Plastic pollution has become a pressing environmental and human health concern. Most plastics take between 20 to 500 years to degrade. While a few plastics do decompose to their constituent molecules, most break down into tinier particles called microplastics, which enter the environment and are ingested by aquatic life, birds and animals, affecting their fertility and survival. Microplastics further crumble into smaller pieces called microfibres found in drinking water and the air, posing a risk to human health.
This is the ecological burden that led Kenyan couple Atiff Khalid and Natasha Lakhani to set up Eco-Smiles, a start-up that produces environmentally-friendly oral and body care products. Their catalogue includes bamboo toothbrushes, hairbrushes and cotton buds; organic toothpaste tablets, dental floss manufactured from corn starch and teeth-whitening products made from coconut husks.
“In Kenya, we only recycle 9% of plastics. Where does the rest go? We strive to reduce the amount of plastic waste that finds its way to our oceans and landfills,” says Khalid, the managing director.
The duo was inspired by a trip to Thailand, where they came across eco-friendly bamboo utensils and toothbrushes at a market. The locals told them the nation was keen on substituting plastic for bamboo to cut down on pollution, especially on the beaches.
Khalid and Lakhani liked the eco-friendly bamboo products they saw and decided to implement the idea back in Kenya, targeting other eco-conscious buyers. They brought home bamboo toothbrushes, which they showed to friends and family. “We created a buzz and got a lot of interest. People wanted to know where to get them,” Khalid says.
The duo began importing and selling bamboo toothbrushes to family and friends. However, every time Khalid brushed his teeth, he would see the plastic tube of toothpaste. He knew they needed to get eco-conscious all the way and create a whole range of environmentally-friendly oral products. Organic dental floss and toothpaste tablets were added to the product line up.
“The tablets are completely natural and come in glass jars. They are safe for kids even when swallowed and free of harmful preservatives. Our jars are recyclable and reusable. We have a subscription model where we refill the glass jars to reduce waste,” Khalid explains. The dental floss also comes packaged in glass jars.
Moving into manufacturing
At the start of 2020, Khalid quit his marketing job at a tech firm and Lakhani handed in her resignation at an eco-camp in the Masai Mara to run their business full time.
Their start-up capital was 5 million Kenyan shillings ($47,000) from their savings, which they supplemented by selling their car and other things they didn’t need. When they got stuck as the enterprise grew, family and friends have come through with loans and grants.
“We put everything we ever owned on the line but the company is debt-free, apart from a small family loan. However, we are considering getting strategic investors to help us build inventory to fulfil any big purchase orders,” Khalid says.
They began manufacturing bamboo toothbrushes in Vipingo, on the Kenyan coast. Bamboo is heat-treated to prevent mould, handles are carved out, again heat treated, then laser engraved and painted. For bristles, the company uses a biodegradable polymer from American company DuPont. Finished toothbrushes are packaged in craft boxes, minimising plastic wrapping.
They continue to import the other oral-care products as they develop expertise and capacity to go full-scale local in the next three to five years. Eco-Smiles has also expanded into manufacturing personal care products such as bamboo cotton buds and hairbrushes and is looking to add shampoo and conditioner bars to the catalogue to reduce plastic bottle use.
For raw materials, Eco-Smiles has partnered with a company that grows bamboo near the town of Malindi.
Online sales and expansion
Being a new business in the middle of a pandemic, Eco-Smiles had to leverage online sales and do deliveries. To deal with escalating delivery costs eating into their margins, the firm has partnered with e-commerce company Jumia, which handles the logistics and delivery at a lower price. It also has a relationship with Goodlife Pharmacy, which has over 70 branches in Kenya and Uganda to stock its products, and is at an advanced stage of getting onto the shelves of Carrefour supermarket. This, they hope, will help Eco-Smiles reach more people, not only an online audience.
While Eco-Smiles’ focus has been to establish itself locally, it has sparked interest with a potential distributor in Rwanda. “We hope to partner with others in Africa who have the same eco-conscious vision,” adds Khalid.
The business is also eyeing opportunities in hospitality, particularly hotels in game parks with a focus on conservation and eco-consciousness.