In countries like Haiti and Kenya where short and long term employment
solutions are desperately needed, Tosheka Designs has developed a way to
change the lives of people from low income communities in a matter of months
and engage the entire country into an environmental movement.
With their Creating Recycled Treasures Project, Tosheka trains women from rural
areas in Kenya to handcraft highly fashionable "Soko" bags made of used, but clean
plastic bags. The company also runs a marketing campaign to encourage people to
recycle plastic bags, and partners with supermarkets and other businesses to establish
a network of collection bins. The outcome is incredible: increased environmental
awareness, hundreds of new jobs in low income areas, and the producing of highly
fashionable bags. Haiti is next
Herman and Lucy Bigham, founders of Tosheka Textiles, started their Creating
Recycled Treasures Project in 2011 in Kenya and are now replicating it in Haiti. This
decision comes from the opportunities that Haiti offers, but also from Herman's
personal love for the country. He first visited Haiti in the 1970s and was impressed by
its history, as well as its spiritual and cultural richness.
"Haiti was like first on my list. That's a place where I would really want to make an
impact because of its contribution to the freedom of African people," says Herman.
Herman and his wife, Lucy, are looking at training groups of women in Saint Marc and
Cap-Haitien because of the proximity to the port and the airport that are being built in
Tosheka trained over 100 women in Kenya to turn plastic bags into a continuous yarn,
then using techniques similar to crochet to make fashionable bags. The training only
lasts a few months and when the women become proficient, they can start producing
the Soko bags from home. Some women are able to create up to four bags a week and
get paid about $25 a week.
"We believe that there is a lot of funding going on in Haiti, a lot of training, but not a lot
of employment that is being generated, " says Herman.
"It will outlive you"
The product is also quite remarkable. A big bag weights one kilogram (slightly over 2
pounds), the medium size bag - 0.75 kgs, and the small one - 0.5 kgs. The plastic
makes it elastic, and it is so durable that Lucy and Herman like to say: "It will outlive
Some of the designs are created by the women who make the bags and finished by
Lucy, who is experienced in textile design.
"Women come up with great designs. Their combinations are so unpredictable. I let
them be," says Lucy.
The bags are ultimately decorated with finishing like leather, buttons, and other
accessories. The Soko bags cost between $40 and $180.
Increasing environmental awareness
The other important side of this business model is the impact on the environment. It
began with a partnership with the largest supermarket chain in Kenya to have
collection bins where people can place their clean plastic bags in. Some schools,
hotels, and other institutions joined the movement and installed the collection bins
within their facilities. Tosheka also partnered with local non-profits to run a marketing campaign that
encouraged people to recycle the plastic bags that may take a thousand years to
Plastic manufacturers can sponsor collecting bins and, therefore, support the recycling
efforts and build a better name.
Tosheka is looking at replicating this system in Haiti. It is developing a partnership with
Delmar supermarkets, Trans-African organization in Haiti, and having conversations
with the government.
While the bags created in Kenya originally targeted the Kenyan middle class, the
products made in Haiti will target the US and the Caribbean markets. Now Tosheka is
discussing a partnership with a major retail company in the US that might create its
Besides bags, Tosheka is looking at developing other products: belts, hats and other
In terms of increasing environmental awareness, Tosheka shoots even higher. Their
next phase for Kenya, and eventually Haiti, is to work with the retailers and to train
them not to use so many plastic bags when packing. Lucy smiles when she says that
even when selling their "environmentally conscious" Soko bags made of plastic, some
cashiers pack them into another plastic bag.
Tosheka’s Recycling Treasures project is currently providing income for 180 women
and is looking to have 400 producers by the end of the year and 500 by the end of year
1 in Haiti.