Tuesday, March 2, 2010

"Made in Ghana" by Chris; 02 March 2010

In Ghana safe filtered drinking water is most readily available in clear plastic bags or sachets with a company name printed on them. It costs 5 pesewas, the equivalent to 3 cents. These are the primary source of safe drinking water for the majority of Ghanaians so it is a good and affordable thing. The problem is that there is a VERY serious issue with how the empty sachets are disposed of.  For the most part they are simply tossed on the ground.

Nearly 300 tons of plastic waste is discarded in Ghana – every day! The greatest amount comes from various forms of plastic bags (boy do they have plastic bags) and most of this plastic waste is the direct result of safe drinking water. It sounds strange to say it that way, but what makes for a convenient, sterile, affordable, portable container for purified water also makes up for over 80% of the plastic trash.

Before the movement toward “modernization” in Ghana many of the food products purchased were served in say a banana leaf or corn husk, some still are, and people would consume the food and toss the wrapper on the ground for one of the millions of sheep or goats to eat, or it was left to simply biodegrade. Then along came well meaning foreigners to help with sanitation issues and they taught the people that plastic is clean, safe and good. But they never taught them that animals can’t eat plastic and plastic does not biodegrade. They were not trained in the proper disposal of non-biodegradable products so after the introduction of plastic they continued the same habit of tossing their rubbish on the ground and therein lay the problem. This is an entire conversation in itself and I really want to focus on our sachet project but suffice it to say sadly there seems to be little or no initiative on anyone’s part to address the serious issue of rubbish control here.


Typical beach in Ghana

I wrote in my journal toward the beginning of training how intriguing drinking water out of a bag was and how it seemed to in some ways make more sense than the ubiquitous plastic bottles. But I was distresses by the sight of millions (and I mean millions) of sachets scattered everywhere and I was going to put it on myself to figure out some creative way to use them. Well here we are a year and a half later and we have the Made @ DASHS sachet project.

The Girls; Priscilla & Joyce

Every year the visual arts teachers hold the Peace Corps Art Show where we gather with our top students to do workshops and show off our work. This is where the seed was planted for me. I started working with my students on product design and had them concentrate on what could be made from the sachets. Suggestions included everything from pencil, book bags and wallets, to rain coats and umbrellas. Many different designs and ideas were thrown around but we decided on a couple of different wallet designs and a woman’s hand bag to be made for the Art Show. We produced several of each of the designs along with a few decorative mobiles of cranes folded from sachets (resulting from a lesson on origami). All the products were quite well received and we sold most of what we took.

Flush with success we returned to DASHS and I proceeded to map out a plan for the future of the project. At the beginning of the next term we would start production in earnest in hopes of producing enough products to send to the US for the holiday season. We reworked the designs to simplify the process and we added a new design; a small zippered pouch. We decided against making any more of the hand bags do to its complexity. I worked with the students not only on the sachet products but also on setting goals, working efficiently and schemes on staying organized. I talked to them about the demands, expectations, and responsibilities of running a small business. Honestly like everything else most of this went in one ear and out the other but it was obvious that some of the information stuck. I also worked with my students and continue to work with them on educating the rest of the school on why we should keep Ghana clean and how we could use DASHS as a model. To this end we made some receptacles for sachet disposal and they were placed around central campus and I “tried” to train the students in their use. Consider that many of these kids are from the rural villages and they have never seen a rubbish bin let alone used one. It worked for about two weeks and there was a profound difference in the appearance of campus. But after that interest waned and many students decided it took just too much energy to walk the 10 meters to one of the receptacles. I continue to wrestle with this issue.

A sachet receptacle/ playground equipment

I was originally hoping to have 600 pieces ready to ship within 2 months from the start of school. Well as you have heard us complain previously, school doesn’t really start when it is suppose to so in the end we had barely a month to produce what was to be shipped for the holidays. We made a large chart, kind of like the United Way, and we updated it at the start of each week and in the end we surpassed our goals resulting in 260 wallets and pouches being shipped to the US via Ghana postal and a prayer.

Well the wallets did arrive and they seem to be a great hit. Along with some donations we earned around $700 for the school. This was all thanks to several dedicated volunteers including our parents, Tammi’s sister and nieces Rachel and Jessica, and our friend Jean back in Ames.

Sampson folding dividers

Every bit of the proceeds after shipping costs and quite minimal material expenses (after all we are using rubbish) will go directly into school improvements. I am hopeful that our initial “infrastructure” project will be the construction of a school canteen. At present food is served in a rather unsanitary environment, bare ground open to whatever animals choose to stroll through. Also the students presently have nowhere to sit and eat. I decided on this as the first project not only because the students and staff have been wanting it improved for a long time, but also in hopes that due to its high visibility, students and staff will readily recognize the benefits of the sachet project.

MTN sewing a wallet

We just returned from an excursion with the visual arts students and it was made entirely possible by the sachet sales. We took students to see various craft villages and expose them to some of their heritage. More on the excursion later.

Josh hot cutting parts

Other things we are considering doing wiht the monies are the purchase of more books for the hopefully soon to be refurbished library, the purchase of cisterns to retain rain water, and perhaps some of the monies will go into the scholarship fund. My vision is that all the proceeds will go toward improvements to the school. But at the end of the day it will not be my say as to where the proceeds go. I must say presently this worries me. You see it seems everyone has distinct ideas as to where the money should go and sadly most of the ideas are self serving. It is an issue that Tammi and I have profound frustration with and I don’t see it being resolved any time soon.

Josh cleaning sachets

So where do we go from here? That is the million dollar question. My plan is to serve as the distributer in the US and to have a teacher here at DASHS manage the program. I would work with the teacher and students on designs and form a representative committee to make collective decisions on how the monies should be spent. This would all happen in a perfect world but we’re definitely not in a perfect world.


Actual Made in Ghana @ DASHS sachet products

We have just finished 120 small and large zippered pouches; (a new design thanks to suggestions from you all) and have shipped them to our niece in Milwaukee to sell as a fund raiser for her Amnesty International club. We now plan to start producing wallets and pouches for the local market here along with working up an inventory I can bring back to the states at our close of service. But what happens after that? What happens to the money I send back? I honestly do not know.

You see I have managed to stumble into one of the greatest issues I feel Peace Corps Volunteers deal with; most of the time we start projects when we really should be overseeing the starting of projects and we end up running them because it requires much less pain and mental anguish. People here seem to be much happier if you do it for them. I have been working on the premise that if I got the project off the ground and they saw actual tangible benefits they might take it and run… Not so much.

In the end I feel this is a very positive project that holds a great deal of potential but all this is left up to the folks over here. I cannot and will not micro manage it, they must learn to do for themselves and I feel I have given them a pretty good tool to work with. We’ll see…

Yes there is always hope!

1 comment:

Chris said...

Hey Chris and Tammi, ete sein?

This is Chris, I'm the Canadian student/researcher you met while crossing the ferry onto the Afram Plains last August. I stumbled across your blog after (for some reason... nostalgia maybe?) coming to the Donkorkorm wikipedia page, which you are conveniently cited in! ("The US Peace Corps currently have 2 volunteers working at DASHS, Chris and Tammy Martin, from Iowa State University.") What a strangely networked world we live in where I can happen upon acquaintances met halfway across the world in rural Ghana, itself as a result of a chance encounter! But I digress.. I just wanted to say keep up the great work! It seems like it has been an amazing experience for both you and your incredible community. Keep fighting the good fight and enjoy your last few months!
PS: How is that book on Krobo beads coming along?