New products help Ghanaian communities make their homes with recycled materials

Take a look at a recent television ad for one of those many “ethical consumer” brands that puts a positive, carbon-negative spin on “things green.” Two young Africans, in two totally different yet worlds — one in the middle of a chaotic street, the other in a buttoned-up office — share the small local savings they’ve managed to save. An international environmental group, Good Left Hands, gives one of them the money to build a new, sustainable home in the shadow of the family’s current house. The other spends the money on a cow that is sold to provide some nutrients for a nearby village.

It’s a cute, logical vignette for our age of goodwill and veganism — although this brand isn’t vegan, either. It’s not actually a glamorous non-profit either, although the Good Left Hands website does tout its contributions to Good Leones, a local charity.

These so-called “recycled” goods don’t simply fall out of landfill boxes and make their way back into people’s shopping carts. The materials come from the construction industries of less-developed countries, via an international collaboration dubbed LJRD (Less Hygienic Developing Countries).

In the Ghanaian town of Barkala, where our eyes would most certainly not be spared as we drive to work in the morning, for example, a shoe manufacturing company called Prada Footwear uses reusable materials in its products, including spandex. Later, we meet other factories like Bentley Group (shoes), Mayfair India (apparel) and Italian shoemaker Cadillo (pumps). In each of these cases, much of the factory’s raw materials come from Africa.

Through collaborations with national and international stakeholders, like those of Good Left Hands, LJRD has amassed a decent amount of materials — mostly corrugated cardboard boxes and other unappetizing, seemingly dubious materials — that it is now turning into reusable goods, like durable flooring made from recycled cardboard. These are the kinds of things the average shopper might assume is a luxury of the rich, but turn out to be hugely beneficial to these developing countries. The locally-sourced goods provide employment and infrastructure, give villagers access to basic goods, and have few impact on their environment. (Indeed, the global-sized portion of the recycled materials extracted in the Global Footprint Network’s survey from Africa would cover an entire city in Haiti. So while our imagination may be limited, the real world is still quite orderly.)

In nearly 30 years of global development work, I’ve never worked with companies this early in the lifecycle of their product. From the beginning, the biggest change we’ve had to make was to make the “unsellable” more saleable — to change the message from a “buy” to a “donate” component.

At a high level, the way we think about LJRD and the items it has helped create is not unlike the way we think about Invisible Children — the Ugandan organization trying to educate people about the AIDS epidemic in their country. Invisible Children’s products aren’t simply curbside donations. Their videos link to a multilevel social action action model that ultimately allows donors to direct much of the nonprofit’s donor dollars toward building community centers, providing dental care, and getting clean water to vulnerable communities, among other projects.

Invisible Children and Good Left Hands may differ when it comes to missions and funding methods, but the two approaches share one thing in common: They are both exemplars of sustainable products that let consumers (often working-class or middle-class consumers in many instances) bring the purpose of their donations back to the community. It’s a form of jugaad, or quick-fix, but it makes a lot of difference — both on the developing world and within the family.

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