Recycling and upcycling in modern western culture is a matter of fashion: look at all those organic fair trade eco hipster shops mushrooming throughout your neighborhood, or multiple internet DIY resources that teach you how to create something from nothing, how to utilize plastic bottles, food containers and metal scraps to decorate your makeshift balcony garden.

The truth is, it seems that Africa has been ahead of us in upcycling for quite a while. While Rwanda a few years ago implemented institutional ban on non-biodegradable polythene plastic bags and replaced them with paper containers, all larger neighboring countries remain catastrophically careless with plastic waste. There are almost as many plastic wrappers and bags floating in the Kenyan sky as there are exotic birds in its national parks. Luckily enough, creativity of local people, on a small scale, does not allow these materials to go to complete waste.

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The skills of recycling and upcycling here come from economical need, not from fashion trends. While working for a small community-based organization in Nakuru, Kenya, I learned about a creative circle of local women who produce bags and household decorations from – well, garbage. Their preferred material of choice is plastic wrappers from candies and cookies the neighborhood children consume in astonishing quantities. They also use hand-crafted wooden and plastic beads, polythene bags, threads from old clothes and pieces of cloth to weave and sew handbags. This time-consuming process requires skill and imagination – aside from the obvious time spent on search for appropriate material. When prompted with the question how much time it actually takes to create a hand-woven bag out of plastic wrappers, the women shrug: maybe a week or so, but time flies faster when you gather with your friends for a chat over scrupulous handiwork.

Upcycling in Africa is driven largely by the inability to dispose of solid waste in rural areas: heaps of garbage keep piling up on the outskirts of large cities and smaller towns, and it never takes too long for somebody to find use for all the discarded materials out there, recycle or upcycle them. But some of the grassroots upcycling initiatives came to grow into large-scale sustainable brands: such as SoleRebels shoes that started in Ethiopia from traditional shoes produced of old tyres. All across sub-Saharan Africa, one can still find such tyre flip-flops on flea markets.

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Nairobi and Dar-es-Salaam, on the other hand, are known as major hubs for second-hand clothing, arriving in plastic donation bags from western countries. Some of these clothes are for grabs on flea markets, while others end up stitched together for catwalk: haute-couture is slowly embracing upcycling as a new source of fashion ideas, and old fabrics and jewelry are being remodelled into new stylish outfits. Another similar initiative is run by two sisters in Maputo, Mozambique: Mima-te is a Mozambican brand that uses donated second-hand clothes and turns them into vintage fashion that sometimes – see the irony? – ends up shipped all the way back to the countries where donations came from.

In a way, western culture historically happened to have enough time and resources to go through stages of unstoppable consumerism before acquiring its eco-consciousness. But Africa seems to be taking a shortcut to sustainable living and production of upcycled goods. There is still one problem, however: upcycled crafts do not exactly reach out to the upper-class audience of African society, and there are not enough hipsters here to generate the market for this type of produce. Upcycling start-ups in Africa appeal to foreigners, get support from western designers, and eventually start operating as online stores for international distribution. But smaller-scale initiatives in sub-Saharan Africa largely remain only the means of sustainable living among low-income communities. Carrying a bag made of plastic wrappers, wearing a dress crafted from second-hand clothing is simply not fashionable enough for those African people who can afford buying clothes from overseas. However, the success of such projects as soleRebels or WRENdesign gives hope to future enterprises that may open the variety of upcycled African produce to the wide world and within Africa’s upper middle classes.

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Catherine Cullen

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