Digitalising paper recycling in Ethiopia

We went to Ethiopia to help rebuild incentives for paper waste collection together with Penda.

Penda Paper is a paper recycling company in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia. In 4 years it has grown to a network of 7000 people collecting paper all over the city and processing it to be sold as pulp to paper mills and to be made into furniture. Their mission is to give new life to paper and carton waste, and turn it into a resource.

The supply chain has been managed via thousands of paper forms that are collected and typed into an excel spreadsheet monthly. This is, to say the least, not an efficient way of managing and incentivising waste collection. Together with Penda we prototyped a new digital solution.

In a partnership with the municipality, Penda is collecting paper and carton waste from 7,000 “micro enterprise” collectors, as well as hundreds of offices factories and institutions in Addis Ababa.

Proof of concept

We wanted to start out with building a proof of concept system with a tightly restricted scope. Before going full-scale, it was important to test if the workers would even trust such a digital system. The POC would also aim to fulfill the following:

  • Provide digitally verifiable paper receipts to the collectors when they drop off paper into a Penda truck
  • Provide timely data on the movements of paper throughout the system
  • Be functional despite the regular loss of both power and internet connectivity
  • Be understandable and trustable to the supervisors

We ended up with a prototype that would check off the boxes listed above. The interface runs on commodity Android hardware permanently deployed in the travelling compactor trucks that are present at change-of-hands of paper, as well as issued tablets carried by management and installed at HQ.

All interaction by collectors had to be possible to conduct with paper and via the installed tablets, as the technology they own personally ranges from flagship smartphones down to nothing at all.

Digital receipts are printed in the trucks, using thermal printers.

We designed, built and tested the system on-location in Addis Ababa.

Incoherent documentation, easily corrupted registers, and use of Big5 — a multibyte Chinese character encoding that apparently exists — made prototyping the printed receipts quite the challenge. In the end, we prevailed.

Going forward, beyond the initial prototype, there are a lot of possibilities to explore. Testing scalability in different locations, looking into dynamic incentive models where you for instance could get paid more if it rains (and the load gets heavier), or automated payments are just a few of the things that would be exiting to explore further.

Be on the lookout for more to come from Penda Papers!