Paper is one of the oldest human inventions, dating from 2nd Century BCE. And it is one of the easiest to make. All one needs is some cellulose, some water, and some heat to dry the cellulose pulp. This simplicity led Harriet Nantale to start a new business, helping her community and the environment. She sources her cellulose from banana plants.
”Uganda is the second largest producer of banana after India, and we produce around nine million tons of banana stems every year. So we can’t put all those stems to waste, we just use them and make paper”. A walk through the banana plantations and it’s easy to understand why cellulose is aplenty. If you strip away any brown part of the plant, and if comes off the plant so easily, it is basically pure cellulose. All across Namulanda in Uganda, drone shots will reveal endless banana plantations. The sun-soaked land and its equatorial climate with regular rains make it a perfect place to grow the world’s second most consumed fruit. Only tomato – biologically a fruit – is consumed more.
The paper Harriet and her colleagues make is in high demand. She found a USP that works very well. ‘’Usually, they all look like luxurious products like notebooks, albums, photo frames, wedding cards, boxes, all sorts of things. Basically, banana fibers makes for almost all the product range in our workshop. We also use it as packaging for the soap, packaging for the glass that we recycle, so it cuts all through the workshop. The paper is efficient for everybody that loves art, appreciates nature, the paper is good.’’ Harriet’s never thought she would only cater to a high-end market. ‘’I was inspired because it’s mainly a job creation aspect because everything is handmade. The more people buy, the more jobs we create.’’
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This is not to say that starting an environment-friendly industry was never on her mind. ”Environment is key, so the main element would be to protect the environment.” But Uganda is witnessing a rise in unemployment. In 2016, the unemployment rate stood at 2 percent. In 2017, it has edged to 2.1 percent. In an economy that’s largely rural and based on agriculture, being out of jobs often means there is nowhere to go. And that is why Harriet wanted to keep her focus on local agricultural products. ”Because of our current situation in Uganda, also the job creation is another big drive that keeps us going.”
Harriet works closely with locals. They are her primary suppliers of cellulose. The region has extensive banana plantations. ”First, we receive the fibers from the farmers around the village, we weigh them per kilo, we pay them, then we cut those fibers using scissors, after the cutting, we cook them. When we are cooking the fibers, we just add soda ash to quicken the boiling process” she explains.”But besides that, it’s just water, and if we are not in a rush, we just put water and keep boiling”. The process, taking around eight hours, is entirely based on human labor. Slow paper would be a more modern-day description.
”After the cooking, we blend them. After the blending, we lift them on mosquito nets and hung to dry. When they are dry, we pull them off easily and it’s paper. Our biggest challenge is we entirely rely on the weather, so if it’s not a hot day we cannot produce paper”. Namulanda is located just a few kilometers from Lake Victoria, the largest in Africa and the second largest in the world after Lake Superior in the US. This proximity to the lake makes sure humidity levels stay high and rains can unleash the wrath of the heavens. ”The other challenge we have, explains Harriet, ”is that we rely on human labor 100%. There are times when we cannot meet customers’ deadlines when desired because everything is produced with hands.” But hand-made is also why her customers keep ordering for more. And it helps the local economy by creating jobs.
Banana is one of the most widely grown fruits in Africa. And efforts to make paper out of banana stems and fibers have spread to many other countries. Harriet feels it’s a good thing. ”We believe that if everybody learns to appreciate nature, learns to appreciate whatever they see, we believe we can make a better future.”