Hyacinth close-up 2_0005

Finding Bread in Waste

  • Women’s group in Kisumu creates products from plastic trash and water hyacinth, and has sent almost 300 orphans to school.

By Carolyne Tomno

Florence Gundo is a 77-year-old grandmother. She lives in Orongo, a village tucked away in the lakeside region of Kenya. Her village is several kilometres from Kisumu city, which is a major regional hub in the lake basin region. 

Like many women in the lakeside region of East Africa, the lives of the widows revolve around Lake Victoria. The women earn their livelihood either directly or indirectly from the lake.

For the women and other people who earn a living from the lake, their main source of income is increasingly coming under threat from the destruction of the fragile ecosystem of Lake Victoria, the second largest freshwater lake in the world.

One of the biggest threats to the lake is plastic pollution. Research and analysis last year from scientists at the Uganda National Fisheries Resource Research Institute revealed that several chemicals that make up plastics are polluting the lake, including polyethylene, polypropylene, polyethylene terephthalate, polyamide (nylon), and polyvinyl chloride. These substances, called polymers, are found in plastic bags, bottles, wrappers and other everyday products.

The research results demonstrated that fish landing beaches along northern Lake Victoria are hotspot areas for plastic pollution as compared to recreational beaches and thus must be targeted for management of the pollution. Plastics enter waterways through runoff and disintegration of trash, especially from untreated sewage, industries, littering, and abandoned fishing gear, according to the United Nations Environment Programme. 

Locals in the area have jumped into action. Florence Gundo, fondly known as Mama Florence, is passionate about environmental conservation and decided to implement innovative ways to conserve the environment while also supporting her local community. 

“Plastic is very harmful to the environment, especially our water bodies, which is our lifeline,” she said.

According to Mama Florence and other members of her women’s group, they are eager to save Lake Victoria from drowning in waste. When the Kenyan government banned the use, import or manufacture of plastic bags in 2017, Florence saw there was a gap she could fill. 

Although water hyacinth is an invasive species that is a nuisance to fishermen, Mama Florence and women in her group have found ways of recycling the water hyacinth by converting it into useful products. “We make products like baskets, ropes, and beauty products like earrings, and even paper,” she said.

Their goal is to eliminate the need for people to use plastic, by making products from the hyacinth that are traditionally made from plastic. The women collect the hyacinth, separate it from its stalk and dry it before using it to weave the final products. The products are then dyed and decorated using different materials.

Orongo widows and orphans group is one example of the way that self-help women’s groups are trying to rescue Lake Victoria from drowning in waste. 

To improve community health and sanitation, the widows have restricted environmental pollution and began promoting environmental awareness, all the while creating employment opportunities and additional income generating activities. Since the group’s founding in 1998, it has been able to take care and educate 288 orphans from the proceeds of its income generating projects.

Rosemary Otieno, one of the group members, says being part of Orongo has changed her life. 

“I’m now able to take care of 10 orphans using the money I earn from the group,” Otieno said. Before joining the group, she was living in abject poverty and could not cater for her daily needs. “My life changed when my grandmother introduced me to the group,” Otieno said. “I have undergone training and I’m now involved in the various sustainable income generating activities being undertaken by the group.”

While some women rely on plastic basins to carry and clean fish by the lakeshore, others like this group’s members are recycling discarded plastic to weave baskets, ropes, pen holders, table mats, hats and lampshades.

Hyacinth in Lake Victoria


Murky, smelly and choking with waste

Pollutants enter the aquatic environment and lead to the destruction of delicate ecosystems. According to a report by the United Nations Environmental Program (UNEP), Lake Victoria was clean and filled with wildlife during the 1940’s and 1960’s. Sadly, the report states that the lake today is murky, smelly, and choking with waste. The water quality deterioration has been brought about by poor planning and management and inadequate investment in wastewater treatment systems by the government. The lake is the final destination of factory waste, oil and grease, sewage from urban centres and untreated effluent discharge.

“Other issues worsening the freshwater challenges are unsustainable population pressure, poorly planned industrialization and urbanization, water as a source of energy, outdated cultural practices such as superstition towards use of pit latrines, unsustainable agricultural practices, loss of freshwater biodiversity, overexploitation of fisheries resources and introduction of aquatic invasive alien species,” the report states.

The report adds that the ability of the lake basin environmental resources to sustain the livelihoods of the inhabitants depends on the abatement of these threats and the utilization of the resources in such ways to avoid the threats. Negative changes and the other driving forces such as population, economy, culture and governance precipitate the threats.

According to the Kenya National Solid Waste Management Strategy adopted in 2015, a public-private partnership in waste management is best for solid waste management, particularly recycling. Of six Kenya regions surveyed in the strategy, Kisumu collects the lowest amount of waste by far – just 20 percent. About 400 tons of waste are generated per day in the lakeside city.

Young environmentalist Enock Owuor says the situation on the ground is dire, as the lake ecosystem is heavily polluted with plastic and other solid waste. 

Owuor is among a group of young people who keep the beaches of Lake Victoria clean by collecting solid waste. “We collect waste from restaurants on Dunga beach and litter thrown away by visitors at the beach,” Owuor said. 

The waste is then sorted out and separated. The food remains from the restaurants and fish offals, along with the water hyacinth, is used to produce biogas, a clean energy source that is used for cooking and power generation. 

The plastic waste is also sold to others who recycle it and turn it into interlocking bricks for building. 

According to Owuor, there is a lot that can be made from disposed plastic. Owuor would like to see other young people taking care of the environment. 

“Young people can make money while taking care of the environment,” Owuor said. “If young people do not take care of the environment today, the future generations will suffer dire consequences.”

At the lakeside city of Kisumu, it is business as usual. Fishermen and other members of the public go about their business oblivious of the great dangers posed by plastic pollution, despite the fact that the fish are being affected. Tilapia and Nile perch, the major species of fish caught, sold locally and exported, contain traces of microplastic. 

Plastic is made from a synthetic polymer invented in 1907. When ingested it is suspected to interact with the immune system and cause oxidative stress and changes to the DNA, though more research is needed to determine the effects of ingesting microplastics on human health, according to the UN Food and Agriculture Organization. 

Educating orphans from waste recycling

Despite these challenges, the Orongo women’s and orphans group have proved that opportunities exist anywhere there is waste, and recycling is one way of reducing waste. 

The self-help group has endeavored to earn an income from environmental conservation activities offering hope to orphans and widows.  

The women have been divided into five different groups. They collect waste papers, plastic bags and empty bottles. With the skills they have obtained from training by local innovators, they weave carrier bags and ropes and make paper holders. Other women, after being trained in entrepreneurship, find markets and sell the finished products. There is huge demand for the carrier bags following the ban on plastic bags by the Kenya government, according to group members.

The work and income they receive has empowered the women and their families, Mama Florence said.

“We have been able to educate many orphans to university level. One of the orphans is Renice Achieng, who is now 25 years old. We have also given a chance to widows who had been stigmatized by the community and chased away from their homes by relatives,” the group leader said.

A 2008 study on women’s waste recycling groups in Kisumu by researchers at the University of Nairobi and Kenyatta University concluded that the benefits from such activities on the environment, health and income of communities are immense. 

However, the Orongo group and others need more support from the Kenyan government and donors to find viable and sustainable markets for their products, including in other regions of the country. They also need short refresher courses to improve their skills to make high-quality products out of polythene papers, water hyacinth plants and old fishing nets, the researchers concluded.

Environmentalists urge that such initiatives are needed, particularly in cities with growing populations.

Kisumu county is rapidly growing. According to the 2019 national census, the county had a population of about 1.2 million people. The entire Lake Victoria basin is home to 45 million people living in Kenya, Tanzania, Uganda and Burundi, according to the World Bank.

The livelihoods of many of the residents depend on the lake, but the proximity of the city to freshwater systems still poses a huge challenge of pollution.

This InfoNile / WanaData story was produced with support from JRS Biodiversity Foundation and Code for Africa as part of the WaterCommons initiative and the Code for All Exchange Program, funded by the National Democratic Institute and the National Endowment for Democracy.

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