As the sun beats down on a traditional loom in Burkina Faso's morning heat, a curious shiny material starts to emerge. Not your usual cotton texture, the weft criss-crosses over-and-under, and the woven product is smooth and sparkling.
Damien Lankoande, coordinator of the NEERE group, which means 'clean' or 'pretty' in Mooré, the local language, explains why. Sitting outside the small workshop in Koudougou--a two-hour drive west of Burkina Faso's capital Ouagadougou--he says: "It's made from plastic."
"There are many places where you can find plastic waste, yet few realize its potential value," he said. "We see plastic waste as money in transition. We weave it into profitable products, putting value on it. This is how we think differently."
Plastic bags lay scattered along the roads and in fields. "The problem of plastic waste is critical in Burkina Faso," said Lankoande, adding that there is no national integrated management of plastic waste.
The group aims to improve sanitation, while helping women and youth, responsible for the majority of work related to waste management and collection in Burkina Faso, to generate better incomes.
Around 70 women have been taught to loom weave, collect, sort and wash plastic waste strewn around the town. The group is supported by the SWITCH Africa Green Programme, implemented by UN Environment with financial support from the European Union.
Juliette Biao Koudenoukpo, Director and Regional Representative of the UN Environment Africa Office, said:
"Plastic waste in Burkina Faso is a major challenge. Discarded single-use plastic bags and other plastic waste are an eye-sore on the landscape; they block drains, kill livestock and cause other serious environmental problems.
"The women in this group are not only keeping their environment clean, they are also earning an income from it while at the same time creating benefits for the wider community. Until long-term solutions to plastic waste are found, innovative examples like this will continue to be critical to fight plastic pollution."
All the profits generated are divided among members. Sitting under a tree next to two loom weavers and dressed in a matching blue cotton dress, Pakmogda Kansole Heleine is hand-weaving a smaller blue plastic bag.
She has supplemented her income from selling crops to include plastic woven bags since 2008. Now, she has improved her income and she travels to teach other women her weaving skills. They also make butter from the ivory-coloured shea nut and soap for sale.
"My hope is that we become a cooperative, and all Burkina Faso women will know the value of plastic waste. We will create opportunities to make a better income and create our own jobs," she said.
Since starting their work, the women have transformed their environment by recycling 2,400 tonnes of plastic, reducing waste found in dumpsites by as much as a third.
Annual sales have increased from US$1,120 in 2007 to US$5,620 today.
Back in Ouagadougou, another group led by Yassia Savadogo--the Association of Young People in Solidarity for Development and Sanitation, also supported by SWITCH Africa Green--works with 300 women to transform plastic into fabric, suits and hats.
Communities pay around US$1.70 a month to have their household waste collected and sorted into biodegradable waste for compost, and plastic waste for tailoring into suits, bags and even rope for furniture.
"What we are doing is informing people that our waste is an opportunity--we can use it to create jobs and money," explains Savagado.
"Also, 90 per cent of our people in Burkina Faso are farmers. In the north where I am from, communities rely on income from onions, potatoes and other vegetables. Chemical fertilizer is very expensive, so we thought of making organic compost from food waste.
"Compost protects the soil and retains moisture. Onions can be kept for seven months instead of the usual 45 days--so instead of selling them when everyone else is at US$17 a bag, we can keep the onions in the soil and sell them at US$86 when they are scarce again."
Ouedraogo Odile, Chairperson of the group, says they have faced hurdles along the way, and had to try and test different mixes of material and plastic. "People don't yet see the value in plastic, and are reluctant to buy plastic products," she notes.
They also found that using 100 per cent plastic waste was very slippery, and mixing plastic with cotton was found to be more attractive and manageable. In addition, plastic fabric means they must be very careful in the use of the iron, and only wash by hand.
But they are not deterred, and the group is already bringing women and youth income and empowerment. Collectively, the youth and women hire a market garden--which they would not be able to do individually. "We're proud we're turning plastic into fashion," said Odile, and weaving a brighter future other women like her.
The Young Champions of the Earth prize, powered by Covestro, recognizes and celebrates young entrepreneurs making a difference for the environment. The winners for 2019 will be announced in September. Applications open again in January 2020. Stay tuned!