When she was a child, Intissar Bashir-Kurfi used to ride her bicycle on the tree-filled campus of Ahmadu Bello University, Zaria. Even then, she was interested in her surroundings. When they went to their village, out in the tropical heat, she asked why mud houses were cool inside, why the ground and trees felt the way they did. It was as though she wanted to protect the world around her. Today, as the 28-year-old whose ecological sustainability firm, Ifrique Eco Solutions, and its social responsibility subsidiary, Sustainovation Solutions, are at the forefront of the fight to preserve the environment in Abuja, Intissar laughs recalling the memories. “It was a fun childhood,” she tells me on the phone. “That’s when I learned about what is changing in our urban and rural areas.”
Last month, Intissar was featured on BBC Pidgin for her project: collecting nylon and converting them to interlocking tiles. Her mission to adopt eco-friendly materials began in her undergraduate days in Zaria, where her thesis, in architecture, compared on-campus buildings erected from the 1960s onwards, assessing their compliance to sustainability. “After my National Youth Service, I learned about the UN SDGs,” she says. The Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) include clean water and sanitation, affordable and clean energy, and sustainable cities and communities. “I felt like I was called,” she adds. “I felt like they were for me.”
Four years on, the idea solidified. Her interior designs company had organized a summer camp, as part of its Corporate Social Responsibility, and on a visit to a Fulani community in Gwarimpa, Abuja, Intissar found that the villagers had no electricity, no drinking water, no toilets. “We were thinking of a borehole but what we raised was not enough,” she says. “There’s a big drainage they use, and they complained that the children had diarrhoea and typhoid. So we dug a well. We also got eco-friendly cooking stoves and solar lamps for their houses and mosque.” It was this experience that led her to co-found Sustainovation Solutions, with two of her colleagues, Nura Adji and Wajim Nuhu. With her focus shifted and her vision clear, she adjusted her designs business, Ifrique Collections and Designs, into the eco sustainability operation it now is.
Intissar had taken note of the amount of dirt on the streets of Abuja, a city producing 1,191 tons of waste daily, and was bothered by the consequent blockage of drainage, by nylon, and the resultant flooding in the rainy season. She began research: nylon’s durable properties made it recyclable into something of utility, like interlock tiles. Of the 32 million tons of solid waste generated annually in Nigeria, nylon constitutes a bulk. For two years, she tried to get the idea formalized. “We were doing trials and error, we couldn’t commercialize it,” she says. “It was just on a very low scale, like two, three tiles.” Then, last year, she had a breakthrough.
When she first went out to source for nylon, people poked fun at her. “In Hausa, the scavengers, they call them babanbola, so some people were joking and calling me mamanbola,” she says. “Even my daughter, she was saying, ‘Mummy, you have become mamanbola,’ and I told her, ‘You, you are the daughter of mamanbola.’ Any time my children see nylon, they will say, ‘Mummy, they have dropped nylon for you.’” She moved her sourcing of nylon between the streets, where most of the material was beyond use, and the supermarkets and sachet water factories, where she got clean ones.
The sourcing of the nylon material was only the first step. After that was the sorting, cleaning, and drying. Then the melting in a drum of fire, then the mixing with sand. Then she put them in moulds and put them out to dry. Because she cannot yet afford major equipment, her staff, wearing coveralls, gloves, and masks, do these with shovels. Each tile takes 500 pieces—one kg of nylon—to make, and is customizable, in colour and shape.
But the model needs financing. “I have asked so many people I know are influential who have the resources to start off the business,” Intissar tells me. “I told them it would have impact, but most of them, that’s not what they want to invest in, they just kept mute about it.”
In the meantime, she is talking to young people, providing the next generation with the impetus to lead in saving their environment. “At the summer camp, we told them about the SDGs, and about biogas, using agricultural waste to make briquettes, eco-friendly cooking stoves, and we showed them our interlocking tiles,” she explains. This February, she went to a secondary school in Gwarimpa and inaugurated an SDG Club. The students brought her bags of nylon and, as encouragement, she gave them solar-powered lamps for reading. “It’s to make them aware of what is happening and of the dangers of plastic,” she says. “We will have a good plan for them, in terms of paying school fees and other incentives that will benefit them.”
At the theoretical stage is another eco-friendly plan: using sand-filled plastic bottles to build houses, laying them as blocks are laid; with sand inside, the bottles are insulating, bulletproof, and adaptive to weather. “The same thermal comfort that a mud building gives,” Intissar says. “We will also use them to build toilets where they don’t have any, like in the community in Gwarimpa.” There are, according to UNICEF, up to 46 million Nigerians with no choice than to practice open defecation.
Intissar hopes to convert all nylon waste in the country to tiles. “They can be used immediately,” she says. “For normal tiles, you have to wait 28 days. If normal tiles can last for ten years, this one can stay for 30 years. It stops weed from growing between the cracks, and in the salt water areas, it doesn’t wear off.” Soon, she will work on a pilot nylon road for the Federal Roads Maintenance Agency (FERMA). “That’s what they use in India and some European countries,” she says. “It’s better than normal coal tar.”
Otosirieze Obi-Young is a Nigerian writer, editor, journalist, and curator. As Editor of Folio Nigeria, he profiles innovators and facilitators in culture: business, art, photography, music, activism, health, food. He has extensive experience working in the African literary scene. He is currently the chair of judges for The Gerald Kraak Prize, Africa’s only award for social justice, sexuality, and gender, and he was a judge for The Morland Scholarship, Africa’s biggest grant. He was an editor at 14, Nigeria's first queer art collective, and Curator at The Art Naija Series, a sequence of e-anthologies exploring different aspects of Nigerianness. From late 2016 to early 2020, he led the transformation of the literary blog Brittle Paper to a standard platform, creating and administering The Brittle Paper Awards, the first by an African publication. His work in queer visibility advocacy has been profiled in Literary Hub. In 2019, he won the inaugural The Future Awards Africa Prize for Literature. In 2020, he was named among "The 100 Most Influential Young Nigerians" by Avance Media. He completed a collection of short stories in 2016 and his novel in 2020. He has an MA in African studies from the University of Nigeria, Nsukka. From 2017 to 2018, he taught English at Godfrey Okoye University, Enugu. Find him on otosirieze.com or on Twitter & Insta: @otosirieze.