OUAGADOUGOU, Burkina Faso (WOMENSENEWS)–The little doll fits nicely into Miriam Koala’s hand as she passes it over to a customer. The black body is offset by a white wedding dress; Koala made the little bride by hand.
It’s just a small trinket–sold mostly to tourists–but it represents a growing initiative to combine environmental preservation with employment creation in the impoverished West African nation of Burkina Faso.
The doll is crocheted from a plastic yarn spun from black and white plastic bags that once littered the ground and are now finding their way to upscale U.S. boutiques.
The first shipment of products was shipped about a month ago and is expected to be on shelves and available at online stores by early fall.
Under the auspices of the Houet Women’s Action Group for Economic Reliance, an umbrella organization of 117 women’s groups in the southwest region of Burkina Faso, about 40 women work to collect and clean scores of plastic bags, then turn them into artistic creations for sale.
For many of the women working in the collective, craft-making has become the only source of money-making. Many of the women are widows and single mothers who have come together to find ways to support their families in a country where incomes average around $1,200 annually.
In a booth at an artisans’ center on the outskirts of the capital city shoppers can watch the handicrafts being made; scissors in Christiane Lamizana’s hand slice easily through black plastic.
Lamizana says members of the collective came up with the idea four years ago after seeing the litter-clogged streets of Bobo-Dioulasso, the Burkina town where the group is headquartered.
Goats Were Eating Plastic
Across Africa, women are becoming more involved in environmental initiatives, spurred on by role models such as Wangari Maathai’s Green Belt Movement, which started in Kenya to encourage women to plant trees and expanded into other African countries.
In 2004, Maathai brought environmental activism in Africa to the forefront, winning the Nobel Prize for Peace and encouraging other women and girls to take the lead in environmental protection. She also created economic opportunity for women as she paid them to reforest Kenya.
Here, women were worried about the mysterious deaths of their goats. When they realized their animals were munching on the plastic bags and dying shortly after, they decided to do something to clean up the filth.
Traveling across West Africa, it’s easy to tell when you’re coming to a town or city: the spindly brown trees become decorated with plastic bags like Christmas tree tinsel. Caught in shrubs and on fences, the bags clog sewers and water sources. They are ubiquitous; simple plastic bags are handed out with practically every purchase at a market stall or container shop.
Unlike in the United States–where the same litter is often visible but where waste bins and recycling are common–streets in many West African cities are devoid of garbage bins and there are few street cleaning crews to collect the waste.
They’re annoying, and as the women of Burkina’s second-biggest city, Bobo-Dioulasso, were finding out, dangerous to their livestock.
A member of the collective heard about a woman in neighboring Benin who was using those plastic bags to crochet small trinkets. Creating another collective under the already-wide umbrella of the Houet Women’s Action Group for Economic Reliance–the women started by learning the crocheting themselves, then took it a step further, Lamizana says.
Working at the Factory
The weavers gather at a small factory in Bobo-Dioulasso, where the plastic bags are brought and washed, cut into strips then twisted into tight yarn before being woven on looms to make purses, briefcases and clothing.
Lamizana also showed off a washing board, formed from melted plastic and molded into a typical, if old-fashioned, board. At their booth in the Village Artisanal de Ouagadougou, their main clientele are browsing tourists, who will pay a few dollars for the smaller items and $20 or more for a large bag.
Women at the collective’s headquarters in Bobo-Dioulasso, where most of the products are made, have gotten the whole community involved in picking up the bags.
The group pays up to $1.25 for a large sack stuffed with plastic bags. Plenty of children and teens bring in the trash for the women, who then take it through a thorough cleaning and disinfecting process, Lamizana says.
Another group of women are responsible for cutting the plastic into strips, and each woman has their specialty area. Lamizana, for instance, weaves; Koala crochets.
Lamizana says since the recycling project started in 2003, it’s made a noticeable dent in the amount of bags blowing around town as people save their bags and turn them into the collective’s factory.
Their creations meanwhile caught the eye of the West Africa Trade Hub, a project funded by the U.S. Agency for International Development to open up trade opportunities for African businesses.
Exporting Dolls to the West
Last year seven product buyers mostly from the United States showed interest in the products, says Elitza Barzakova, the hub’s export business development advisor based in Accra, Ghana.
Leslie Mittleberg, founder of the Oregon-based Swahili Imports, recently received an order of about $3,000 worth of products including dolls, change purses, passport holders and bracelets.
They will be offered to buyers at summer trade shows and will likely start appearing on shelves in the fall. Her usual buyers are about 2,000 boutiques, stores and museum shops in the United States, Canada and Japan, and Swahili’s two stores in Eugene and Portland.
Mittleberg says there’s a growing demand from younger consumers in their 20s and 30s for recycled products that are “funky and unusual.”
“There’s this big movement for recycling,” she says. “Over the last two years people like to have a product that is natural fiber or (made from) recycled materials.”
And artisans in Africa are starting to realize that.
“They’re just being told it over and over again,” she says.
Recycled plastic products are also being made in Kenya and Ghana’s recycled glass products have grown in popularity too, Mittleberg says.
Mittleberg estimates a doll would retail for around $18.
Barzakova said online retailer The Hunger Site has put in an order, too.
The purses and other carriers–often basic black with colored highlights–are tapping into a small but growing niche market of products with a story behind them, Barzakova says.
Few artisans have yet discovered the potential profits in that sector. “I don’t think they realize it to the full extent,” she says. “They’re getting there.”
Emily Bowers is a freelance journalist based in Accra, Ghana.
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