As you approach the KamiAmi Women’s Cooperative in Pokuase, Ghana, you can hear the women sing, “KamiAmi, KamiAmi” as they work. Translated from the Ga language, KamiAmi means not too tight, keep it loose. The women chant their mantra as a reminder to keep their stitches loose while they crochet strips of recycled black plastic into fashion accessories. A lesson they learned from their teacher, Vermont fiber artist Jackie Abrams. The Pokuase cooperative, a division of WomensTrust, is producing chic sturdy bags, as well as creating a new life for themselves.
The KamiAmi Cooperative was initiated by Dana Dakin, founder of WomensTrust, a 501(c)(3) microlending organization based in Pokuase. Dana is a resident of New Hampshire and has enjoyed a successful career in financial marketing. The WomensTrust mission is to empower the women and girls of Pokuase to improve their lives through enterprise, education, and healthcare. WomensTrust is a model to bring resources and community-based support directly to the developing world.
Pokuase is a typical African village where families live on less than $3.00 a day without running water, electricity, and sewage disposal. Large black plastic bags are used as the main receptacle and now litter the local environment. Since the residents live without refrigeration, they must shop everyday. There was a time when straw baskets were the primary shopping bag and were reused daily. When plastic bags were introduced by the market vendors, the baskets went to the wayside and plastic became the bag of choice. When finished with the bags, residents merely toss them on the street as there isn’t any organized means of trash disposal.
On her many visits to Pokuase, Dana became disturbed by the profusion of black plastic bags littering the small village of 24,000. “I thought, we should try to something about this disastrous environmental problem,” says Dana. It was serendipity when Dana met Jackie Abrams who had the idea of producing a stylish product using recycled plastic. Jackie had just completed working with a basket cooperative in northern Ghana and was familiar with the country and the people. Finances were procured through a generous loan from the Mayer Foundation, and Jackie made several visits to Pokuase to teach the women how to develop a marketable product to sell and generate income using their crocheting skills.
On her first three-week visit to Pokuase in 2008, Jackie began her goal by gathering the women with their babies and children into daily Ghanaian crocheting bees. Each woman who wanted to participate received a set of aluminum crochet hooks and a small tin containing the necessary implements to create a useful bag: measuring tape and safety pins. They began to learn about the importance of recycling and the process of transforming strips of black plastic into “yarn”, which is rolled into giant “yarn” balls from newly washed recycled bags. The KamiAmi women save their shopping bags and encourage their friends and neighbors to also do so.
As the women practiced their craft, Jackie stressed the importance of maintaining the quality of their product, thus the phrase KamiAmi. She emphasized the importance of design consistency, and the need for meeting deadlines in order to take their products to market. They also learned about running a sustainable business, about fair trade practices and being fairly paid for one’s time, and about the value of recycling. The women formed the cooperative and named it KamiAmi.
Jackie developed the designs of the KamiAmi bags. The first is a charming, small coin purse with hand-sewn zipper closing. They were picked up for resale in Accra, the capital of Ghana, by the Global Mamas, a fair-trade organization that distributes products worldwide. The quality handmade purses are now part of the Global Mamas inventory available in the United States.
In 2009 on Jackie’s last visit, she developed a new design, the Mamiakua bags, which the cooperative named after Jackie: Mami, a respectful title and Akua , the month she was born. The Mamiakua bags are handsome soft-sided crocheted black plastic tote bags with a self-handle as part of the design. Each bag is carefully handmade into an established KamiAmi design following a rectangle template Jackie provided. The handles are equally spaced in the center maintaining design consistency. As they crochet and follow Jackie’s template, each of the cooperative women personalize their creation by adding in a row or two of colorful recycled plastic accents procured from colorful recycled plastic sheets that are readily available throughout Pokuase.
The attractive, lightweight totes are ideal as a reusable shopping bag, a handbag or a crushable tote for your home as a wonderful storage container. Picture a closet shelf with several Mamiakua bags lined up filled with scarves, t-shirts, socks, etc. Or sitting next to your favorite chair, filled with magazines and newspapers. The uses are endless.
The success of the KamiAmi enterprise can be measured in many ways. It is providing an income for a group of women in Pokuase, who would not be earning a sustainable living; it has taught the women invaluable business practices, and it has repurposed the black plastic bags that are a blight on their village.
For more information on the KamiAmi Cooperative and Women’s Trust, please visit womenstrust.org, jackieabrams.com, globalmamas.org.