Weaving a brighter future

Chris Seekings talks to Isatou Ceesay about recycling plastic in The Gambia, and her mission to protect the environment while driving female economic empowerment

Although the issue has only really penetrated the West’s conciousness in recent years, Isatou Ceesay has been at the forefront of tackling plastic pollution in The Gambia for decades. She has become something of a local hero in her village of N’Jau, helping to clean up the environment while lifting thousands of women out of poverty. Here, The Gambia’s recycling queen sheds light on the ingenious way she has turned plastic into a force for good – and transformed her community against all odds.

An uphill struggle

Ceesay’s story begins back in 1997, when she founded the N’Jau Women’s Group in order to educate her fellow villagers about the need to reclaim and recycle plastic. At times, she says, it was like talking to a brick wall. “I informed the whole community, but only five women answered my call,” she tells me. “I was talking about waste, but they didn’t understand the problem.” She was subjected to ridicule, too, with others left bemused by her stance on plastic pollution and labelling her efforts “a waste of time”.

An estimated 75% of people in The Gambia do not have access to a proper education. Before Ceesay began spreading awareness in the neighbourhood, locals would let plastic bags and other waste pile up in the streets or behind their houses, and would even use it to start fires for cooking. “My mother used to do this too, when I was very young,” Ceesay says. “It was only when I went to secondary school that I learnt burning plastic is hazardous, so I relayed that back to my community and family. That was my first step in educating people about the dangers of plastic.” 

Up to 95% of the world’s ocean plastic pollution is thought to come from Africa or Asia, but with such limited resources and access to education, Ceesay says it an uphill battle to tackle the problem at its source. “The reason I started working in this area is because I am from a rural area, and I saw that it was lagging behind so many others around the world when it comes to pollution. I knew I had to take responsibility and educate them about the side effects on an environment that does not properly manage its waste. It’s a challenge I have given to myself.”

One plastic bag

Things started to change for Ceesay after she met a US Peace Corps volunteer who explained that discarded plastic bags could be salvaged and reused as yarn to make other products. “My sister had trained me to weave with yarn, so I was then able to use plastic instead,” she explains. “We started making purses, but now make pen and pencil holders, balls, necklaces – there are so many different items we have been able to make thanks to recycling.”

You only have to type Ceesay’s name into YouTube to see the impressive speed and skill with which she can turn supermarket bags into fashionable purses. She is able to produce two and half purses everyday, and believes that doing so has helped saved numerous lives in her village. “If you leave it in the environment, people will burn it to light fires and get cancer and other incurable diseases,” she tells me. “Donkeys and cows will also eat the plastic and die because they cannot digest it.”

But it is not just cleaning up the environment and improving health that Ceesay has managed to achieve through her innovative approach to recycling. The items that she and countless other women in N’Jau fashion out of plastic waste have given them opportunity to make their own money for the first time. In 2009, she co-founded the Gambian Women’s Initiative, which at last count had more than 11,900 members – a far cry from the five women she started this journey with more than 20 years ago.

Taking back control

The initiative aims to support poor women in The Gambia by increasing their income and improving the standard of living for their families and communities. “It can be very, very difficult for women,” Ceesay says. “So few go to school. They do gardening, work in the fields, and so many other activities, but at the end of the day they have no say on their pay – the middle men will just give them whatever prices they want for their goods.” 

“We tell women how to price their products, how to add value, how to do marketing, and everything in between”

Her initiative aims to correct this by providing women with the training, funding and capacity they need for their projects, and offers to help them with their business ideas. “We tell them how to price their products, how to add value, how to do marketing, and everything in between.” 

Just a day before our interview, Ceesay was giving a training session in a nearby village to women who had sold soap for many years. The first question she asked was how many of them had seen any profit from their endeavours. The answer: none. “We calculated their expenditure, the number of products they make and the amount of money they could get, and they were all so excited,” she tells me. “Now they have that business model forever, and the ability to stand on their own two feet independently, with their own money and a say in how they sell their products.”

The Gambian Women’s Initiative asks its beneficiaries to consider their social responsibilities once they start to have success. “We tell these very, very small businesses to divide their profits up into two parts when they are making their calculations – one for salaries, and one to help tackle future problems in their communities.”

A global target

Ceesay says that her work has helped The Gambia move ahead of many other African countries when it comes to awareness around plastic pollution and female empowerment. However, that does not stop her fearing for those that are still suffering from the side effects of a poorly managed environment. It is estimated that plastic pollution represents at least 20% of all waste in the country. “I still wake up in the middle of the night worrying about the impact plastic is having,” she says. “I will keep trying to educate people as best I can.”

“I still wake up in the middle of the night worrying about the impact plastic is having”

Although Ceesay’s focus has thus far been on Africa, she has the wider world in her sights. “Whatever country we are in, it is so important to spread the word,” she says. “This is a big global problem, and by connecting with similar people across the world I believe we can together make a lot of changes to help the situation we are in – the sky’s the limit.”

WasteAid UK has offered support for The Gambian Women’s Initiative, and Ceesay says it is helping to communicate her message far and wide. “I know that everyone working in sustainability is doing an amazing job, and if just 100 people read this I hope that maybe 25 can take away some benefit from what I am saying. This is my job, this is what I do, anyone that wants hear my advice is welcome – the more the better. I am so excited about the change we are all making together.” 

Plastic to Fantastic

Image credit | Climate Heroes Redux
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