Banana Paper, Uganda: reducing plastic waste

Mathias Wandera

You don’t have to walk a very long distance anywhere in Uganda to see them; sticking out of the ground or lying on the surface. Black, green or stained clear, they could easily make for part of the environs. Except for one thing, they are polythene bags, a top enemy of the environment.

This non-biodegradable waste takes up to 400 years to decompose and thus chokes the soils, blocks the smooth water filtration and percolation into the soil, putting soil fertility in jeopardy. And that is not all. The polythene bags, or kaveera as they are commonly known in Uganda, also clog water channels and have often led to flooding or created breeding ditches for mosquitoes.

With over 39,600 tons of polythene waste released into the environment each year, the sight of polythene is something Ugandans have come to contend with.  Not everyone though, at least not a then-23-year-old university student of Wood Science and Technology at Makerere University. What if a more environmentally-friendly packaging material could be tailored to replace polythene bags?

This is a possibility Godfrey Atuheire pondered upon for a while, until he found the opportunity to bring his brilliant thought to life, and he seized it! The year was 2006 and he was doing research for his prospective school project at the Uganda Industrial Research Institute (UIRI). Banana paper would be his solution, he realised. He would make his paper in the most environmentally friendly way, using banana fibre given that the banana plant is abundant in Uganda.

An internship at the institute after graduation fed his hunger for knowledge on making paper bags. It is then that he started making the paper bags out of banana stems at his home in Kinawataka, a Kampala suburb before relocating to his present operating premises in Kireka.

“I usually collect the banana stems free of charge from market places where they are readily available and always disposed of as waste. It is always better to use stems that are free of disease,” says Atuheire, now aged 33. He chose to use banana stems to make the paper bags because the stems have the desired fibre length, high lignin and cellulose content compared to other alternatives like sisal, water hyacinth and papyrus. These are what counts in making a strong yet easy to fold paper.

From banana to paper

Fibre is extracted from the banana stems by removing the soft part, as the inner fiber is what is used for making paper. Atuheire uses a machine called the extractor for this purpose. He acquired it at Shs 3million (US$1,000) from UIRI. The extracted fiber is thereafter washed, cut into small pieces and cooked for three hours in pots and later cooled. It is this cooked material that is mixed with water and put into the pulping machine that beats and crushes the solution into pulp, a porridge-like mixture. Starch is usually added to create a paper product that will not be prone to water penetration and in case the desired paper is to be coloured, the intended colour is added at this stage.

“We then scoop the porridge-like pulp using a casting net and put it under the sun to dry. The dried material is the paper. Usually it is rough, so we pass it through a smoothening machine to give it a smooth surface. We can then model and design the bags,” Atuheire explains.

The resultant bags have a hard material that cannot easily be ripped apart, thus they are a solid packaging material. And they are colourful too. They can be customised with particular slogans and designs for the respective clients, something that has gotten a number of users intrigued.

Shamim Ndikwani, 25, and a resident of Namasuba, a Kampala suburb, commends the introduction of paper bags, partly for their environmental friendliness but mostly for the colour they have brought to her shopping experience. “From what I have heard the bags are good for the environment. But what I like most about them is that they are presentable given the colour and designs I have seen around. Also, compared with the ones we receive from supermarkets, I have realized the bags are stronger than kavera and definitely easier to carry. I think the only thing I hate about them is the price. How I wish they were cheaper.” Ndikwani shares her experience with paper bags.

But there is more to paper bags than just their appealing look, as Atuheire notes; “Paper bags are everything polythene bags aren’t. They are completely organic and hence rot very easily after disposal, making them very environmentally friendly.” Frank Muramuzi, executive director of the National Association of Professional Environmentalists (NAPE), says the making of paper bags addresses the long-nursed woes of Uganda’s environment.

He applauds the efforts of Atuheire and any other people that may be engaged in the making of paper bags.

Money and jobs

Until recently, Atuheire had six employees and used to produce between 150 to 200 paper bags daily. However, following a ban by Uganda’s National Environmental Management Association (NEMA) on the use of polythene bags of 30 microns and below on 15 April 2015, Atuheire’s production has shot through the roof in a bid to catch up with the overwhelming demand for paper bags.

“Today I employ 28 people and on a daily basis I produce over 3,800 paper bags, selling them for a price ranging between Shs 200 (20 US cents) and Shs 3,000 (US$1) depending on size and design.

Atuheire plans to double this production in the foreseeable future, because the market for paper bags is now overwhelming. Initially, even with minimal levels of production, he used to sell almost half of the total produce to neighbouring Rwanda where there is a total ban on polythene bag usage. The situation has however changed as there is nothing left for export. He believes this industry could be an answer to youth unemployment and is playing his part by training youth groups on the craft.