A luggage porter turned into an ecologist to save lives

By Avit Ndayiziga.

In Burundi, getting rid of plastic bags and substituting them with other eco-friendly bags produced from recycled banana waste has a significant contribution to mitigating climate change, as well as job creation for many.

Jolis Nduwimana CEO and founder of WEGE Company drying up banana pulps

Raised in a secluded location in the middle of Burundi, Jolis Nduwimana is devoting immense effort towards combating the problem of earth pollution fueled by the overuse of plastic bags that exacerbates Climate Change effects within his country of origin Burundi.

Coming from a struggling family, at a tender age, he found himself bereaved of his beloved father whose death was the handiwork of anonymous perpetrators shortly after having completed secondary school. He is pictured as a native hailing from the Nyarurambi zone of Karusi province in central Burundi and he is 21 years old.

The heartbreaking death of my dad worsened the already dire financial situation in my family,” says Nduwimana, the firstborn in a family of five children.

The tragic death of his father left him with no choice but to work as a luggage porter to provide for his siblings. Nduwimana joined Alchem, one of the country’s leading pharmaceutical companies, where his late father worked as a baggage carrier.

“My father was the only source of income for our family. I flunked out of school and hustled as a dropout. Apart from that, it is an underrated job for a degree holder. In addition, it is a dead-end job and cumbersome. But it helps me to provide for my siblings while keeping them studying,” he explained.

An employee cutting banana fibers

Meanwhile, in August 2018, the Government of Burundi promulgated a decree prohibiting the importation, manufacture, use, and commercialization of plastic bags on the national territory.

This challenged all Burundian citizens and industries selling cereals and other bearable products, such as beans, rice, flour, drugs, etc. The market at the time did not offer any alternatives. A new opportunity for environmental activists particularly those involved in ecological entrepreneurship was born. This is where Jolis showed up.

Among industries challenged by the decree, Alchem was no exception. The ban on using plastic bags occurred while Nduwimana was working there. He kept thinking about how to bring a solution to that challenge.

Some motivational words kept coming to his mind “An entrepreneur solves a problem at a profit.”

Eco-friendly packaging, a solution to plastic bags ban.

When companies were struggling to find plastic bag substitutes to package their goods and facilitate their customers’ shopping, Nduwimana initiated WEGE Company. This social enterprise promotes Burundi’s Green Economy by applying Circular Economy. In fact, the venture transforms banana waste into inexpensive, reusable, recycling eco-friendly packaging.

“Working as a luggage carrier was tough, and I had little hope for a bright future. However, I perceived the challenge as an opportunity to change the status quo and change my career, even though it was difficult to start off as I had no money with me for the capital. I began researching till I came up with the ecological package from banana waste,” notes WEGE Company’s CEO.

The company collects banana trash from different banana farmers after harvesting it and transforms it into eco-friendly packaging that composts within a week after its usage.

banana waste collection

He is manually manufacturing even though he envisions shifting to machinery production to increase profitability and maximize the ecological impact.

This product kills two birds with one stone: It contributes to preserving the environment and promotes job creation. Beyond that, it enhances the value of banana plantations.

Beneficiaries more than satisfied

Micheline, a woman who farms bananas in Nyarusange zone, Gitega commune in the province of Gitega, shares that she sells the stem and the edible bananas and earns twice.

Before bananas were for food and local, manually-brewed beer commonly called ‘URWARWA’. We now sell and earn money from banana trees that we used to burn for nothing,” says Claver Niyonkuru, another banana farmer we met in Mumuri zone, Makebuko commune, Gitega Province, selling banana stems to pay for the schooling of his kids.

Jeanine Niyonkuru, a single mum with one kid, who works for WEGE, in the production department, added that the company met her during a critical time of raw poverty: “My husband abandoned me with my pregnancy. I did not have a single coin to buy soap, but working at WEGE now pays me off monthly, and I can make ends meet.”

Raissa Akiteka, a woman living in northern Bujumbura, an end-user of WEGE’s product

Raissa Akiteka, a woman living in northern Bujumbura, is an end-user of WEGE’s product. She said that eco-bags are her pride and joy. “In the past, I had to carry a plate when going to the store to buy rice and flour, but now I use this package because it is easy to carry, inexpensive, and looks like an extravagant woman’s handbag.”

Hidden facts about Plastic bags

According to Engineer Innocent Banigwaninzigo, Environmental consultant and expert in climate change, “Plastic bags are made from crude oil extraction residues. When thrown in the wild, they prevent rainwater from leaking into the soil. Water deprivation kills all underground species. The same is true when plastic wastes are thrown in Lake Tanganyika.” 

During torrential rains, warns Banirwaninzigo, affluent rivers, gutters, and waves transport plastic bags and bottles to Lake Tanganyika’s coastal waters. They harm coastal species and life under the water. They prevent fish from reproducing resulting in poor fish harvest and hunger. That is the way plastic bags become a threat to humans.

However, continues the expert, “biodegradable packaging is a substitute for polythene plastic bags which pollute the environment and harm life below water.”

In his call for a plastic-free world, Banirwaninzigo the expert urged the government, environmental stakeholders, and other environmental advocates to combine their efforts.

As per WEGE Company, 161,288 plastic bags have been replaced while 185,732 kg of biodegradable waste has been recycled.

This initiative came at the right time.  “Plastic pollution soared from two million tonnes in 1950 to 348 million tonnes in 2017, becoming a global industry valued at $522.6 billion in 2022. It is expected to double in capacity by 2040,” revealed, on 2 March 2022, by the UN Environment Assembly (UNEA-5).

This story was supported by Bird Story Agency with funding from Africa No Filter.

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