Turning Trash to Treasure: The Nigerian Wonderbag Story

Making the Wonderbag

An encounter can change your life, forever.

In June, 2011, Olutosin Oladosu-Adebowale had one of such encounter. She was a training participant at the Transformation Institute in Kleinmond, Cape Town, South Africa. One of the facilitators demonstrated the use of a cooking bag. That was Tosin’s introduction to the product, however, it reminded her of her mother’s way of keeping food warm.

“The organizer explained to us how we could use it to cook our food and also keep it warm or use it for our cold drinks. I shared how my mother used to keep cooked food in heathen pot well-padded with tailor’s wastes underneath. The food will remain hot for hours.”

When she returned to Ibasa — a riverine community in Lagos where she runs an NGO and works with abused women — she says that the idea sought expression.

“Most women in Ibasa cook with firewood, they cook for their families with firewood.” Ibasa women represent some of the 72 percent of Nigerians that depend solely on firewood for cooking.

Later that year, she made her first cooking bag in Ibasa from Styrofoam. Styrofoam is made from polystyrene, a light weight, petroleum based plastic. It keeps electronics, for instance, safe during shipping; however, it is difficult to discard, especially in Lagos that has challenges with its waste disposal.

Oladosu-Adebowale believes that with the use of Styrofoam, she not only provides a safe cooking alternative, she cleans up the environment. “I came up with the idea of using trash to make treasure,” she says. “We degrade the planet by our waste disposal methods, so using the Styrofoam in making the cooking bag is my way to help reduce environmental waste.”

It takes a lot to make a cooking bag.

First, she and her participants have to source for material, mainly from electronics shops. Next, they process the Styrofoam. “We shred the Styrofoam, the way we shred okra and we design the bag, stuff and sew.”

Styrofoam use comes with its challenges. Some states in the US have banned products made from Styrofoam, effective from 2015. Chronic exposure to Styrene has been said to pose health risks. Styrofoam also causes environmental hazards (it takes 500 years to decompose and heat, by burning — which is the usual method of waste disposal in landfills — causes the styrene to be released). Creating these bags is a moderately safe way to recycle Styrofoam.

Challenges: The River between Turning Trash to Treasure

Oladosu-Adebowale says that it is challenging sourcing for Styrofoam, there are cultural biases against being seen “picking Styrofoam from shops when one is not mad.” It is also difficult to explain to a community that has cooked with firewood all their lives that using a cooking bag is better. “Many of them are even afraid to use a cooking bag, they always ask, how can one cook with a stove that has no fire?”

There are logistic problems. The only way to get to Ibasa is by boat. “It is one of the most challenging tasks I have ever ventured into. It is so hard to transport the raw materials on the sea.” The community is also largely rural, as such it is difficult to get a ready market. “Many of the villagers are not willing to pay. They would rather have us give them the cooking bag for free.”

The NGO has only sold fifteen cooking bags since inception.

The Influence of the Government

In December 2014, the Federal Government of Nigeria announced that as part of the National Clean Cooking Scheme, they would be importing cooking bags — also known as Wonderbags — from South Africa.

Oladosu-Adebowale says that she had not heard about the project prior to that day when the social media was flooded with articles about the proposed importation.

She was however disappointed.

“I would have liked the government to contact us, maybe help scale up our effort. Other countries have supported us, and I did not write a letter to anyone, except for posting pictures of our work on social media.”

In India, she volunteered with Mahila Samakhya Karnataka, in Bangalore, on a project initiated by the government of India. “I had the chance to share my creativity with rural women. 2 tailors were selected from each district in Karnataka and they stayed with me in Bangalore office where I trained the them.”

She believes that Nigeria stands a lot to gain if the cooking bags are made in Nigeria.

“It’s obvious, our women will be engaged and the government can buy directly from the trained women.”

A strategy can ensure that each state of the federation benefits. “Each state can decide to employ these women to train others and make more cooking bags. In a week, I can train 50 women. In a month, I will train 200 women and in a year I can train 2,400 women.”

This will automatically impact the lives of these women who can now have businesses from making the bags. “1800 women will have their businesses in Nigeria and these women if they are contracted by their state government can make 1000 cooking bags each.”

When it comes to the environment, if the project is done locally, Oladosu-Adebowale cannot quantify how much Styrofoam will be used, she says with excitement, “We will use all the new Styrofoam in Nigeria.”

Importing Waste to Clean the Environment?

The contract is reported to have been awarded to Messrs Integra Renewable Energy Services Limited to the sum of N9, 287, 250, 000.00 inclusive of VAT, with a delivery period of 12 weeks. This is unfortunate for a government that is a champion for local content especially when the bags can be made in Nigeria.

Styrofoam is banned in most countries largely because it is difficult to dispose. By importing bags made from Styrofoam, isn’t the government importing waste to clean up the environment?

Wondering if she is bothered about possible allegations of intellectual property from Wonderbag makers, she insists that they will be glad with how much the local women have achieved. Despite the challenges, she says that she will not be deterred. She will continue to work and rid the environment of trash one cooking bag at a time; she will also continue to empower local women by turning more trash into treasure.

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