Water hyacinth, scientifically known as Eicchronia carssipes, is a weed from the Amazon basin in South America. The non-native aquatic plant made its way to India as a gift from the British. It was the wife of the First British Governor-General, Lady Hastings, who became mesmerised by the ornamental beauty of the flowers and brought to India.
Despite having an intriguing history, the plant species has become a nuisance in water bodies across India. The fast-growing plant is invasive and negatively impacts the aquatic flora and fauna, thus the environment at large.
Authorities have reportedly spent crores of rupees trying to get rid of the water hyacinth but to no avail.
Such was the case with Deepor Beel, a freshwater lake in Assam, also known as a Ramsar convention site. It is a paradise for ornithologists, offering a visual treat of around 200 migratory birds, and wildlife biologists and environmentalists also frequent the spot.
However, to solve the issues of the water hyacinth, a group of young women in Assam have converted the organic waste into an opportunity by turning them into environment-friendly, biodegradable yoga mats. Since February 2021, six women have been working to make it a source of livelihood and revive the lake to its old glory.
Think Sustainable, Act locally
Mitali Mainu Das says the water hyacinth covered the lake affecting the fishing activity and the livelihood of the fishermen. It further affected the migratory birds, as the dense plantation covering water made the fish in the water body inaccessible.
Mitali and other women soon started identifying alternatives to solve the issue. “We were working on making used fishing nets into sustainable bags. Eventually, we thought of experimenting with the water hyacinth to make bags and other products like table runners,” she says.
Their experiments, while exploring multiple options, is what led them to make yoga mats.
Rumi Das, Mitali’s co-worker, says the mats are made by removing the water hyacinth from the water body and sun-drying them. “About 12 kilos of water hyacinth shrink to 2-3 kilos. Once they are dried, their stems are used to weave between cotton threads to make these mats,” she explains.
Rumi says there are no chemicals used in the process and no artificial colours. “The colours are made from natural dyes and look beautiful,” she adds. The other women working with them are Mamoni Das, Bhanti Das, Sita Das and Mitali Das.
They became branded as Moorhen Yoga Mats and cost between Rs 1,200 and Rs 1,500 per piece.
The women initiated the venture using their skills and received support from Meghalaya-based North East Centre for Training and Research (NECTAR) and Simang Collectives Pvt Ltd, a Guwahati-based social enterprise.
Rituraj Dewan, the co-founder of the social enterprise, says, “Nirmali Baruah, co-founder, works towards creating livelihood by following an approach of economic sustainability.”
Rituraj explains that they note the traditional ways followed by the locals, who use sustainable practices in their lifestyle. “Using the resources from the vicinity, which are a part of their daily life, thus guarantees economic gains while being sustainable,” he adds.
A Promising Venture
Rituraj adds that since October 2018, the enterprise is supporting the women in the region through initiatives like creating fibre out of water hyacinth. “The women received training in 2019 and 2020. About 15 handlooms were received from Weavers Service Centre, Guwahati, Government of India, for their yoga mat initiative. Our role was limited to assisting in giving technical and technological expertise to the women,” he says.
Rituraj explains that the mats are prepared in three weeks and are 100 per cent biodegradable. “About 38 women are now working in tandem with the ladies from Moorhen Yoga Mats. They carry out other responsibilities such as accounts, designing, colour selection,” he adds.
So far 100 mats have been sold to a client in the USA. An additional 1,500 are prepared for NECTAR. “At present, 700 mats are produced a month and we aim to increase the number to 1,000 with each costing Rs 1,800 as the demand increases. It will help these women sustain the initiative in the long run,” he says, adding that so far, more than 10,000 kilos of water hyacinth have been removed from the lake.
Mitali says that if not for the initiative, she would have been married like other women in the village, depriving her of the opportunity to become financially independent. “Our venture is unique and has the potential to earn a good income. We wish to involve more women by offering free training and empowering the community,” she adds.
Edited by Yoshita Rao