Turning Trash Into Gold: Part 1

By: Chona S. Sandoval

(excerpt from the book for Social Entrepreneurship “For the people, By the people, published in Manila 2010)

          I stood against the wall, trying not to block the narrow passage in the reception area.  About five other women were cramped in that small room on that humid August afternoon.  As I watched, a man riding a tricycle came into the office, dressed in a simple shirt and walking shorts.  He was carrying a small plastic bag containing some empty foil material that seem to have been picked from the trash.   He called to one of the office staff and said “May regalo ako sa iyo!” (I have a gift for you!), raising the plastic bag as he said it.  He continued to walk to an inner cubicle, sidestepping a mound of newly-sewn handbags.  Two women were doing a manual inventory of the bags which were made of the same foil material brought in by the man.   The foils were discarded packets of mango-flavored, Zesto[1] juice drink, scavenged from the Payatas[2] dumpsite.   Each side of the bag has six of these packets sewn together and piped with a black nylon cloth, the “Zesto Mango” label clearly visible.   I approached the women and asked if I can buy one of those.  The women declined apologetically.   They were completing a purchase order that needed to be shipped out to Switzerland.   

          Amidst the poverty of slum communities in Quezon City, Rizal and Bulacan province, groups of women have literally turned garbage into gold.  The women of Kamay Krafts Multi-Purpose Cooperative have successfully produced and sold trendy bags in Europe and the United States made of recycled materials from Philippine garbage dumps. The success of the venture has resulted in significant improvement in the lives of the women and their families, and a growth of P5.5 million in the Cooperative’s net assets.

oviding Economic Opportunities to Women

Kamay Krafts Multi-Purpose Cooperative is an enterprise that provides livelihood opportunities to urban poor communities in the Philippines.  Its vision is “to see people’s lives transformed from depressed condition to a life of sufficiency, dignity,  self-reliance and care for one another.This, the Cooperative aims to achieve by “creating equitable wealth, expanding opportunities and generating jobs for its members.”[3] 

Kamay Krafts focuses on empowering women.  The Cooperative believes that women are responsible and reliable and they have the skills and the capacity to contribute significantly to the income of their families.  Ninety-eight percent of its members are women, a majority of them married to husbands who have no regular income to support the family.  Others are single parents or victims of physical abuse. 

Consistent with their mission, Kamay Krafts adheres to the philosophy of fair trade.   This means providing just compensation to all its workers, even if this results in a more expensive product.  Understandably, this poses a challenge for them when it comes to penetrating the local market.  Luckily though, the organization is able to find its niche in the international market.  Buyers and re-sellers from different countries who believe in fair trade support the Cooperative.  The bags are exported to Australia, Germany, Holland, Japan and Switzerland.

How it all Started

Servants to Asia’s Urban Poor otherwise known as “Servants” founded Kamay Krafts.  Servants originated in New Zealand.  It is an international network of Christian communities living and working in the slums of Asia and the West, participating with the poor to bring hope and justice through Jesus Christ[4].  Volunteers of Servants work actively in Cambodia, India, Indonesia, Burma, Canada, UK, USA, Australia and Switzerland. 

          .”[5]  The aim is to improve the quality of life of the poor within the context of where they are at present.   Key to this mission is spiritual development alongside economic upliftment.   We talk “mostly about business, and livelihood, and income, and survival. But the Christian principles, they are also very important,”[6] added Hauser.

Servants started Kamay Krafts in 1984 as an informal livelihood project.  About ten women were trained to do cross-stitch in Sapang Palay, Bulacan.   Sale of these products was done mostly through the Servants network of friends and Churches from abroad, particularly in Australia and New Zealand. The products were said to be of good quality and were bought because of their market appeal and not out of pity for the mothers who created them. 

However, demand for the products was limited.   The mothers were soon turning in more finished products than what the Servants could sell.  Because of the backyard nature of the operation, there was no clear strategy for marketing and exporting the products.  There was no proper monitoring and management of the production either such that after four years, the entire operation had to be stopped due to high inventory levels.

Seeing its potential for growth, Ruby Duncan re-opened the project in 1991

[1] A popular brand of low-priced juice drink in the Philippines

[2] A major garbage dump in Quezon City

[3] Kamay Krafts mission statement

[4] www.servantsasia.org

[5] ibid

[6] ibid

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