though Rwanda itself has made staggering strides in banning plastic bags, promoting greener packaging, and cleaning up the streets of its capital Kigali, it struggles to combat the illegal market and smuggling of plastic bags, for use by micro entrepreneurs who have minimal alternatives.
The Kenyan Ministry of Environment and Natural resources and other relevant bodies should recognize this, and apply rigorous energy to coming up with swift and effective packaging solutions for the micro entrepreneurs who desperately need it.
Current exchange rate: 103 KES= 1 USD