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Trash to fashion

March 5, 2013

An initiative in Burkina Faso is tying together eco protection with women's empowerment. The group fashions skirts and handbags from used plastic bags. The proceeds go towards improving the lives of the seamstresses.

Material made from colorful plastic
Plastic trash is being spun into exquisite fabric by a recycling center in Burkina FasoImage: GAFREH

Ireland’s first female president and former United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, Mary Robinson made an impassioned plea for the climate in South Africa in November of last year.

“We have to change the narrative on climate change if we are going to have the urgency and ambitions that we need,” she said. “What do we do to get that urgency and ambition? We make climate more people-centered; that means women-centered.”

Development aid has long been focused on men, who often control the family’s finances. But in recent years, experts have increasingly realized that’s been a mistake and charities and aid groups are trying to counter it by providing targeted help to women.

Some 70 percent of the poorest people across the world are women, the UN estimates. But when women contribute to the family’s monthly income, they invest at least 80 percent of their earnings into paving a better future for themselves, their children and their communities.

Many believe that women are more likely to take care of the future of the planet because the fairer sex is still overwhelmingly responsible for caring and bringing up their children.

“Women are much more creative when they are on the verge of a precipice,” Yolanda Kakabadse, president of the World Wide Fund for Nature, said at the Rio +20 conference in 2012.

Women the better borrowers?

It’s no wonder, then, that donors in industrialized countries are now targeting women for aid projects. On Kiva, an online platform for microcredit loans, users can choose whether they would like to loan money to women or men.

“Loans to women tend to fund more quickly than loans to men,” Jason Riggs, a Kiva spokesman, says. „Kiva has a 98 percent repayment rate and 80 percent of the borrowers posted on Kiva are women. Given this combination of factors, women are clearly responsible borrowers.”

Research backs up that assertion, too. A 2011 study that examined data from 350 microfinance institutions in 70 countries showed that women are more prudent with their loans and are more likely to pay them back. And an earlier study from 2009 suggested that microcredit given to women in turn strengthens their rights.

That probably is linked to the fact that women, especially in developing countries, often tend to join microfinance groups where they provide support to each other. That encouragement from other women is just as important as the loan itself, and often spurs them to become active.

A perfect example of this kind of cooperation is GAFREH, which stands for Groupe d’Action des Femmes pour la Relance Economique du Houet. It’s an initiative based in Houet Province in French-speaking Burkina Faso.

An overflowing trash bin
It’s not hard to find plastic waste in AfricaImage: CC/Zainub Razvi

The group’s best project to date is a recycling center for plastic bags. In the country’s second biggest city, Bobo-Dioulasso, GAFREH provides many women with work, incomes and confidence – not to mention the chance to create modern, hip fashion.

From the streets to boutiques

The plastic recycling project kicked off on March 4, 2003, with just six women working full-time. By the end of the same year, the number had grown to 18. Today, 85 women work at the center.

They give the plastic bags a thorough wash and cut them into thin strips that are either woven on a loom and processed into solids to make bags, or they are knitted or crocheted like wool.

Most of the time, the women sit under the open sky and work in the center’s courtyard. They skillfully crochet colorful fruit bowls and pink drop-shaped earrings. And, spin out elegant outfits, from a sleek black skirt with matching blazer to traditional patterns and colors and classic handbags. Black is the dominant color simply because most of the plastic bags found in Burkina Faso are dark.

Most of the raw material is sourced on the streets of Burkina Faso since there’s no dearth of plastic trash. In 2010, the women at the center processed over 14 tons of raw material.

Three women wash plastic bags in big vats
Women from GAFREH give the trash a thorough washImage: GAFREH

“And we could increase that amount even further if we sold more products,” Khady Traore, secretary at the recycling center in Bobo-Dioulasso, says. Though the center has its own boutique, most of the products are exported to Europe and the US. Customers place orders by email or a few groups buy the products and sell them in France, Austria or Germany.

Khady says the women work hard, not only for their incomes but also to protect the environment that they so dearly depend upon. "They are hit hard by the deforestation that’s taking place because there isn’t enough wood to feed the fire in the kitchen,“ she says, adding that’s what explains why women tend to be more sensitive to environmental problems.

‘A distant memory’

The chance to earn a regular income has also made a huge difference. The work in the center, say many women, have given them a renewed purpose in life. “Before the recycling center,“ says one woman, who didn’t want to be named, "most of us did nothing and lived in squalor. Thanks to the center I can now feed my family. Earlier, there were days when there was nothing to eat at home.“

Plastic bags hung out to dry
The bags are dried in the sun in the back of the recycling centerImage: GAFREH

The workers are paid per product, and they earn on average some 24,000 Swiss Francs per week – the equivalent of 37 Euros. That alone has significantly improved the lives of the women at the center.

"I can clothe my children well, I can pay for electricity that we didn’t have before and I can make little gifts for my kids. I’m even able to save a little bit,“ says another woman. "Earlier, my children were thrown out of school because we couldn’t pay the fees. But that’s all a distant memory now that I work at the recycling center.“

A bowl made of plastic
The plastic bags are also turned into fruit bowlsImage: GAFREH

Though the recycling center is GAFREH’s flagship project, it’s certainly not the only one: the organization oversees 117 initiatives involving more than 5,000 women. They do everything from producing soap and dye to working on restoration projects.

GAFREH also provides literacy courses and provides family planning seminars for their workers. And when needed, the organization even distributes microcredit loans for its members – it’s an investment GAFREH knows will certainly pay off.

Author: Laura Hennemann /ss
Editor: Sonia Phalnikar