Tosheka Designs transforms Trash into Treasure

  • Posted by Marina Vatav
  • August 27, 2012 4:22 PM EDT

In countries like Haiti and Kenya where short and long term employment solutions are desperately needed, Tosheka Designs has developed a way to change the lives of people from low income communities in a matter of months and engage the entire country into an environmental movement.

With their Creating Recycled Treasures Project, Tosheka trains women from rural areas in Kenya to handcraft highly fashionable "Soko" bags made of used, but clean plastic bags. The company also runs a marketing campaign to encourage people to recycle plastic bags, and partners with supermarkets and other businesses to establish a network of collection bins. The outcome is incredible: increased environmental awareness, hundreds of new jobs in low income areas, and the producing of highly fashionable bags.

Haiti is next

Herman and Lucy Bigham, founders of Tosheka Textiles, started their Creating Recycled Treasures Project in 2011 in Kenya and are now replicating it in Haiti. This decision comes from the opportunities that Haiti offers, but also from Herman's personal love for the country. He first visited Haiti in the 1970s and was impressed by its history, as well as its spiritual and cultural richness.

"Haiti was like first on my list. That's a place where I would really want to make an impact because of its contribution to the freedom of African people," says Herman.
Herman and his wife, Lucy, are looking at training groups of women in Saint Marc and Cap-Haitien because of the proximity to the port and the airport that are being built in the area.

Generating employment

Tosheka trained over 100 women in Kenya to turn plastic bags into a continuous yarn, then using techniques similar to crochet to make fashionable bags. The training only lasts a few months and when the women become proficient, they can start producing the Soko bags from home. Some women are able to create up to four bags a week and get paid about $25 a week.

"We believe that there is a lot of funding going on in Haiti, a lot of training, but not a lot of employment that is being generated, " says Herman.

"It will outlive you"

The product is also quite remarkable. A big bag weights one kilogram (slightly over 2 pounds), the medium size bag - 0.75 kgs, and the small one - 0.5 kgs. The plastic makes it elastic, and it is so durable that Lucy and Herman like to say: "It will outlive you".

Some of the designs are created by the women who make the bags and finished by Lucy, who is experienced in textile design.

"Women come up with great designs. Their combinations are so unpredictable. I let them be," says Lucy.

The bags are ultimately decorated with finishing like leather, buttons, and other accessories. The Soko bags cost between $40 and $180.

Increasing environmental awareness

The other important side of this business model is the impact on the environment. It began with a partnership with the largest supermarket chain in Kenya to have collection bins where people can place their clean plastic bags in. Some schools, hotels, and other institutions joined the movement and installed the collection bins within their facilities.

Tosheka also partnered with local non-profits to run a marketing campaign that encouraged people to recycle the plastic bags that may take a thousand years to decompose.

Plastic manufacturers can sponsor collecting bins and, therefore, support the recycling efforts and build a better name.

Tosheka is looking at replicating this system in Haiti. It is developing a partnership with Delmar supermarkets, Trans-African organization in Haiti, and having conversations with the government.

While the bags created in Kenya originally targeted the Kenyan middle class, the products made in Haiti will target the US and the Caribbean markets. Now Tosheka is discussing a partnership with a major retail company in the US that might create its own line.

Besides bags, Tosheka is looking at developing other products: belts, hats and other accessories.

In terms of increasing environmental awareness, Tosheka shoots even higher. Their next phase for Kenya, and eventually Haiti, is to work with the retailers and to train them not to use so many plastic bags when packing. Lucy smiles when she says that even when selling their "environmentally conscious" Soko bags made of plastic, some cashiers pack them into another plastic bag.

Tosheka’s Recycling Treasures project is currently providing income for 180 women and is looking to have 400 producers by the end of the year and 500 by the end of year 1 in Haiti.