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Ugandan Woman Turns Plastic Bags Into Backpacks

Aweko Faith, right, and Rachel Mema sort through polythene bags for washing, in Mpigi district, Uganda. (H. Athumani/VOA)
Aweko Faith, right, and Rachel Mema sort through polythene bags for washing, in Mpigi district, Uganda. (H. Athumani/VOA)

MPIGI, UGANDA — Faith Aweko of Uganda describes herself as a "waste-preneur." She has come up with an innovative way to transform discarded plastic bags into backpacks for everyday use.

Aweko has no problem picking up waste. She had to do it all the time as a child, when rainwater and trash would flood her home, located in a slum, in a low-lying part of Kampala.

Now, she works with women who are hired to collect and wash plastic bags in the Mpigi district of southern Uganda. The bags are then transformed into durable, sustainable, waterproof and beautiful bags.

Women wash polythene bags at Reform Africa, in Mpigi district, Uganda. (H. Athumani/VOA)

Aweko and her colleagues, through the Reform Africa project, wanted to do something with the plastic bags that litter streets across Uganda, soiling the environment.

“They are collecting plastic bottles around, but the polythene bags are really being left. Yet they are the most dangerous for the environment. And you find them poorly disposed. Some people even burn them, others dump it in their gardens which doesn’t lead to good agricultural production,” Aweko said.

In Uganda, the most popular imported polythene bag is the 30 microns polythene. Research has shown that it will take 1,000 years for each bag to decompose.

Faith Aweko, center, and her colleagues sort through garbage to pick polythene bags to be used to make plastic backpacks, in Mpigi district, Uganda. (H. Athumani/VOA)

Aweko's idea was to compress bags together using an iron, then stitch the material into backpacks.

“We iron this. We have to compile 15 plastic bags of these ones to come up with a strong back pack. We have designs, our customers need designs on it, we cannot iron it as plain as it is, so we have to get these Lato milk buveera’s (polythene), or the plastics, other plastic small bags to really add in the creativity so that it looks very strong,” Aweko said.

Rachel Mema, a refugee from the Democratic Republic of Congo, is working with Reform Africa.

A tailor sits next to a display shelf in the Reform Africa workshop, in Mpigi district, Uganda. (H.Athumani/VOA)

When she lived in one of Uganda’s refugee settlements, Mema says, there was a lot of plastic trash, which bred mosquitoes, leading to disease outbreaks.

“So, those solutions is something that is not just for urban people but also those people out there who really need to have something like that and eco-friendly and it’s an action towards our health right now, for who are suffering from plastic,” Mema said.

As world leaders set new agendas to fight climate change and save the environment, Mema, Aweko and others at Reform Africa believe they are doing their part -- and generating some income in the process.