Nigerian female designers on the path to waste reduction

Gently, Yasmin peddles the sewing machine to finish up a maternity gown earlier started by her tutor. Her mind gushes through thoughts of the hard times that Covid-19 has placed her mother’s business, lowering it to its barest minimum and her inability to write Joint Admission and Matriculation Board (JAMB) exams due to technical mishaps.

The sewing machine is worn-out due to years of usage by apprentices like her making excessive screeches. She has walked over the years alongside her mother through scorching sun, hazy weather and puddles during the rainy season to their separate destinations. While her mother stops at her shop, Yasmin goes further into the suburb hopping through piles of waste generated from fabrics, metals and plastic to where she works as an apprentice.

When Yasmin Muhammad started the production of face masks using leftover fabrics, nobody believed her fortune was close and that could reduce the tonnes of waste generated with leftover materials. For her, living in an impoverished neighbourhood like Badawa is quite suffocating as fumes from refuse and small generators fill the air, not to mention the stench from blocked drainages. At 20, she is still optimistic about her business as many prospects for using leftovers unveil by the day.

“I was introduced to the business of face masks production by a lady who sells them to a local Non-Governmental Organisation. I could produce about 200  pieces in a week at the cost of 20 nairas ($0.048) each. I used plain material back then. Later I decided to use leftover materials and sell them to others that demanded. The process allowed me to utilise leftover materials that I usually abandon for burning,” she says.

She isn’t the only one though. Many female tailors widely embraced the face mask making in Kano State during the height of the pandemic because of increased demand – a trade paved way for alternative sources of income and ways to tackle waste.

For decades, Nigeria has grappled with the surge of enormous development challenges particularly climate change. The impact of mass waste production on the Nigerian environment is always a topical issue with never-ending discussions. Now, female entrepreneurs (fashion designers) are emerging, coming up with interesting and innovative ways of managing waste in generating clean energy sources among other sustainable alternative methods. This signals a huge development in the fight against climate change.

Environmental Management in the Nigerian Context

From the findings of the World Bank Urban Development Series publications, “Nigeria’s waste generation is approximately 62 million tonnes per year with each person generating an average of 0.65kg/day”. The report projected that by 2025, the urban waste generation in the region will be 161.27 million tonnes annually.

The findings are further vindicated by UNEP  in a study which identified that “Nigeria produces more than 3 million tons of waste annually and only 20 per cent to 30 per cent is correctly collected and disposed of. Uncontrolled waste burning, which is one of the practices that contributes to deteriorating air quality in urban centres”.

The majority of wastes generated in the country come from the urban areas that continue to attract a massive rural population – plastic, carton, textile and iron wastes are the major.

While some plastics, iron and carton have secondary values, textiles, especially leftovers are devoid of that. Hence, improper disposal and burning have become ways to get rid of them. In every nook and cranny of Kano state, you can spot clothes being disposed of, with some obstructing waterways.

Although there are Nigerian laws prohibiting the burning of refuse as plastic cables among others, there have been insufficient robust strategies to effectively manage waste generation at national, state and local levels. Recently, the Kano State Government had a misunderstanding with Cape Gate, a local company that was assigned to clear waste in the state. From the prism of shifting climate conditions and more waste production, the country is yet to develop a comprehensive plan of action to tackle waste materials.

Alternative Route for Financial Sustainability for Female Entrepreneurs

Every morning, Aisha Ishaq, a tailor living in the metropolitan area of Kano State, sources materials from her pile of leftovers to make face masks. Although Covid-19 has transformed her business to work from home, she took along one of her sewing machines to provide the little she can before she found out she can produce reusable face masks. She admits, “I had already lost hope when Covid-19 hit the country. The period of lockdown was traumatising and that made me rethink the waste of leftover materials for facemasks production.

Aisha Ishaq makes face masks from leftover fabrics. Photo/Nusaiba Ibrahim/AWiM

Female designers incorporated the fight against the Covid-19 with the demand for alternative ways to manage waste and entrepreneurship by creatively producing fashionable reusable face masks. Leftover materials usually end up as trash; burnt to release harmful emissions to the atmosphere or being ignorantly dumped to cause pollution by adding to the huge pile of refuse.

The period of lockdown in Kano State led to the adoption of several strategies including compulsory use of face masks which were short in supply. Hence, “our production of reusable face masks provided the state with an alternative tackling pollution,” Aisha said.

The Aftermath of Covid-19

All socio-economic activities were badly hit during the pandemic not only in Nigeria but all around the world – businesses were especially crippled in diverse ways. To cushion the effects of Covid-19, many initiatives have and are still ongoing to equip the vulnerable communities.

According to the Kano State Government through the office of the Special Adviser on Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), “the state has been able to coordinate a UNDP project targeting over 1600 vulnerable households and with cash transfers and 630 Micro, Small and Medium Enterprises (SMEs) through unconditional cash transfers.” Despite this initiative, many entrepreneurs like Aisha and Yasmin have not been able to get access to the funds. Some businesses have already collapsed.

In an earlier interview, Environmental Expert and Chief Waste Eliminator at Waste Watch Africa Suhaib Arogundade stated that “the government needs to consider funding the training of interested and passionate individuals in waste management as a better way for solving environment crises”.

Currently, waste management remains a challenge beyond Covid-19. According to WasteAid 2021, “With no access to waste management services, 1 in 3 people worldwide have no choice but to dump or burn their waste. Open waste burning is a significant emitter of black carbon. CO2 and carbon monoxide (CO) as well as other harmful toxins.”

The report highlights that waste management is also an issue to be discussed fully at the upcoming COP 27 in Egypt.

The lack of government policies on environmental management has worsened the aftermath of the pandemic in countries like Nigeria. This attests to the warning by UNEP   that “the potential consequences have produced a series of factsheets on the subject, which include public health risks from infected used masks, and the open burning of or uncontrolled incineration of masks, leading to the release of toxins in the environment, and secondary transmission of diseases of humans”.

A Cause for Rethink

The production or design of face masks is one of the unknown opportunities unravelled by Covid-19. As theAfrican Green Stimulus Programme highlights the essentials of sustainable innovative climate change driven initiatives, the making of face masks is highly commendable. Not only in Nigeria but other African countries like Kenya and Ghana have also demonstrated the importance of making reusable face masks for a greener and sustainable environment.

Nonetheless, there has been a poor implementation of laws and regulations in Nigeria to support climate change entrepreneurship activities and business. In Kano State, for instance, the state government began massive tree planting of 1 million trees, to curb environmental challenges posed by tree felling such as desertification. At the moment, the attention of the government is around how to get rid of waste and not on how to create sustainable initiatives with waste.

Consequently, Nigeria needs to develop a comprehensive plan for tackling waste. Without this, achieving SGDs 11, 13 and 15 are undermined.  Yasmin, whose community has for long been plagued by textile pollution, says, “I’m afraid I have to resort to burning them again since they are not in demand anymore”. Female businesses like the making of face masks and others are greatly threatened as strict compliance to Covid-19 protocols has subsided.

As COP27 approaches, Nigeria must understand its waste challenges and come up with innovative ways of waste management for a sustainable future.

This article is part of  African Women in Media (AWiM)/UNEP Africa Environmental Journalism Programme.

Nusaiba Ibrahim

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *