Turning Trash Into Gold: Part 2

By: Chona S. Sandoval

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

Moving Forward as a Cooperative

The second turning point came in 2002 with the shift from embroidery to production of bags made from recycled materials.  One of the mission teams of the Servants invited Pizaña to New Zealand.   In one of their meetings, she was brought to a museum gallery where she saw an artist’s exhibit of recycled materials.  What she saw inspired her.   It brought to mind a similar initiative back home – the Clean and Green Program implemented by the local government of Pasig.  This initiative, which was featured in a local television program, included recycling Zesto Juice Drink packets into bags. 

At that time, Kamay Krafts was still focused on exporting embroidered goods. While the Cooperative already had an established set of contacts and buyers, Pizaña was also aware of its limited demand.  If they wanted to expand their market and increase their income, they needed to innovate and create new product lines.  

When she returned to Manila, she immediately gathered the members of the Cooperative and broached to them the idea of recycling.   Her enthusiasm eventually inspired and motivated the mothers, and the process was set in motion.  She mobilized people in different communities, specifically in Payatas, to gather plastic packets.  They first started with the Zesto Juice Drink packets.  The mothers, along with their husbands, would go up the dumpsites and scavenge for them.  They would then bring the packets to the office of Kamay Krafts, in bundles of 1000, and get paid P0.40 a piece. 

Once they had collected enough materials, Venus and her group tested the concept by experimenting on certain bag designs.  They brought the designs to several trade bazaars in the Philippines and assessed its appeal to the market.  They also sent the prototypes to their contacts in Switzerland and Germany.   Soon they were already receiving orders for the recycled bags.  They developed more designs and repeated the process.  More orders came.

When repeat orders started coming in, Kamay Krafts expanded their collection of recycled materials.  They collected an assortment of juice drink packets, tomato sauce pouches, candy wrappers, magazines, comics, newspapers and other similar recyclable materials.  Eventually, they approached manufacturers directly and bought rolls of reject packaging materials, further increasing the volume of their production.  

This new shift in market demand became a major concern to the mothers who were doing embroidery for the past six years or more.  The mothers were adept at purely embroidery work, but were not skilled at weaving and sewing.   This also posed a problem to the Cooperative.  The mothers neither had the money to buy sewing machines nor did they have the skills to operate them.  The Cooperative thus came up with the idea to set up a fund from which the members could take out a loan to buy a machine.  The loan, payable in 1 year at 0% interest, is deducted from their income from the production of bags. 

Aside from this, Kamay Krafts organized a skills training program to teach the mothers how to weave and sew.   Initially, the quality of the bags produced was sub-standard.  But patience on the part of the management and perseverance on the part of the mothers eventually paid off.  Dedication to the work they did and the value they put in the quality of bags they produced led them to create products that were well received by the market.  Hauser remembers a story several years back while visiting Europe.  She was carrying one of Kamay Krafts’ handbags when a friend told her “You do see them more often now, and I tell you what, the women that carry around those bags are very fashionable women.”[1]

Setting a Trend in Fashion

In the fashion business, particular attention is given to design and style.  A team of creative artists are usually hired to do the job, especially if the product caters to an international market.   For Kamay Krafts, designing bags doesn’t come this easy.  For one, they do not have the money to pay a team of fashion designers.  Second, they work with materials found in the garbage dumps.  It therefore came as a surprise when these recycled bags eventually became a hit in Europe. 

Designing bags is one of the interesting aspects of Kamay Krafts’ export venture.   The Cooperative depends on sewers’ and weavers’ in creating bag designs.  These women never had any formal training in fashion.  Very few of them even had basic formal education.  What they rely on is their creative instincts in developing new patterns and designs.  Sometimes, they would come together in a workshop to brainstorm ideas, check trends in the market, innovate, and play with colors and style.  Surprisingly, the weavers are able to create designs, with a different look and feel, from the same piece of candy wrapper by simply weaving them in a different angle.    In the case of some designs, buyers will not even recognize the material as coming from candy wrappers.

The sewers, on their part, have learned to experiment with various sizes, shapes and styles of bags.   With their newfound skill in sewing, packets and wrappers are turned into shoulder bags, hand bags, pouches and clutches, big travelling bags, duffle bags, backpacks and even lunch bags. 

When a particular style or design becomes saleable in the market, the sewer or the weaver who created it is given the first priority to produce the bags.  If the order quantity is high and the person is not capable of meeting the demand within the time frame required, other weavers and sewers may be contracted.  They do the sewing and weaving in their homes and deliver the goods at the Kamay Krafts office.   Production is based on purchase orders to avoid high inventory levels.

Quality control is undertaken by another group within the Cooperative.  Pizaña exercises close oversight supervision in this aspect of operations.  Since they serve the international market, they have to ensure the bags are made of the highest quality. 

            One person who contributed significantly to the improvement of Kamay Kraft’s products was Rolf Hoffman.  Hoffman is a re-seller from Switzerland that actively supports the Cooperatives’ livelihood program and philosophy on fair trade.   Unlike other commercial re-sellers, Hoffman does not haggle on price, but purchases goods from Kamay Krafts based on their market price.    However, he also demands the best in quality.  He provides feedback on merchandise and expects the Cooperative to deliver based on specifications.  “He is not an easy person. Very Swiss, very straightforward.[2] was how Hauser described him.  But the people of Kamay Krafts consider him as someone who contributed to the success of their Cooperative.   Responding to Hoffman’s feedback led to major improvements in product quality.  “I certainly have to congratulate [Hoffman for being] so rigid and so insistent on very high quality products…. [And] I have to congratulate [Kamay Krafts] for treating him with as much grace and as much patience”[3] said Hauser.

Their patience has certainly paid off.  Six years into the production of bags, the Cooperative now has net assets of six million, a significant increase from the initial capital oof half a milliongiven by the Servants.  This sudden growth in income, coupled with some donations from their network of friends abroad, allowed the Cooperative to venture into other initiatives that further improved the economic conditions of its members.   Some of these initiatives were: (1) provision of annual medical and dental benefits for all members; (2) micro-finance program to assist those who wish to set-up their own small business enterprise; (3) Botika Binhi, a generic drugstore that provides low-cost medicines to poor communities;[4] (4) Study Now, Pay Later Program, a modest College education fund offered to selected children of members, and (5) consumer trading, wherein basic commodities such as rice, milk and sugar are sold to members at low cost.

[1] Quoted from a personal interview with Rachel Hauser

[2] ibid

[3] ibid

[4] Botika Binhi is a project of the Philippine Government which the Servants for Asia’s Urban Poor Supports

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