When the government announced the ban on plastic bags in August, a group of men in the depths of Kisaka beach of Lake Vicotria started preparing for a new beginning.
They had waited for this kind of news since 2014 when they ventured into basket making. They had a good concept in mind. They were to pull out the water hyacinth that deposited at the shore of the lake, dry it and use it as weaving material for their baskets.
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“It looked lucrative. We made the first few baskets and were very excited. Nobody prepared us for the difficulty in getting market,” says Ismael Opande, Chairman of a community group that initiated the basket making project.
With every hyacinth they pulled, and needle pricks they sustained when stitching the baskets together, they were determined to turn the weed menace into money.
Then came the gloomy reality: people of Kisaka in Mbita Sub-county, Homa Bay County, were not ready to spend Sh500 on a basket, when plastic bags were going for as low as Sh5.
“They would laugh and ask why we were trying to rob them yet we got the weeds for free,” says Opande.
In 2016, they were forced to fold. Their baskets could not compete with plastic bags. They stopped and went back to fishing; a trade they had abandoned hoping to cash in on making baskets. The plastic ban has sparked their enthusiasm.
“We are ready for round two. Plastic bags are out, so we are starting over with basket making business,” says Opande.
They feel it presents a bigger platform to extend their skill and attract customers from Homa Bay and beyond. They are back to weaving, this time with broader goals.
“We hear people in cities are looking for baskets, especially supermarkets and other vendors,” he says, explaining why they had to regroup when they heard of the ban.
His excitement turns to pensiveness when he talks about market access. The road leading to Kisaka market is rugged and inaccessible. He says when it rains, no vehicle, no matter how hardy, can reach them.
“Some people were interested and we talked, but they pulled out because they would get stuck for hours,” says Opande.
Homa Bay county government downplayed claims of poor roads as a hindrance for such projects.
Through his communications officer Juma Aluoch, Governor Cyprian Awiti termed the claims “mere politics”, adding if there are any bad roads, it is due to long rains.
“What joke is that? Kisaka has never had any road. If we had good roads, maybe we would not have waited for a complete ban on plastic for us to weave these baskets,” says Richard Nyairo, a basket maker.
The seasonality of hyacinth also creates another challenge. The raw material is based on weeds that they are not allowed to plant on their own.
John Maniafu, National Environment Management Authority (NEMA) County Director says they have worked with various groups in efforts to end environmental degradation, and using hyacinth to make materials is one of the projects they have collaborated in.
“This weed is a menace. To find people who can use it to make money is encouraging,” says Maniafu.
He reinforced the need for better transport network, saying people in remote beaches are disadvantaged and have to sell their products cheaply to dispose of them.
To him, the biggest challenge has always been convincing donors to aid in hyacinth related projects.
“Partners have raised concerns because hyacinth is an obnoxious weed and people using them might be encouraging them to grow it,” Maniafu says.
Nyairo says despite the challenges, they are willing to give it a try. They have brought out their tools, and are looking into designs that could attract the younger generation.
“We are making bags for ‘slay queens’. That is how we see them called on the internet. This is a big opportunity,” he says.