Building Dignity — Brick by Brick

9 min readOct 13, 2021

By Kidus Fisaha Asfaw, Co-Founder & CEO of Kubik

Sitting on the couch in my parent’s living room in Addis Ababa, my dad and I quietly settle into the subtle hum of the rush hour noise from Bole Road — one of the city’s major transportation arteries. As we both drift in and out of our late afternoon siesta, I suddenly snap into the realization that just 50 meters away there is a river; how come I can’t hear it anymore? Is it even there?

I spring up from my slumber and walk over to take a look, and what I see is devastating.

What was once a roaring stream of water filled with kids taking late afternoon dips and others doing laundry, has now been depleted to a trickle of toxic-like amber fluid and heaps of plastic trash. The kids and laundry goers are no longer there. This is the trigger for why I started Kubik.

Kubik is a company that turns plastic waste into low-carbon, low-cost buildings in emerging markets. We see a future where plastic waste can be eliminated and Giga tons of green house gas emissions avoided by making durable and affordable building materials.

Over the past two decades, economically poor countries like my home country Ethiopia, have been growing and urbanizing at an incredible pace. Skyscrapers, highways, massive industrial parks, and new shops on every corner have characterized the image of African development. This is good; this means poor countries are collectively getting richer.

But there is a darker side to this story.

Trashy growth. Informal waste collector in Addis Ababa’s largest municipal landfill.

More Growth, More Problems

The dirty and trash-filled stream near my parents’ house in Addis Ababa is merely a microcosm of a much larger problem caused by the lack of proper waste management. Rapidly urbanizing cities across Africa produce over 70 million tons of unmanaged plastic waste each year. These are plastics found in landfills, if we are lucky, and in rivers and streets when we are not.

Beyond the unsightliness, this waste has direct linkages to our health. Unmanaged plastic waste is a fertile breeding grounds for mosquitos that spread malaria. It also causes blocked sewage systems which greatly increases the risk of diarrhea. Malaria and diarrhea are the biggest killers of children around the world.

Booming construction projects — big and small — are also choking the air. This was clearly evident when I washed my face after a walk with my dad and saw the pool of brown water in the sink.

Since the 1990’s, the carbon footprint of African countries has increased by a whopping 123%; and it continues to grow. Beyond the fact that concrete contributes as the leading cause of climate change, a quick trip into the suburbs of most African cities will show you that homemade brick kilns and mega factories are sending plumes of unhealthy smoke into the air. Continuously expanding city limits and endless cranes constructing another skyscraper for new city dwellers shows that the pace of urbanization is not slowing any time soon.

If you zoom out from the modern skyscrapers and expanding highway systems, you see a constellation of unplanned shanty towns where the majority of new city dwellers live. This is not by choice.

Makoko community in Lagos, Nigeria. Over 13 million of its residents are urban poor.

Finally, there is the ever increasing cost of living. On my last trip to Addis, I spoke to Selamawit, a waitress at a local cafe. I learned that she makes close to 4,000 Ethiopian Birr (including tip) in a good month. At first, this sounded like a good living to me. I remember just a decade ago, someone in a similar job would earn about 500 Birr a month. However, once I asked some more questions about her living situation, her story took on a more somber tone now very familiar to conversations with Africans across the continent.

Selamawit’s salary has definitely increased, but inflation has outpaced her income to a point where she was much better off a decade ago. A mother of two, she lived in a small one bedroom house with her husband and mother-in-law in the outskirts of Addis Ababa. Half her monthly income goes to rent, groceries then take over the rest of her income. There have been times when she and her husband have had to cut down to one meal a day to ensure their kids did not skip meals. Simply put, life is hard and it only keeps getting harder.

Affordable housing is scarce in growing cities around the world, and Selamawit’s story is echoed across the continent and beyond. In the next 10 years, 100 million more homes will be needed across Africa. This, coupled with an annual gap of $170 billion in infrastructure investments, means that the affordability and availability of construction and building materials will be key to unlocking the cycle of urban poverty for the hundreds of millions of Selamawits in Africa and beyond.

A Cycle of Hope: An Origin Story

It was April 2018, I was working for UNICEF and I was in Prague attending a conference. I got a call from my long time mentor and friend, Aboubacar Kampo, who was then the head of UNICEF in Côte d’Ivoire. He did not waste a breathe when I answered his call.

“Kidus, where are you? I need you in Abidjan (capital of Côte d’Ivoire) immediately.”

“Erm. Ok. But I am in Prague right now.”

“Ok, good. I will have your flight rerouted to stop by Abidjan. I just need a day from you.”

After our usual “you are crazy” and “trust me” banters, I knew I had no choice but to go.

After 21 hours and two layovers, Abou was right behind the immigration counter to pick me up. We hopped into the car, and we went straight to Gonzagouville Elementary School.

Facing a seemingly ordinary classroom, Abou asked me with pride, “What do you think?”

I was unimpressed. Did this guy just make me take a day-long flight to see a school?

“Abou, it looks beautiful, but I don’t get it. It’s just a classroom.”

“Not just a classroom my friend, this is 5 tons of trash. Plastic trash. This is made of trash, Kidus. This beautiful classroom is plain trash.”

It was clear to me that what Abou and his team had started was groundbreaking.

From trash to classroom. After Abou showed me this, my purpose in UNICEF changed. Abidjan 2018.

Abidjan, like Addis and all other rapidly urbanizing cities face many of the same challenges. Many are unable to afford the increasing cost of living, pollution and unmanaged waste cause health issues, and cost-effective ways to build are urgently needed. Instead of tackling these problems individually, we need to find a system that can tackle these interlinked issues; this system is to take plastic waste and make building materials.

Over the coming months, I worked with Abou’s team to get this project up and running in Côte d’Ivoire. We raised money from a generous donor, helped the social enterprise behind the plastic bricks to set up a factory in Abidjan, and got the government to commit to building over 500 classrooms from these plastic bricks. The project was a roaring success. There was a deluge of international media coverage — we even built a model classroom at the UN General Assembly! But from the moment the project took off, one question was on my mind — how do we scale this?

Building for Scale

Two things were going well in Côte d’Ivoire — a great product and a great sponsor (UNICEF). But if this work was to expand beyond Côte d’Ivoire and do more than build schools, the business model had to change.

The questions in my mind were:

  1. Could UNICEF build a joint venture to scale this to its other country offices?
  2. Could we generate demand beyond UNICEF?
  3. Should UNICEF be a consumer or a producer of this product? Should it be both?

After grappling with these questions and piloting varying ideas, the answer was pretty clear. UNICEF has incubated an innovative product and generated demand for it, but only a for-profit company could efficiently scale and evolve this product. Unfortunately, this company did not exist.

While several groups — including the one we supported in Côte d’Ivoire — had products that transformed plastic to bricks, none had a model that could go to scale. Some focused on becoming non-profit organizations and depending on donor grants. Others focused only on exporting their European product (making it cost prohibitive and defeating the purpose using local plastic waste). Most also priced their product above the cost of commonly used building materials. None have defined their fit within real-estate and construction industries due to their size and scope of business.

As a consumer of this product, and with first hand knowledge of the incredible demand across the world, I found it hard to drop the idea. Others close to me found it hard too. This is when we decided to do this on our own.

Laying the Foundation

When I first met Penda Marre, she had left her successful construction company in Texas to help support UNICEF’s plastic-to-schools project in Côte d’Ivoire. Penda, a French-Senegalese powerhouse, believes that Africa needs more of its own who are willing to make personal sacrifices to come back home and make a difference. This passion, coupled with her ability and tenacity to navigate uncertain business environments and convoluted bureaucracies, and her industrial operations experience make Penda a natural co-founder of Kubik.

We’ve cultivated a small but critical group of advisors that tap into worlds of environmental philanthropy, venture capital, product design, and public policy. The likes of Erica Kochi, co-founder of UNICEF Innovation and a Time 100 Most Influential Person; Samuel Alemayehu, founder of Ethiopia’s first waste-to-energy company and a WEF Young Global Leader; Naza Alakija, environmental philanthropist and government relations advisor; and George Joseph, former design lead for IDEO — the world’s premier design studio.

This team helps us craft and refine our business model and connects us to governments, investors, and industry specialists who stress test our ideas.

Once we got the ball rolling, it was clear Kubik was ready to deliver on our dream to tackle the three most critical issues in growing as a country — waste, pollution, and affordable buildings.

A Dignified Future

It has only been a month and Kubik is roaring ahead. We are near to closing our pre-seed funding round, negotiations in four countries are underway, and our team is starting to grow.

The next year will be critical. We need to choose which country to start with and find the right partners to work with. Our products need to be responsive to needs of our markets. Such decisions keep us up late into the night, but our obsession to ask the right questions give us the comfort that we are headed in the right direction.

Kubik’s goal is to rethink the role of making buildings while ridding plastic from the environment and tackling climate change. This clear mission will get Kubik planning for scale, investing in product innovation, and stimulating real estate sectors to think more about sustainable construction not only as an environmental duty but a profitable business model.

When Selamawit brought my receipt, I asked her how she would feel living in a house made of trash. She was confused, but very politely responded with a “I don’t think I would want that.”

I then pulled out a picture of our first classroom in Gonzagouville Elementary School and asked her if she would send her kids to this kind of school. With lit up eyes she said, “This is beautiful. Of course!”

Once I told Selamawit that the school was made from trash and very affordable to make, she paused for a second and then said, “If there is one gift I can give to my kids, it is dignity. You would be bringing dignity to my kids if you build our home and their schools like this.”

From my early days at Google, to my time at the World Bank and then with UNICEF, empathy has been the key to deliver products and services that change people’s lives for the better. Kubik’s success rides on empathy. Having listened to many like Selamawit, Kubik’s goal is simple — bring dignity.

No better place to build user empathy than in UNICEF. Kids always tear apart your assumptions on what they need. Making friends with a toddler who’s only concern was how to get a hold of his brother’s football. Near Yamasukro, Cote d’Ivoire 2019




Turning plastic waste into low-carbon, low-cost buildings.