My name is Marisa (‘Mel’) Kelly, born and bred in the United Kingdom but long-time resident in Windhoek, Namibia, where I work as a writer and editor. This is the ongoing story of the group of pilot projects set up in mid-2019 under the umbrella support group ‘Good for Namibia!’ and the tales behind the Namibian people who are involved.
In 2017, I went to visit my daughter and her family who live in Indonesia, the world’s most populous Muslim-majority country, with +/- 17,500 islands and 269 million people. It was my second visit and thus an opportunity to get past culture shock and really take a look at how such a nation contrasts – in good and bad ways – with Namibia, which has been my home since 1998.
We visited an island called Belitung, far off the usual tourism route and – at least ostensibly – bearing many of the characteristics of a tropical paradise. Deserted sandy beaches, palm trees, coral reefs…and trash, literally everywhere you looked. One day, we took a boat out to visit a number of stunning coves and at one, we literally waded through old nappies, plastic water bottles and other disgusting waste packaging to get to shore.
Jakarta itself, a city of more than 10 million people, has its own problems with waste disposal although some shops were already at that time moving towards more environmentally friendly packaging and a few stocked ranges of items such as decorative passport holders made locally from recycled milk cartons by community projects backed by Indonesian NGOs.
The following year, on Lombok, where if anything the state of the ocean and beaches was even worse, it finally dawned on me that this wasn’t only a problem that the locals had created themselves (and therefore had the practical responsibility to fix). Yes, their infrastructure wasn’t geared up for rubbish collection and disposal but since their livelihoods are often intrinsically tied up with tourism they have much to gain from returning their environments to a pristine condition, given the tools to do so.
But of course, as we are now learning, pollution from discarded waste is a more fundamental catastrophe than simply being a localized eyesore irritating beach-lovers on holiday far from home.
This was my own personal ‘Aha moment’. I was considering visiting Flores to see the Komodo dragons, an arduous journey and an expensive one. When my daughter sent me a photograph of what would greet me there, I changed my mind. Not only is this situation bad for the dragons themselves of course, it creates reputational damage for the local people who derive an income from tourism. Thanks to Terry Allen, who kindly gave permission for me to use this for free ( © Terry Allen: https://yourshot.nationalgeographic.com/photos/11206012/).
Luckily, there are plenty of people at work there on the problem – often on a voluntary basis using the power of social media and community-level advocacy to stop the rot. I began asking my daughter about interventions that would have applications here in Namibia, which couldn’t be more different from Indonesia and which is, in fact, relatively clean and free from the infernal pollution that blights megacities across SE Asia.
There is one thing the two countries have in common, however, and that’s a large population of people with no prospects of entering the formal economy but who have a natural talent for entrepreneurship that can be monetized if only they can be linked up to sustainable markets. Because ‘thinking green’ only gets you so far, in the end the most valuable and effective way to focus people on a problem like environmental degradation is to cost it in financial terms and – equally – the opposite is true: introduce people to ways that grassroots eco-projects can boost their incomes and they will be on board, body and soul. Making good by doing good, let’s call it.
By early 2019, the drought that had gripped Namibia for several years had become a humanitarian crisis, not only for large- and small-scale farmers themselves and those they employ to work the land, but also for many involved in industries such as construction, which had really taken a hit through a combination of water restrictions and a shrinking economy. For many families, generational unemployment had become a hard fact of life by 2019.
I had been looking for a while for a way to link a growing awareness of the world’s finite natural resources with projects that would uplift Namibian communities that were growing increasingly desperate. There did seem to be a small but active and vocal core community here made up of individuals who were already involved in composting; promoting indigenous gardens over exotic, thirsty plants; adapting homes to water-wise lifestyles; and embracing the tenets of ‘Reduce, Re-use, Recycle, Repair and Refuse’ at the household level and who were willing and able to spread the message and raise awareness through formal groups as well as by their own lived examples.
Preparing the way to charge for single-use plastic bags at stores, many retail-chain outlets had started to stock reusable plastic and canvas bags, too. But so far as I could see, none were made in Namibia and many were labeled in such a way as to obscure their true value in terms of reducing environmental impacts. It seemed as if only lip service was being paid to promoting environmental ideals sometimes, and some cynical marketing was involved in jumping on the green bandwagon and grabbing fake bragging rights.#greenwashing
This coincided too with a moment in which large-scale corporations and businesses more generally were looking to leverage their corporate social responsibility commitments with the aim of promoting their green credentials in increasingly competitive markets. This is especially true of those seeking to exploit the value of eco-tourism: hotels, lodges and other categories of tourism accommodation.
The planets, as they say, aligned and after almost two years of professional inactivity, I found myself inundated with ideas for enterprises that would help Namibians to help themselves. In this, the internet proved an invaluable tool to see what was being done with success in other countries (as well as providing other examples of projects that would be a poor fit for our arid and sparsely populated country).
It was fortuitous that I was already acquainted with Julia Gomachas, an industrious and talented needlewoman from the south of the country who was hard at work investigating ways to improve her income. While she sought out other women to join her in the proposed sewing endeavour, I did the rounds of interior design stores in Windhoek, hoping to extract from one or two an undertaking to supply the sewing group with fabric samples that would otherwise go to waste.
To be honest, I had hoped that the sewing group would be able to kick-start the project with a small quantity of donated material they could turn into re-usable shopping bags but I was pragmatic about the plans for expansion, assuming that if clients started to order bulk purchases then the three women founders would have to begin actually buying cloth in order to meet the demand.
One day in June this year, I went along to collect the very first donation from one of the group’s supporters, ‘Touch of Style’ an upmarket design house in Windhoek…and was overwhelmed when the staff there started to fill the back of my car with all manner of fabric swatches, from embroidered damasks to crewelwork, beaded gauze and textured linens. Furthermore, they had books of heavy duty wallpaper to give out too, as well as lots of good ideas for product lines. The owner of the store also gave a pledge to continue to supply the group with more stock on a regular basis. This meant, importantly, that from the outset, the ‘Sew Good’ project’s outgoings would be limited to the few fittings for their product ranges, such as handles for their bags, that could not be sourced directly through contributions of fabric and paper waste for recycling.
Julia and her colleagues got together to formulate a pricing policy for their work, one that would reward their labours but not price them out of the market. An email to a zero-packaging store in Klein Windhoek that was in the process of being set up was the next link in the chain, because without a showcase for the women’s craft it would take a while for momentum to build and supply them with a decent income.
At the same time, another project that I had been investigating off and on for a few years looked as if it might have potential when I sent out a very speculative email to R.O.L.E (www.rolefoundation.org), a project in Bali that, among other activities, facilitates the collection of used guest soaps from tourism establishments for delivery to home industries where it is upcycled into bars for distribution at orphanages and other social-welfare institutions.
It’s important here to distinguish here between recycling – which is truly at best a stopgap measure – and upcycling. A great deal of material we happily consign to a recycling bin, plastic especially, is only recyclable a finite number of times (unlike glass), or alternatively is not as biodegradable as we might hope. Furthermore, wealthy nations send such waste to countries on the other side of the world to be dealt with, shifting responsibility for the issue out of their own back yard (something that Malaysia and the Philippines are now addressing by sending the shiploads of waste back whence they came: https://www.theguardian.com/world/2019/may/29/malaysia-to-send-up-to-100-tonnes-of-plastic-waste-back-to-australia). Even worse, we now know that a lot of this waste is simply ending up in landfill or dumped in the oceans, fatally undermining the very concept of recycling.
It’s also critical to stress that the individual pilot projects under the ‘Good for Namibia!’ banner will stand or fall on the dedication and talents that their participants bring to the table. There’s no registered NGO offering support behind them (and using up valuable profits renting offices, buying vehicles, hiring foreign staff and financing operations) and they do not have to spend time competing for donor funding with businesses. It’s just them, in their homes, working in their spare time after doing a day’s labour often, and trying to “make a plan” as we say here.
My role is simply to join the dots for them at any project’s inception and try to predict dramas and offer logistical support. The ‘Good for Namibia!’ umbrella organisation is, truth to tell, me and my car and Internet connection right now, seeking regular inputs from my daughter, Sibylla Brunn, on Java, who is well-versed in the intricacies of saving the planet one biodegradable cotton-wool bud at a time.
Depending on the way that the pilot projects develop – and there of course will be successes, failures and ‘teachable moments’ along the way – the purpose of the informal capacity-building entity that is ‘Good for Namibia!’ today may fall away, leaving behind only this blog – updated from time to time to document and showcase the projects that prosper. Alternatively, it may be that some form of welfare organisation will develop out of the original concept, one that can be registered and handed off to capable Namibians at some point in the future.
So while the world weans itself off its dependence on single-use plastic for packaging, especially, a better option is to re-purpose plastic products and other items harmful to the environment and promote cheap and easily available alternatives. Inventive minds can usually find a creative use for something discarded – like the sample books of fabric from companies that make materials – that they can collect for free once a willing, sustainable source has been identified. The end products don’t have to compromise on either quality or attractiveness and ultimately buying and using such eco-friendly alternatives will become a way of life for Namibian consumers, just as small-scale eco-enterprises will generate guaranteed livelihoods for the most needy citizens.
Eventually, each successful pilot project will grow into a small cottage industry, doing its own admin. and developing its own social-media presence. Groups will also register themselves as SMEs (small- and medium-sized enterprises) or NGOs, as appropriate, once they have accessed the training necessary to do this. There will be an optimal effective size for each, depending on its specific focus – scaling up will not be considered a priority because it’s not always true that in community development, bigger is better.
The most important immediate task is to devote energy to making contacts and experimenting with developing product lines that sell. Keep coming back to this site in the meantime to see how things are coming along.
Best wishes, Mel