Ingenuity turns weeds into finished products | Sunday Observer

Ingenuity turns weeds into finished products

2 August, 2020

In Ehetuwewa, a village in Galgamuwa, nearly 150 kilometres away from Colombo, local entrepreneur Niluka Jayanthi is leading a revolution among unemployed women in her community. Niluka has created a new source of livelihood for women in the area while introducing eco-friendly green products to the market, using an aquatic weed that is considered invasive and destructive in Sri Lanka. Niluka hopes to assist other Sri Lankan women to create similar products from their homes in the future.

Niluka’s raw material of choice is the invasive weed, the Water Hyacinth better known locally as Japan Jabara. Commonly found clogging Sri Lanka’s water sources, including agricultural tanks, rivers and canals, the plant was first introduced to Sri Lanka in 1904 for ornamental purposes.

Declared as a prohibited weed under the Water Hyacinth Act in 1909 and under the Plant Protection Act in 1924, the plant, however, has managed to spread widely across the country over the years. The Government is required to allocate a significant amount of funds annually to mitigate the effect of the species on Sri Lanka’s farming communities heavily dependent on water sources. But for Niluka and the women of Ehetuwewa, the weed has become a blessing in disguise and a source of income.

Alternative raw materials

For nearly four years, Niluka had made handloom and Rexine bags for sale after following a course on sewing. But the Easter Sunday attack on April 21 last year had severely impacted her business. “I was unable to purchase the Rexine materials to make the bags following the attack,” she said. Having to stop production as a result, Niluka had thought of alternative raw materials to create her products.

“At a vocational training program, I had seen a coin purse and a hat made of water hyacinth stems,” she said, adding that seeing this, she had thought of ways to adapt the method to create the handicrafts she was already manufacturing. “I did not want to copy it and make the purse. I wanted to use the method to make bags,” she said. She was keen to try something different as she had found that buyers were not particularly attracted to cloth bags and leather bags. “Many people produce these items. There is nothing special about it,” she said.

Deciding to replace Rexine material with treated water hyacinth stems, Niluka had tried and tested the method she learned at the program to create her products.

Today Niluka makes bags, backpacks, boxes for wedding cake, hats, files and dust bins with treated water hyacinth stems. “Though at first glance, it may appear that there is no use of the stems, we treat it and get into shape,” she said.

According to Niluka, no imported material, plastic or polythene is used to make the products. The lining used is cotton. “These are eco-friendly and green,” she said.

Wedding cake boxes made by her are particularly popular with many young couples opting to have traditional weddings. Niluka said that the bags made by her are of better quality and are stronger than Rexine bags found in the market.

According to her, since water hyacinth plants are readily available, she can accept even larger orders on time. To help her in the task, Niluka has recruited scores of unemployed women in her community. “Making products from water hyacinths is more time consuming as it needs a lot of preparation,” she said.

“There are many unemployed women. I visited the villages in our area and trained the women who were keen to learn how to produce parts of product,” she said. Some women, for example, are tasked with removing water hyacinth from tanks, while others dry the plants and prepare it.

According to Niluka, this has helped the women to make an additional income to support their families while staying at home.

Trials and tribulations

But her efforts have not been without trials and tribulations. “Before Covid-19, we produced nearly 250 bags in a month,” she said. However, following the ensuing lockdown, production dropped, Niluka said.

But according to Niluka, businessmen are not willing to provide the water hyacinths meant for destruction to local manufacturers, as they will lose their earnings and commissions. “They don’t care even if it can be used. They forget the less fortunate like us who are working hard to make a living,” she said. Niluka said the Government should introduce a procedure so that we can obtain raw material for our business,” she said.

Despite problems, Niluka is determined to continue. “It was not easy. I had to come to Colombo for almost everything to do my business,” she said. “But I chose to do this to earn a livelihood while contributing to my country,” she said.

As a video of her and her business went viral on social media recently gaining nearly one million viewers, Niluka said she has been receiving inquiries from Sri Lanka and abroad. “I believe in my product and its quality, so I am sure business will pick up once more,” she said.

However, having arrived this far with little assistance, Niluka has one request and that is help from well-wishers to assist her. Niluka said technical knowledge on water hyacinth processing to make products can help her to expand her business. “Though it’s a new concept for Sri Lanka, it is common in other Asian countries, such as Vietnam,” she said, adding that these counties have developed better technical knowledge. “For example, they have found ways to treat the stems to ensure the products last longer,” she said.

“I do not need funds or any other assistance. I just need technical knowledge,” she said.