Vanessa Nsona collects waste, tinkers and toys, prototypes and makes new products. Circular thinking is central to her work in Malawi. “I have always thought of waste as treasure,” she says. I spent a day with Vanessa, visiting her workshop, sourcing materials in the Ndirande township and interrogating her motivation for the way she works.
Vanessa lives in Fargo, a neighbourhood in Blantyre near the presidential palace. At the top of a steep incline, her home overlooks hundreds of houses built in the last decade. Assorted potted succulents adorn the khonde (veranda) complementing the cane garden furniture. She works in the backyard. Plastic bottles, retrieved from the Nasolo River, are piled in one corner. In another is one of the products she makes from these ubiquitous blue bottles – a dustbin. It is a prototype that Vanessa, 29, hopes will replace the steel and plastic bins most Malawians use. She has been using it for over a year, successfully bringing the bottles back to a longer useful life.
“Circular design is about continuity,” Vanessa explains. “It is about what happens next and how you design for the future so that you’re not wasting resources. Using and reusing items becomes a lifestyle.”
It is a lifestyle she lives.
Apart from a few electronic necessities, her home is furnished almost exclusively with her designs. There is a sofa made of reclaimed wood pallets and an upcycled circular wooden mirror frame on the wall behind. She also has two refurbished royal blue chairs, and reclaimed frames sourced from the Ndirande township.
“When I started my design journey, I used what people refer to as waste. I didn’t have money. So, I was always looking to see how I could make new things from used and old things that I collected,” she says. It is clear she has mastered the art. Vanessa creates accessories that delight and inspire her customers, even if, from a purely commercial point of view, her life would be simpler if she bought manufactured components for her fashion and interior design work. Instead, she has added layers of complexity to her creative process and to her business. This, when even the simplest tasks can be difficult to complete in Malawi, a country in which days and weeks can pass by without crossing much off a to-do list.
In Vanessa’s case, hours can be spent sifting through piles of discarded products that have come to the end of their useful life. That is until Vanessa finds them, reclaiming zippers, purse locks, rivets and D-rings. Then she needs to make her way through the slow trickle of traffic to her studio and workshop in Bangwe.
Vanessa grew up with two brothers, a cousin and her parents. Her mother, Dorothy, was a central figure in her life and remains her biggest influence. It was Dorothy who encouraged her daughter to nurture her entrepreneurial spirit. While she was still at school, Vanessa sold frozen sugary drinks in a tube, and made and sold burgers. She relished the feeling of accomplishment, of bringing delight to others, but most of all, having money to spend. “I wanted to make money for myself. I didn’t want to rely on my parents.”
Towards the end of her days at business college, a family friend became Vanessa’s mentor. The “aunty” was an older woman sought out by people in Blantyre for her sewing services. Vanessa learnt basic needlework, using offcuts and expensive embellishments, which her mentor had gifted her. Initially, she focused on making fascinators for weddings. “She gave me a lot of the stuff – beading, sequins, pearls and different types and in different colours,” Vanessa says. “She gave me my first machine – of course I couldn’t really use it. So, I had to hire someone to help me.”
In 2011, Vanessa’s mother died of cerebral malaria. “It was very sudden,” she says. For a year, grief ruled Vanessa’s life. It manifested as a lack of direction but over time, she reflected on who her mother was – empowering others, bringing energy and love to those who needed it. She established her brand and named it Dorovee, an amalgamation of her mother’s name, Dorothy, and her own. Put together the name means “God’s Gift of Beauty”.
“I started working in our garage. My father wanted me to get an office job,” she says, “but I knew what I wanted to do, and I know what I am good at doing.” Soon after launching her brand, Vanessa hired young women to help her manage the growing demand for her products. They outgrew the garage and have established a studio where Vanessa trains young women who have dropped out of school early to raise children, or are struggling financially.
Driving around Blantyre, Vanessa sees discarded materials everywhere, from the littered roadside to a timber factory where she collects the flaky shards of wood that later become mirror frames. In Ndirande, mounds of sawdust blanket the riverbank. By working with the waste wood, she hopes to reduce pollution.
By 7am on Sundays, plenty of people are already working in Ndirande. Either side of the pathways, there are piles of unwanted parts from imported goods: steel shopping trolleys, broken office desks, doors stripped from cars, and towers of red wooden pallets. Among these, artisans are hard at work repurposing waste materials. Groups of men mill about ready to sell timber. Metal clangs as tinsmiths fashion shiny mbaula stoves out of scrap metal. These round silver stoves with metal handles are used in many households, sometimes as a supplement to gas or electric ones.
Close to the Nasolo river that cuts through Ndirande, saw machines whine as they release fine sprays of wood chips and sawdust into the air. The sawdust settles on the riverbank, where a man pulls a cow by the tail to stop her from descending the slope to have a drink. The river, which flows past Makata Industrial area before linking with the notoriously polluted Mudi River, looks like dirty dishwater pooling around slimy rocks, piling up with discarded water bottles and tattered thin blue plastics.
Vanessa and I drive slowly down a dirt road filled with large rocks and reach a gate. Beyond, in an overgrown green garden, is a house made of white-painted bricks, with a grey stone chimney and black wrought iron security bars. Her workshop is near the kitchen entrance, and the main house is occupied by a small family. It’s here that Vanessa and her team have grown from making fascinators, to producing an array of items including mirrors, macrame baskets, chairs and lampshades, tables, shoes, bags… Two of the most popular products are the Ngoni bags and Maravi sandals.
On entering the low door, we are greeted by trainees sitting at a table, chatting as they work to perfect their new skills as cobblers. They have learnt to make shoes using free materials, which they find near to where they live. They disassemble used clothing, taking apart glittering embellishments and buttons, using zippers and beads to put together a new shoe that is sturdy and fashionable. The soles of the Maravi sandals are made from discarded tyres.
The sandals sell well and Vanessa hopes that they will become synonymous with Malawi. The Ngoni bags are made from discarded boxes and leather from old bags, finished with handmade rattan woven by local artisans. Drawing from Malawian culture to incorporate heritage into her work, she names her bags and sandals after local tribes.
Working on her circular design projects requires a process of testing and failing, and testing and succeeding. Using waste, she must imagine the final form and create the foundational materials.
Take the natural binding agents for instance. Vanessa first made an animal glue, using waste cooking oil and leftover bones, which was popular before industrialisation. The process was lengthy, involving drying, crushing and boiling for hours. She tried gelatine glue, mixing raw gelatine, glycerol and water. This glue was not a successful experiment, which she suspects is because of imbalanced portions or missing ingredients. For her latest experiment she granulated, dried, heated, and boiled potatoes. She likes that the materials for this are easily available and the process is much less time consuming than processing glue from bones. Vanessa has chosen to use this for her new project working with wood waste from the timber industry.
Vanessa was invited to attend the 2019 Circular Design Lab in London. It was here that her interest in the circular economy deepened, bringing the principles she has worked with into sharper focus. The outcome of her trip is a new material made from wood chips, and an exhibition of recycled and repurposed materials, which explores the technical capacity of traditional methods. She has been figuring out how to scale and replicate the form of a plant pot, test its tensile strength and perfect the ratio of glue to sawdust.
“I do not make for the sake of making, but to reduce waste and impact positively on the environment while doing so,” says Vanessa.
- Photographs: Chiposi Sinalo (single photos) and Temwa Msiska (galleries)
- Feature illustration: Francesco Mbele @franadilla
- Temwa is the founder of the tourism startup, Orion Malawi. In addition to being a lawyer by profession, she has a wealth of experience in marketing, PR and communications. Temwa currently uses her digital platform to convey the stories, vibrancy and beauty of her country not only to attract people to Malawi but to connect industry leaders. Temwa holds a LLB Law from the University of Wolverhampton as well as an MBA from BPP University College in London. She has told the story of Vanessa Nsona who is a social entrepreneur and product designer.
- This is the fourth of a six-part story series, Design Futures Africa, about circular designers in Africa. Storytellers have worked with Twyg on stories that will be published once a week until 28 February on Twyg. This project is supported by the British Council. The designers were hosted by the British Council and Ellen MacArthur Foundation at the Circular Design Lab 2019 London.