Q&A: Bernice Whitby tells us how The Baobab Project creates sustainable livelihoods

by | Jul 12, 2021

A Durban-based socio-economic development initiative is inspiring a generation to rethink, redesign and build a positive future for the city.

The Baobab Project, launched at the end of 2019, promotes the emergence, development and deployment of new solutions to reduce environmental impact, and to create green jobs. The non-profit organisation was founded by Stephen Gray of The Makers Space and the Veolia group to help resource the world for ecological transformation. Their mission is aligned with the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals.

We asked Bernice Whitby, the project manager of Baobab, to tell us more.

Tell us briefly about the project.

Our role is to promote sustainable living through awareness and educational programs including the economic participation. We empower people through practical outreach activations, by learning about sustainability and the principals of the circular economy.

We have three parts to the project. There is My little Pumpkin, which is a schools’ outreach programme where we work together with The AgriCUL Institute and Wessa with schools to plant a garden or a few gardens, and incorporate sustainability and the circular economy into the school programme. The second part is promoting zero waste living. We have a coffee shop run by the Flat White coffee company which brings people into The Baobab Project space. Most people live on a linear scale and don’t understand circular living. We take them on tours of our work to create awareness and to effect change. From the coffee shop you have a view of the third part of our project which is the innovation waste design studio. The purpose of the studio is to incubate people who want to develop a businesses out of waste. Our mission is to help underprivileged people to create products out of waste and to create a sustainable livelihood in a sustainable way.

For the design studio, what materials do you use?

We reuse, recycle and make things out of what is usually regarded as waste. We do this to help generate income. Our resources are plastic waste products, offcuts of leather and other kinds of waste.

We have a plastic shredder and a plastic heating machine which melts plastic into a toothpaste-like medium.  Using in-house moulds, we can then shape the plastic as required.

We have great success stories. Irebo Eco Bros is a fashion brand that creates tracksuits and bags out of old banners, denim and leather. Nkosinathi Luthuli and Zophila Sikhonde take offcuts of old materials to make new and beautiful designs. Mr N Designs is a jewellery company started by Margaret Nesemare – she makes earrings from offcuts of old laser pieces.

What is challenging about working with plastics?

Safety is one of the most challenging aspects of using plastics. Because you have to heat up the plastics before you mould them, we don’t want anyone to get burnt! It’s important for us to ensure that everyone has safety gear and works in a safe way. Many of our interns have stories about getting burns here and there, but there have been no serious injuries.

It is also a challenge to find the correct type of plastics and to ensure its effectiveness for the product. We mostly use old PVC pipes, which need to be cleaned before they are ready and usable.

What products have you created?

We have made combs, foot filers, knives’ sets, key rings and earrings. Also, soap dishes, face shields, earrings, chopping boards and stools.

What is the best seller?

Our foot filers!

Who are your recycling technicians?

Currently we have a few interns training as recycling technicians who have the potential to develop into entrepreneurs. We help incubate and start their businesses. One of the lovely things about The Baobab Project is that we take on anyone with a creative idea and who wants to bring it to life. We help train people how to use the waste materials, and how to contribute positively to the world.

We have Teresa Ntombikayise Nsibande, whose  aspiration in life is to be happy, do what makes her happy. Teresa who has a diploma in engineering wants to be recognised as one of the leading women in engineering and empower women to wear and shine their crowns with pride. Mafede Avumile, another engineering graduate, does not want to be part of 70% of unemployed youth. He wants to become self-employed and create jobs for others. Sifiso Siphokuhle Mthethwa is willing, curious, and is driven by his inspiration. Bambisisa Mncube wants to start her own business to help reduce the high rate of unemployment.

What other services do you offer?

We offer training, skills share workshops, and workshops on sustainable living. We offer interns an opportunity to train in all facets of our business. Within our zero waste program we run workshops on sustainability. We have a Baobab community that we contact via social media platforms so we constantly inspire each other with new innovative ideas, information and sharing skills in different areas of our lives to show how we can live sustainably.

We make things possible.

In your opinion, what can we do to achieve a happier, healthier and kinder society as quickly as possible?

We need to change the way we think, create awareness about where the world is going and what we can do to make it better. We need to change our core values and our views of success as a society. Amassing wealth means nothing if the world we live in is going to die before you can enjoy that wealth or before generations to come can enjoy it. True wealth is health, and living in a healthy way. True wealth is giving back to the earth and true wealth is passing on knowledge at no cost, which is something we support. We need to leave the world a better place. I believe in living life on purpose, with purpose. Right now we have to replenish the earth.

Do you have a physical space?

We have an establishment at 51 Station Drive in Morningside, Durban. We are operating within the Covid-19 restrictions.  We’re doing the best we can.

Read more about the Baobab Project here. 

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