Malawi: Traditional Basketry Offering an Ethical and Cheap Alternative to Plastics

In Malawi, where a recent ban on single-use plastics has forced people to think outside the box, there is a growing resurgence of an almost-forgotten technique. Hand-woven baskets, made from plant material and upcycled waste alike, are replacing the maligned plastic bag with an environmentally friendly alternative.

Words and Photographs by Deogracias Benjamin Kalima

Chimpele Gama is a man on the move. He spends most weekends selling his handmade carrying baskets – made from milaza (palm tree leaves ) – in the mobile markets of Lunzu, Mdeka and Lirangwe, three towns situated along a stretch of Malawi’s main North-South road, (known as M1), north of the city of Blantyre in southern Malawi’s Shire Highlands. These places offer him a good market for his wares, as he finds buyers not only among the market regulars, but also among people who are travelling along the route to various destinations.

He is one of few artisans in Malawi who are trying to bring back the old tradition of using baskets made from reeds and palm tree leaves–a tradition which began to see a steep decline with the coming of plastic carrier bags in the 1990s. Once the plastic carrier bags were in town, the basket was seen as a sign of backwardness and was abandoned, as everybody went for plastics which were now being manufactured in multitudes due to high demand. However, sooner the thin plastic turned into a menace, harming farmland, drainage, rivers, and lakes, proving to be an eyesore on the land, and contributing to climate change through green house emissions.

“Basketry has been a centuries-old tradition among Malawians,” says Gama, who comes from Balaka district, 70 kilometres of north of Blantyre, “and only lost popularity when the plastics took over in the 1990s. However, with the devastation plastics have caused to the environment, it is time we go back to baskets for the purpose of carrying goods.”

two men on a balcony holding baskets
Chimpele Gama selling his basketry wares to a customer, Funani Andiseni

Weaving has been an integral part of Malawian culture for hundreds if not thousands of years. The art of weaving has been passed on from generation to generation.

Gama says he learnt basket weaving when he was a kid and has been doing basketry all these years, although, due to the loss of popularity in baskets, he devoted much of his time to weaving mats that most Malawian households use for various purposes, such as sleeping, resting, and drying maize flour, which is used to cook Nsima, a staple food for most Malawians.

However, with more and more Malawian people becoming aware of the harmful effects of thin plastics on the environment, coupled with a government ban on the production and sale of thin plastics, baskets made from degradable material like palm leaves are now becoming fashionable once more, offering him and other artisans a market and an income. Gama says it is even more encouraging to see more urban dwellers buying and using baskets for their market shopping trips.

“These days many people are buying our reusable baskets made from milaza which apart from being used for up to three years, are also offering a sustainable and environmental friendly alternative to the thin plastics,” explains the 56-year-old father of five who says he learnt weaving at a very young age and has been practicing it ever since.

Gama says he gets milaza from the flood prone district of Chikwawa, in the Shire Valley some 100 kilomtres away, where the palm trees are much in plenty, offering him a readily available source of raw material. Apart from baskets from these milaza, he also makes serving trays, door and table mats, and recreational sun hats, all of which he sells.

plastic straps used to make basketry
Even straps like these–normally considered waste–can be used to weave baskets that will last for over 10 years.

He also weaves baskets from the discarded straps used to fasten second-hand clothes bales. These baskets can last for ten years or more and are water resistant.

Funani Andiseni is one of Gama’s customers, and he says he likes the type of baskets which Gama makes as they are craftily beautiful, stronger and long lasting, giving him and his family pride as they go shopping to the market on a weekend. According to Andiseni, each time he buys a basket, it means two things to him: he is economically empowering rural and unemployed artisans who earn an income from basketry weaving, and his use of such a basket is his humble contribution to the reduction of the continued use of single-use plastics, which are very common in Malawi and are contributing to thousands of tonnes of plastic trash, most of which ends up in rivers and lakes, if not landfills.

“To me, baskets are a best alternative to single-use plastics,“ he explains. “They are fighting the proliferation of plastics which are not environmentally friendly while at the same time offering these artisans a sustainable way of earning an income to support their families.“

Another customer of Gama’s basketry products is Jessy Mwamadi, a 40-year-old mother of three who says the baskets now reminds her of her youthful days when she and her mother, alongside other women from her village in Zomba, used to go to the commodity and produce market every Monday and Friday to shop for their groceries and other necessities. In recent years, single-use plastic bags have become prolific. She says the baskets are a better option since, when discarded at the end of life, they decompose easily in the soil; plastics, by comparison, can take up to 50 years to decompose, and even then only into the potentially more troublesome form of microplastics.

“These baskets are biodegradable,” she says, “which means, once discarded, the termites devour it into soil, which adds fertility to our land, which we use to grow various crops for consumption and selling to support our families.”

two young girls carrying a green basket
Creative Basketry: This long-lasting and water-resistant basket is woven from discarded straps that once formed part of a clothing bale.

As one of the poorest nations in the world, Malawi cannot afford to ignore the financial and environmental consequences of plastic pollution, especially given that rapid urbanization, coupled with changing consumer demands, is driving further escalation of plastic production in the South East African country.

It is estimated that about 75,000 tonnes of plastic is produced in Malawi annually, of which 80 percent is single-use plastic that cannot be recycled. Lake Malawi, one of Africa’s large freshwater bodies, has been severely affected by the plastic trash problem. Plastic pollution poses a major threat to the lake’s status as a World Heritage Site, with significant economic costs to the tourism industry as a result of loss in aesthetic value. Conservationists say plastic is a threat to about 1,000 fish species found in Africa’s third largest lake, and studies warn that the fish stock could be depleted by 2050 unless the lake is cleaned up. Damage to marine life as a result of plastic waste is also likely to have consequences for fishery stocks and production. This is a major concern given that many Malawian livelihoods are linked to the fisheries of Lake Malawi and other floodplain wetlands.

According to the United Nations Environmental Programme (UNEP), the environmental damage caused by plastic pollution costs US$40 billion annually in natural capital losses.

Perhaps with more people becoming responsible in the way we do things, we can reduce the destruction on the environment that has been going on for many years now. Ensuring that our land is less degraded and contaminated is in line with the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) Number 3, which promotes Good Health and Wellbeing, Number 11, which calls for Sustainable Cities and Communities, Number 12, which covers Responsible Consumption and Production, Number 13, which calls for Climate Action, and Number 15, which deals with Life on Land.

2 thoughts on “Malawi: Traditional Basketry Offering an Ethical and Cheap Alternative to Plastics”

  1. Those baskets are lovely. It is great to see employment coming back in the traditional industries that do not cause pollution and create useful items that will biodegrade when finished with.

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