Operations at Close the gap's circular economy HUB during COVID-19

July 2020

Close the Gap is a social enterprise with the ambitious aim of bridging the digital divide in the Global South. The objective of the original non-profit is to offer pre-owned computers donated by European companies to a range of social-impact projects in emerging and developing countries all over the world. The projects span from medical to educational realms and provide not just the tools, but educational momentum in helping clients realize personal potential.

The opening of the Kenyan chapter in September, 2019 was an exciting step. By setting up a for-profit, impact-first social enterprise branch in Kenya, the new model could work concurrently with the original non-profit entity as a hybrid organization. Operations in both Nairobi and Mombasa provide Close the Gap the opportunity to hire locals and develop a production facility, thus increasing its impact on the ground. Even in the midst of the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, Close the Gap has managed to maintain a flow of equipment while abiding by social distancing measures.

The opening of operational facilities in Nairobi contributes to Kenya’s national goal of transitioning to a manufacturer mindset– incidentally, one of President Uhuru Kenyatta’s top five priorities. For years, the whole world has known that East Africa, specifically Kenya, boasts great digital potential. But few companies have ventured to explore opportunities on the continent.

The relatively new operational facility in Nairobi brings in shipments of computers from Europe, mainly Belgium. Close the Gap’s small yet close-knit team works at this facility to take inventory and refurbish second hand computers. Clients may also drop in for direct purchases. Close the Gap works to ensure that clients receive the desktops or laptops best suited for their needs. Since arriving in Kenya, Close the Gap has been collaborating with several organizations on the ground, including Computers for Schools Kenya (CFSK).

CFSK, already a major distributor of refurbished computers in Kenya, has been a long-time partner of Close the Gap. This is evident in Close the Gap setting up their Circular Economy Hub in CFSK’s compound to continue fostering this close-knit relationship. Both look forward to growing together in the future.

Close the Gap’s circular economy model aims to eliminate waste and reuse available resources. This continual use of resources involves sharing, repairing, refurbishing, remanufacturing, and recycling which make up a closed-loop system– it is one of the most sustainable and green models out there. Close the Gap takes old computers off the hands of European donors, who would otherwise need to acquire special dumping or recycling permits for retired units. The desktops and laptops are then inspected and refurbished by skilled staff in preparation for global distribution.

Close the Gap’s circular economy model aims to eliminate waste and reuse available resources.

At the Nairobi facility, units or parts that have reached the end of their life cycles are recycled or bought by waste companies. The system was carefully developed with the intention of designing waste out of the typical take-make-waste extractive cycle. Any additional waste, generally in the form of plastic odds and ends, are bought by local companies. This model gradually decouples economic activity away from consumption of finite resources. Close the Gap sets an excellent example in redefining growth without losing sight of positive, community-oriented benefits.

getting communities involved and excited about their own development process.

Before the onset of COVID-19, Close the Gap planned to launch a co-working space (8,675 square feet in total) that would help re-energize a legacy shopping mall in Mombasa– Close the Gap Hub. No such space currently exists on the Kenyan coast. The decision to have headquarters based in Mombasa is a brave yet much-needed boost for the local coastal economy. The fostering of the Hub would expand on Close the Gap’s internal circular economy, and is also in line with CTG’s goals: getting communities involved and excited about their own development process.

Unfortunately, COVID-19 has put a hold on the Hub project for now. CTG’s business manager, Ngosa Mupela, is currently developing an incremental opening plan to launch the Hub whenever a lift on lockdown directives allows for it. The greatest concerns are how social-distancing would work in the co-working space, and whether people would be eager or hesitant to make use of a communal space in the wake of a pandemic.

When Close the Gap first took root in Kenya last year, there was no real need for marketing, given the existing client base that CFSK helped to provide. However, inevitable slow-downs in demand are anticipated as economies stall. Close the Gap is currently brain-storming ways to expand its marketing reach. Past clients include the following: Transfer-it, Jijenge Schools (a data training school), a local Jesuit refugee school, UN Kakuma refugee camp, CFS Computer School in Uganda, and Affordable Computer and Technology in Tanzania. Given the relative downtime that this pandemic provides, Close the Gap is working on drawing up a client list to reach out to once the lockdown lifts and the normal pace of business resumes.

Despite the uncertainties brought about by COVID-19, the Close the Gap team, spearheaded by operational manager Tim Wachira, remains hopeful in developing strategies to maintain momentum. The team is thankful for additional support from CFSK workers Robert and Norman, who have been instrumental in day-to-day operational duties.

Robert is a graduate of Jomo Kenyatta University, where he studied business and Information Technologies. His internship at CFSK, where he helped with development processes such as computer maintenance and repairs in local schools, led him to his present role at Close the Gap.

Norman is another CFSK employee who has been working regularly with Close the Gap since the COVID-19 outbreak to bolster operational capacity.

The team is thankful for additional support from CFSK workers Robert and Norman, who have been instrumental in day-to-day operational duties.

The beautiful thing about this particular circular economy model is that its effects can be seen in real-time. Close the Gap’s business model encompasses the 3 core concepts of social responsibility: innovation, entrepreneurship, and sustainability. 

The long term goals of such projects illustrate a desire to build structures that last, and can benefit everyone from farmers and entrepreneurs to students and communities.

In early June, a client from Chwele Sub-County Hospital, took the long 8-hour drive from Eldoret to Nairobi to pick up 10  desktop computers. Close the Gap wants money to be as little of a limiting factor as possible, and offers discounts to other impact organizations. 

Close the Gap has further plans to work with the Waste Electrical and Electronic Equipment Center (WEEE Centre), which was also newly instated in 2004. The WEEE Centre is a social enterprise that focuses on safe and environmentally friendly disposal of all electrical and electronic waste. Its services help raise awareness and training of the possibilities behind e-Waste disposal. When Close the Gap is able to fully work in tandem with the WEEE Centre, the economy will fully be circular within the compounds in Nairobi.

Close the Gap is currently backed by the generous support of RVO, the Netherlands Enterprise Agency, which is an international programme that supports various companies with “international ambitions in emerging markets and developing countries,” amongst other such social enterprises.

Close the Gap is in the process of applying for another grant from the DOEN Foundation, another Dutch government enterprise that aims to aid the transition of a green and innovative economy. If awarded, the DOEN grant would either support the launch of further activities focused on the coast, or be presented in the form of a convertible grant that would transition into a loan depending on profitability metrics.

As it is for all startups, time is the greatest limiting factor of all. While money from the EU allows for subsidies, the decision to merge the for-profit and nonprofit will hopefully enable Close the Gap to be wholly self-sustainable. If Close the Gap can pull through COVID-19, however long it takes, it is a good sign that this resourceful company can tackle all sorts of problems and conflicts thrown its way.

Close the Gap’s business model encompasses the 3 core concepts of social responsibility: innovation, entrepreneurship, and sustainability.