Women entrepreneurs in Assam, India turned “garbage into treasure” environmental news

New Delhi, India – As the world is struggling to cope with the alarming amount of plastic waste and its environmental impact, a woman in Assam, in northeastern India, came up with a new idea to solve this problem while also helping poor women earn a living. .

47-year-old Rupjyoti Saikia Gogoi lives near Kaziranga National Park, a major tourist attraction in Assam, home to the world’s largest one-horned rhino, in addition to thousands of elephants, Tigers, panthers, bears and exotic birds.

In 1985, the national park was included in the UNESCO World Heritage List.

Gogi and the women in her collective Village Weaves collect garbage left by tourists—plastic bottles, potato chip bags, and water bottles—hand wash and dry them, and then use it to make handloom products.

The company was established in 2004 and has so far helped more than 2,300 women in 35 villages in Assam to empower, while also reducing plastic pollution around national parks.

“Millions of tourists visit Gaziranga every year, and many of them leave piles of trash,” Gogoi said.

“Although littering is forbidden, plastic bags can be seen everywhere, which is not only an eyesore, but also dangerous to the animals they choke on.”

Gogoi, center, tourists outside her gift shop [Courtesy of Rupjyoti Saikia Gogoi]

Gogoi’s husband Binod works for a local wildlife protection non-profit organization and shares her concerns about the threat of plastic waste to the environment and animals.

The couple said that they discussed the issue and “proposed a three-pronged solution—disposing of waste, recycling in an environmentally friendly way, and empowering local women.”

Gogoi said that after several months of experimenting, she stumbled upon a feasible plan to use the waste creatively.

“At first, I tried to use only plastic to make different objects. But it didn’t work. Then I tried other types of materials. Finally, only after I mixed the plastic with cotton could I create a durable and flexible one. Fabrics are very suitable for craft products,” she said.

Gogoi said she followed the simple handloom technique she learned from her mother.

“Hand weaving is a very common skill for Assamese women, especially in the villages. We have been trained in this craft since the age of six or seven. Most families have weaving made by ladies using large amounts of locally grown bamboo. Machine,” she explained.

After the technology was perfected, the self-taught craftsman began to share her knowledge with other women in Bocha Gaon village in Golaghat district.

The news spread and soon hundreds of women joined her network, making it a vibrant statewide business within a year.

Today, hundreds of women use plastic waste to make handbags, doormats, desk mats, wall hangings, coasters, desk covers, tea cups, running shoes and other items.

Their products are sold through Kaziranga Haat, a gift shop Gogoi that opened in her village in 2012. During the tourist season, these women can earn about US$150-200 per month by selling products through the store.

In the past two decades, thousands of women have benefited from Gogoi’s business. It’s not just women.

“Usually the whole family is involved in collecting waste, weaving handloom products and other related work, which helps them earn a good income. For example, in my family, my husband, in-laws, brothers and mother all help me, Not only weaving, but also marketing products and other administrative work. When I travel to attend workshops, they will take care of my home,” she said.

Gogoi is now invited by the state government and private organizations to hold workshops to teach rural women how to turn waste into treasure.

“I have been invited to many states in India, such as Arunachal Pradesh, Maharashtra, West Bengal and Delhi. It is a great feeling to be a teacher,” she said.

But there are also challenges.

The pandemic has suspended all travel and reduced the number of tourists to Kaziranga, greatly affecting collective sales.

Gogoi said that she currently relies on the income of her small cafe-Roop’s Kitchen-which she runs the store to “survive difficulties.”

Gogoi with visitors in her cafe [Courtesy of Rupjyoti Saikia Gogoi]

This 9-seat vegetarian restaurant serves Assam Tari, including four local delicacies and bread priced at $3.

Small craftsmen such as Gogoi also face other problems.

“We are struggling with outdated looms, and we need better technology and modern looms to improve our product quality and higher productivity. Foreign tourists like our products very much, so it is possible to obtain higher sales and Profit,” she said.

“Although I have written to Prime Minister Narendra Modi, we have not received a reply from his office. The central and state governments also have many plans for artisans like us, but in our humble villages, They have never touched us.”

The entrepreneur hopes that once the pandemic subsides, the collective women will be able to restore their lives and livelihoods.

Among the many women who have benefited from Gogoi’s adventure is Debyani Sarkar, 35, who started learning plastic weaving technology in 2015.

“Because I have three young children, I recycle and knit in my free time. It helps me earn up to $150 a month,” she told Al Jazeera.

“With my income, I can buy delicious food and textbooks for my children. Once the coronavirus disappears, I hope to do the same.”

(Every June 5th is World Environment Day)

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About the Author: Agnes Zang