ACCRA, GHANA — Last year, a group of Computer Science students from the University of Ghana began coming up with a plan to tackle their city’s poor plastic waste management. What started as a pleasing distraction from their code-heavy studies has become an actionable approach to achieving a resilient Accra, or in their words, “ a clean city where people understand the importance of good sanitation, practice it and reap the benefits.”

For the six-person collective, who go by the nickname Team KEEK, there has never been a better time to commit to this cause.

In December 2014, Accra joined the Rockefeller Foundation’s 100 Resilient Cities, a global network working to resolve 7 challenges; Pollution & Environmental Degradation, Flooding (Coastal and Rainfall), Disease Outbreak, Infrastructure Failure, Aging Infrastructure, Lack of Affordable Housing and Social Inequity.

By participating in the 100 Resilient Cities challenge and following Ghana’s commitment to the United Nation’s Sustainable Development Goals, Accra’s officials and local community members must double up on their efforts. This year’s round 1 of the Innovate Ghana Design Challenge, encouraged the nation’s young minds to get a head start on this demanding goal.

Team KEEK was one of 11 teams from from the University of Ghana, Ashesi University and the University of Mines and Technology to compete against one another to develop practical, innovation solutions to the city’s sanitation challenges. Team KEEK‘s presentation of their one-year old concept, the KEEK machine — a user-friendly machine that accepts sorted plastic waste for recycling and rewards the user — stood out at the competition earning them 3rd place from among all teams.

Team KEEK members from top left to bottom right: Edwin Zeye, Emmanuel Owusu, George Ahafia Kwaku, Kofi Frimpong, Ogundipe Akinwale, Richmond Chris-Koka

Team KEEK members from top left to bottom right: Edwin Zeye, Emmanuel Owusu, George Ahafia Kwaku, Kofi Frimpong, Ogundipe Akinwale, Richmond Chris-Koka

The Problem

In Accra, the beaches and backyards of homes have become mountainous bodies of plastic waste. Statistics released by the Accra Metropolitan Assembly (AMA) show that 270 tons of plastic waste are generated each day in Accra. 85% of which are the popular, ‘pure water’ sachets.

Not an uncommon sight in Accra; plastic waste is not well disposed of

Plastic waste is often not well disposed of.

Not an uncommon sight in Accra; plastic waste is not well disposed of

Not an uncommon sight in Accra

For Team KEEK, these statistics came to life as they cleaned the Jamestown beach for #NVDay15. What the team said was even more startling than the numbers, were the comments of some area residents,

“We spoke to one guy who dropped his empty pure water sachet when we were cleaning. We asked him why he did it and he said he’s paid for it already and he is done with it so why should he hold onto it before he gets to a dustbin, when he can just drop it and be free. To him, it makes no sense. Another woman there told us that there are well-built men who sometimes check to see if people are littering but they are not always around. They have other jobs to do, so people do what they like in their absence.”
— Richmond Chris-Koka (@kookies_koka)

Kofi Frimpong said he sees a similar attitude in other parts of Accra, even on his university campus. He explained why he said he thinks this is and why the KEEK machine is so important,

“Sometimes I will buy water outside and when I finish it, I’ll hold it till I get to campus then I dump it into the dustbin. It’s not convenient. You realize that there are not much dustbins at vantage points in the city. That’s why people don’t care, even here on campus. This is why with our machine is needed. It will be at as many vantage points as possible and when you slot your empty plastics in there, you know that you are not leaving empty handed.”

So how does the KEEK Machine help solve this?

The KEEK machine when completed, will accept plastic water sachets and plastic bottles and give the recycler the opportunity to earn rewards.

When a user first approaches the machine, there will only be three buttons in addition to a screen, to make it as simple and easy to use as possible. A text message showing the languages available will also appear and users can either select English, Twi or French.

“Ghana is surrounded by French-speaking nations. We have Ivorians and Togolese people living here and still coming into Accra. And even on campus, we have students who speak French so we want to make sure they also have a chance to use our machine.” — Emannuel Owusu (@emmytray)

After the user has selected their language, they will be prompted to dispose of either plastic water sachets or plastic bottles. Based on the user’s selection, a tray will open for the user to place their waste in. The machine then calculates the weight of the waste received and will ‘ask’ the user if they would like to be rewarded. The machine will then ask if the user would like a monetary reward (in Ghanaian Cedis) or a token which could be used at pariticipating stores. The greater the weight of waste disposed, the higher the reward.

“Incentivization really works for Ghanaians, the student, the market woman, the taxi driver. But some of these people may also decide to abuse this machine by placing heavy bulk waste, living items or bricks in it. The KEEK machine will have built-in sensors and alarms to detect and reject these items immediately. If you put something that is similar to plastic like the styrofoam food containers, the machine will accept it but you still will not be rewarded.” — Emmanuel Owusu

The waste collected from users will be stored in an underground container made of brick and metal. Team KEEK‘s goal is to partner with commercial recycling & waste collection companies to then remove the waste from the containers.

“Right now, we have people in the city who take their waste to Zoomlion for recycling. Sometimes the money they receive barely covers the cost of their trip there so people become discouraged. The KEEK machine will bridge the gap between these people and the recycling companies.” — Edwin Zeye

Still shot of 3D animation of the KEEK machine

Still shot of 3D animation of the KEEK machine

Team KEEK said they plan to make their machines available to educational institutions, malls and in common areas throughout the Jamestown community,

“We will start with our own campus. We will have three machines, one for Traditional Legon, one for New Legon and one for Private Legon. These are different areas of our campus. We will also target schools because we will be educating the next generation to keep their city clean. The young students who use it can go home and tell their parents about it which will raise awareness.” — Kofi Frimpong

Team KEEK gathers on a Thursday morning to work on improving their project, ahead of the Innovate Ghana Design Challenge (Round 2) where they will compete against Team Oasis and Team Squatterville

Team KEEK gathers on a Thursday morning to work on improving their project, ahead of the Innovate Ghana Design Challenge (Round 2) where they will compete against Team Oasis and Team Squatterville

In December, Team KEEK will go head-to-head with Team Oasis and Team Squatterville to win the chance to begin building out their concept for the machines. Looking back on their first competition and the advice they received from the judges, Richmond Chris-Koka said his team will be ready for their next set of challenges.

“We learned a lot from being in this competition. Our idea is feasible but we want to make it very feasible. We will study similar machines in Norway and America, in more detail. The judges told us to consider the role that the city’s law enforcement can play in our project. We will also have to think about the financing again. Right now, we estimate one KEEK machine to be GHS 12,000. But we need to think about how much it will cost to run education campaigns for our machine. There is also advertising costs.”
— Richmond Chris-Koka

With all the experience they’ve gained, Team KEEK’s members said they are hopeful they will be named champions of this year’s contest. But regardless of the outcome, the team said their desire for a more resilient, environmentally sustainable Accra exceeds winning.

“If we don’t win, we are still going to push forward because we know our idea will make Accra a better place. We will get sponsors. People will come to appreciate recycling. When the people keep the city clean, there is a lower chance of health hazards and waste choking our gutters and causing flooding. And the government won’t have to waste too much money on waste management. That money can be used to solve the other resilience challenges that our city has.” — Emmanuel Owusu