By Laura Otieno
Kisumu, Kenya – A rusty workshop standing on a lowly piece of land welcomes you when you visit the Wathorego site in Kisumu, Kenya. Heaps of used synthetic hair paint an aura of destitution and gives the impression of unmanaged waste. However, the heap is a pile of fortune for Sarah Adero, a 45-year-old who makes doormats out of used synthetic hair, commonly referred to as “rasta” in the local beauty parlours.
Sarah leads a group of seven women, each with defined roles in the team. Their day typically begins at 9 am, shortly after these heaps of used hair are delivered. The fibre is sorted according to colours and then laid onto a machine, donated by Newton Owino, the owner of the site. The wooden craft machine straightens the mounds of used hair into a steady fibre that can be used for weaving.
The group makes about 10 mats in a week, targeting the very salons they source the braids from, the mats retail at between 5 dollars and 25 dollars depending on the size and design. This one-year-old venture is sustaining the families of the seven women and their families.
Sarah who used to work as a front office assistant at one of the motels in Kisumu was laid off in June 2020, following the economic constraints occasioned by the COVID-19 pandemic. According to the Kenya National Bureau of Statistics, 186,402 people were rendered jobless following the pandemic. The KNBS further reported that of the job losses, 115,409 positions were previously held by women.
Development economist Philip Pande mentioned that the cuts may not have been targeted at a specific gender, but rather because most of the businesses that downscaled were roles that had more women employed than men. Pande argued that the hospitality industry was worst hit, with the travel bans and events planning activities which he said had more women employed than men cutting down on costs to remain afloat with others shutting down completely.
According to the Federation of Kenya Employers, the layoffs entrenched gender imbalance in the workplace, with the corporate sector share of women dropping from 38.4% in 2019 to 36.8% in 2020. However, projects such as this run by Sarah are working towards filling the gap, as women, such as Sarah, who were laid off during the pandemic, venturing into entrepreneurship to cater for their livelihoods.
Sarah says the idea was inspired by the eyesore created by the piles of waste thrown by the women running beauty salons in the slum areas. “Most of them do not regard the environmental impact of disposing of this hair, you will find chicken and goats with their legs entwined in pieces of ‘rasta’ and I thought of finding a solution to this”.
Synthetic hair is usually made from plastic or acrylic fibres, that are heated and then strung into strands that mimic human hair fibres. They are used as extensions to braid hair and make a variety of styles. Usually, they are often disposed of after use. The plastic contained in the hair is an environmental hazard if they are not managed.
The United Nations Environment Program estimates that one-third of all plastic waste ends up in soils or freshwater. The plastic disintegrates into microplastics, which further break down into nanoparticles that penetrate the food chain.
The Kenya Marine Fisheries Institute has warned of possible microplastic poisoning in human beings, as the fish consume the plastic dumped into the lake. Prof. James Njiru, the CEO of the Kenya Marine Fisheries Institute, advocates for the proper management of plastic waste to save water bodies from pollution. “Normally in water, we have more plants than in the terrestrial world, we call them phytoplankton, and they produce a lot of the oxygen that we breathe so if we destroy these water bodies with plastic, then we are actually doing more harm to ourselves”.
The National Environment Management Authority (NEMA) has been enforcing the single-use plastic ban for the last 5 years. The Kisumu County NEMA Director Tom Togo has revealed that while the ban has been largely successful, there is a need to continue sensitizing the public on the consequences of plastics. “This ban will be one hundred per cent effective if we develop a culture of personal responsibility, we need to understand the components of plastic and how they affect our daily lives, that way people will be more cautious when dealing with plastic”.
Togo pat Sarah on the back, terming her mat project as commendable and referring to it as the kind of innovative projects that assists the government in discharging its mandate.
Macrine Abong’o joined the group early this year. She lost her job as a cleaner and had no other means of sustaining herself. She now makes about 30 dollars on a good month, she says that though the sales are still low, she is optimistic that the silver lining of the cloud hanging over their sales will soon shine bright.
And as they skilfully weave the plastic fibre, which was just hours ago a mound of disposed-off hair into various designs of mats, this group of seven puts forth a brave face of resilience and recovery post the pandemic. With each mat, they are confident that they edge closer to weaving financial independence for themselves.
They laugh when I ask them what the name of their group is, “we will call you once we figure that out”.
This publication was produced with the financial support of the European Union. Its contents are the sole responsibility of Laura Otieno and do not necessarily reflect the views of the European Union.