Few heartwarming stories come from Nigeria’s northeast region. In the last three years, the Boko Haram insurgency, poverty, Islamist fundamentalism and youth disenfranchisement have dominated news from the region. But the story of the ecossentials program of the American University of Nigeria is refreshing news for a change.
Early in 2013, the university’s sustainability team trained 26 women from a women development group on how to crochet yarn made from discarded plastic bags into handbags, mats, baskets and various gift items. The non-biodegradable plastic bags are an environmental nightmare and the university’s dormitories, shops and offices generate several, daily.
Now, rather than add to the already fragile ecosystem in the region, the plastic bags are cleaned and weaved by the local women into beautiful, colorful products. The products are then sold at shops, hotels and events and the money goes straight into the pockets of the women.
Jennifer Che, administrator of sustainability programs at the university said the project has had profound impacts on the lives of the women and their families. Several of the women, she said, have used money from sales of the product to send their children back to school and buy needed medicine. “It is not pocket money, it is real money,” she said.
One of the women, Ma Elizabeth James said the project has changed her life. Her husband died from liver problems leaving her to fend for herself and seven children. When she heard about the program through a local women’s group, she decided to give it a go. “The money from the products has helped me to pay for my children’s school fees, buy food and pay for my diabetes medicine,” she said.
The quality of the products is remarkable and sales keep improving. Che said the university’s sustainability team is working on expanding the program and building a website to showcase the products to a larger clientele.
The project has profoundly empowered local women, previously excluded socially and economically in a male-dominated society. It scores multiple goals for the society, for peace and for the environment. The women now have a renewed sense of purpose. Their children have access to education, thus limiting their chances of falling for extremist ideologies. In addition, the environment is preserved from non-biodegradable plastic bags. It is a win-win-win story.