Kenya Industry: Discussing the Importance of Recycling Initiatives in Packaging with Gavin Dehning of Silafrica

Gavin Dehning talks latest news and innovations at Silafrica, the leading manufacturer and supplier of the most innovative and sustainable rigid plastic packaging solutions in Kenya and East Africa for beverage, food, personal and home care, and chemicals since 1967. He also discusses the importance of promoting recycling initiatives in packaging, and talks about Silafrica’s commitment in this aspect.

Interview with Gavin Dehning, Group CEO at Silafrica

Gavin Dehning, Group CEO at Silafrica

Give us a brief introduction about Silafrica, and tell us about the product lines.

Silafrica has been around since 1957. It produces plastic products for most of the multinationals; Unilever, Procter & Gamble, Coca-Cola, and Heineken. We are in the rigid packaging space, which means that we are doing returnable crates, icon jars, Vaseline, and margarine tubs. We are in a range of FMCG products that are consumed by consumers across the whole of East Africa. We have got a footprint that covers Ethiopia, Tanzania, and Kenya, with an intention of expanding into Mozambique and Zambia in the near future.

Where would you say the strength of Silafrica lies?

Silafrica has a good relationship with most of the large multinationals in East Africa, and has enjoyed that relationship for many years now. That puts us in a very good space to be able to grow with the big guys. We are also able to innovate in quite a strong way in terms of getting new products to the market. We recently launched a foldable crate to enter into the agro space, which was originally pretty much carton-based. We have also added in a couple of other products, in particular the icon jars for Vaseline, which we are doing together with Unilever. We have a number of very good blue chip products that we have been able to secure and retain for a sustainable period of time, and that is where the strength of Silafrica lies.

Could you tell us more about the innovation aspect?

Everybody is getting into the trend of ‘less is more’, recycling, trying to reduce product weights. We have been very instrumental in reducing the weights of many of our products to our customers, so that in the end, we are consuming less plastic for the same item. That is a trend that has been ongoing for many years now, and Silafrica has led the way. The next trend is to look at how to recycle and reuse existing products. That trend is underway at the moment, and it will only expand and grow from here. We are not currently in a situation where we have a perfect recycling record in East Africa, but there is an appetite by most of the East African regimes to be able to start looking at addressing this imbalance between recyclability and recycling of materials. Silafrica stands at the forefront of being able to support all the local regimes, particularly in Kenya, Ethiopia, and Tanzania, where we are currently present, with a recycling program that is important for the plastic industry.

What is your take regarding how to be able to move this recycling agenda forward properly?

This is not going to take one company; it is a multilayered approach to the problem. The only way we are going to find a solution is where we all collaborate for the same reasons and towards the same goals. In many cases, what we are seeing today is that governments are starting to come to the party. Some of the big brands are considering their responsibility in terms of recycling, and we are there to support that collaboration. We are an organization that sits in the middle, we are the ones that produce the product for the brands and the brands own the product at the end of the day, but we want to make sure that we are leading from the front and not from behind. That is what Silafrica has demonstrated. Akshay Shah, who is the Executive Director for Silafrica, plays a key role in some of these institutions that are helping shape the future of plastics, particularly in East Africa and Kenya per se, where he is involved with KEPRO (Kenya Extended Producer Responsibility Organisation) as part of his management. He has a role to play and he is playing a very strong role in influencing the outcomes of how things play out, particularly within the institutions and the government. We are also playing a big role internally in convincing most of our customers to come to the party and work with us in terms of finding simple ways of recycling existing products.

Can you mention some the companies that have supported this vision to recycle and push the agenda of circular economy?

We have made some inroads with Coca-Cola, where we have agreed on a recycled content for their beverage crates. We have also made an agreement with Heineken, AB InBev, and Pepsi. All these companies have now come to the forefront and agreed that a certain amount of the crates that we produce for them would be partly made from old ones, which we regrind, crush up and utilize the raw material for purposes of recycling the crate and making a new crate from recycled material. That is a discussion that we have had for several years with the multinationals, but as of late, they have all started to come to the party quite quickly in terms of understanding that there is a real benefit of effectively utilizing old waste material to recycle, repurpose and create new beverage crates for their business. There is no need for these new beverage crates to in any way jeopardize their brand image or the quality of the crates. We have been able to prove that these crates can be as good as the 100% virgin crates. We are in a good space together with our customers in terms of innovating and becoming a little bit more responsible as organizations.

Are there challenges that you are facing regarding this whole process?

The main challenges that we face are the scale of being able to obtain the waste raw material, because there was always this reluctance for people to put the old crates through crushes, grind them up and make new crates over them. So we have had this inertia or lack of a coordinated attempt at getting crates all over the East African continent and understanding how to get them all back to a central point, crush them and then be able to repurpose them to make new crates. There have been some challenges around the logistics. We have been able to solve some of that logistics by placing crushing units at the facilities. That has helped tremendously by reducing the logistics cost of moving crates long distances to get them to our facility. But the challenges going forward will continue with the amount of which we can continue to sustain this level of business where we can put 50% of their old crates into reground. That 50%, in the next 5 to 10 years, they will start running out of raw material within their own organization. So we have to find that continuity of how to ensure that we do not go and resort back to having done 50% reground and 50% crash virgin.

Are there any projects that Silafrica is currently undertaking?

We have been working with some of the smaller recycling companies like Mr. Green in Kenya, who has just basically started. We partner with them and buy whatever we can from them so that we have a support structure to be able to off-take what it is that they produce, particularly on the polypropylene side. We will then take that waste material and convert it into non-edible products as opposed to edible products. We have a few initiatives with some of the smaller recyclers to support their recycling initiatives. We have got to scale this up because unfortunately, if we want to get to the size and scale of what we currently buy virgin materials in, then the current recyclers would have to grow 80 to 90%, 90 times bigger than what they grow today. We have looked at the potential of getting into recycling, but for us economically, it does not make a lot of sense. It will be better for us to support a recycler and be a demand-driven opportunity for a recycler into our organization because our strength lies in the fact that we have been a packaging organization since 1957.

What is Silafrica’s vision in the next three to five years?

Looking at 3, 5, 10 years ahead, our intention is to stick to our strengths. We are a good manufacturer of rigid materials. We have been in that game for many years, and we know what it means to be in that game. We need to keep focusing on developing that strength in more than just the East African context. Within the next three to five years, we need to have a footprint broader than just East Africa and that would include Southern Africa, Central Africa, and possibly even West Africa. It is important because we know that all our multinational partners are looking for credible suppliers of their products in these countries, because they are also looking to grow in each of these countries across Africa. We are in the right space at the right time, we just need to be bold enough to move in and take our rightful place in some of these countries. Africa is never an easy place just to run in and do expansion; there are always trials, tribulations and challenges. That comes back to the very first point that I raised about the challenges we face, and that is finding the capability to run these operations. To find five new good team leaders becomes a challenge, and to find five new good team leaders and teams becomes even a bigger challenge. The challenge is, it is easy to expand, but it is more difficult to find the right people to expand it with.

Is there any other message that you would like to share with our international audience?

The key message is that, from an African perspective, one should not be afraid of Africa, one should be aware that Africa presents unlimited potential and opportunities. We are recognizing these opportunities as Silafrica, and we want to grab them with both arms because we are in Africa, we know what we are working with, we know our environment, we know how to get there, and we know how to scale it.

What is your inspiration and philosophy in life?

We are always students throughout life, and as one gets older, you realize there is more to life than just earning money. There is a lot more to learn. My philosophy is; how do I give back whatever I have learned over the years in such a way that we can construct a bigger organization in a sense that, others can take some of the experiences I have had as a learner and develop them to become students of the success and the development?

ABOUT SILAFRICA: Silafrica has been the leading manufacturer and supplier of the most innovative and sustainable rigid plastic packaging solutions in Kenya and East Africa for beverage, food, personal and home care, and chemicals since 1957.





ADDRESS: Plot 4 – Migwani Road, Off Enterprise Road, Nairobi, Kenya

CONTACT: (+254) 722 330 476




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