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Woman who churns riches from waste products

By | January 19th 2012

By John Kariuki

The buzzword the world over is environmentally friendly products and services. For instance, the hottest selling points now are green energy and organic foods.

Locally, there is a growing market and faith in products made from recycled raw materials.

Often, such merchandise combines both creativity and environmental care. It is in this light that Mary Wanjiru Wainaina, alias St Annah, has become a sensation in Gilgil Town.

Mary Wanjiru Wainaina displays some of the wares she makes. [Photo: John Kariuki/Standard]

St Annah is the name of a church ministry she runs on the sides. She makes necklaces, earrings and bags from recycled papers, which she then sells for a living. This entrepreneur combines a manual handiness in assembling the beads into necklaces with a dying art of weaving baskets.

But instead of the traditional thread, she uses the recycled waste nylon paper. Even her crotchets are improvised from metal rods as commercial one’s break easily in this arduous task. "I have been scouting the town’s dumping sites in search of waste paper for my business for a long time that people have now become accustomed to it," she says.

Raised eyebrows

More useful is the stiff gauge paper used for making posters and high-density polythene bags, she says. "Such polythene paper is common as a filler material in the packaging boxes of glassware," she says. There have been many interesting moments in her trade when this mother of two raised eyebrows by rushing to rescue burning waste paper from compost heaps.

"People actually burn money when they torch polythene bags, old newspapers and calendars," she says. And once as she walked along a street with her husband, Humphrey Wainaina, someone threw a bundle of high-density polyphone bags into a dustbin. "I rushed for the windfall and my husband quickly melted away, fearing to be associated with my scavenging habits," she says.

After collecting her polythene papers, Wainaina washes and sorts them according to their colour theme. "The next step is to cut them into long cords for weaving," she says. She often combines strips with bright colours to weave flashy bags and softer hues for more subdued colour tones. "When a bag is finished, it would take you a very close look to discern that it is not a commercially produced one but made from polythene cords," she says.

She displays her finished products at her workshop, from where local and foreign clients come to buy. The bags retail from Sh400 to Sh500 depending on size. "I also make fast-moving clutch purses from recycled newspapers," she says. She adds that she can weave one bag per day but larger ones take up to three days.

"When demand is high I often employe extra hands to help me, she says. Wainaina has tried her hand in many things. "I once worked with a paint selling company before running a hotel, a shop and a tailoring business in Gilgil, she says.

"But my turning point came in 2004 when I attended a one day paperwork seminar at Kongoni in Naivasha," she says. A mzungu visitor took the participants through various skills in making things out of paper, she says.

Financial strides

And as often happens in entrepreneurship, Wainaina did not think much of the business potential of her new skills until a year later. She bumped into a lady who had participated in the same seminar. She said she had just sold a few necklaces made of paperwork for Sh6,000," she says .

She probed her further and realised that she had made great financial strides with the paper work skills. "Ignorance of the potential of one’s trade skills is a bad thing," she says. "I made a few necklaces and gave them to a curio shop operator to display and they all sold out."

She has since learnt her lessons and gone full throttle into making bags and necklaces from recycled paper and has never looked back since. "I am now able to meet my family’s domestic budget from this job," she says. But while Mrs Wainaina can make bags, earrings and kiondo from recycled materials, her mainstay are necklaces.

And these start from the requisite "beads" made from waste paper. As with bags, she strips down paper into long stands and which she rolls into cylinders that are conical in the middle with a string running through them. "I apply a finishing of a clear varnish to stiffen the ‘beads’ and make them waterproof," she says.

Wainaina then assembles the beads into a chain and puts a commercially made stopper bead where the necklace can be opened and closed. "In this trade, creativity is everything.

It comes in handy when sorting out the beads in colours that can combine with a wide range of women’s clothes," she says. She sells the necklaces from Sh50 to Sh400 depending on size.

And moving with the times, she is also assembling shorter chains for wearing around the legs and also multipurpose necklaces that can double up as bangles when tied around the wrists. Wainaina complains that local buyers often bargain hard whereas foreigners pay handsomely for the effort and art that they see in her products.

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