Have you ever wondered what happens to that Appy or Frooti pack or any such tetra pack once you have tossed it into the dustbin? The chances of these packets adding to the rotting waste in a landfill are high. But thanks to some enterprising women at Anu Life, many of these packers are now recycled into eco-friendly bags.
Goats rummage through the waste as you make your way through a maze of cramped lanes — the sound from a television blaring from a neighbouring house, a stray dog lying in the wet mud to ward off the heat, and a black cat crossing your path. The two-room space looks small, hidden in a nondescript corner with shanties on either side. A group of 10 women occupy this dingy quarter in the Janakiram Layout slum in Banaswadi, Bengaluru, next to piles of garbage by the railway track. Each woman here has a story to tell. Kamala (34) was abandoned by her husband nine years ago and has single-handedly looked after her four children since then. She suffers from wheezing but likes to work here. Sophia (32) likes to cook and has accompanied a Sindhi family as a maid to Spain, London and Nigeria. All her children study at school as well. Mathamma (27) has a hearing disability but that hasn’t impaired her creativity. Most of these women work day jobs as domestic help in households.
The room constantly buzzes with activity as these women sit and turn waste into wealth with used up juice tetra packs to create amazing eco-friendly bags, pencil pouches, Christmas decorations, table mats and other products.
The room is the production centre of Anu Life, a self help group (SHG) started six years ago when Tineke Otter, a Dutch lady, arrived from Netherlands to work with people living in the slums of Bengaluru. She started an organisation called ‘Happy Kids’ in collaboration with Christ University. They conducted after-school programmes for the children living in slums, which interested these women who then went up to Otter and asked her to involve them and teach them something too.
“Being from Netherlands, where there is great emphasis on converting garbage through a top-notch waste management structure, she was very much into recycling,” says Chinmayee Subhash, a social worker who works as a mentor for the self-help group and knew Otter closely.
“Tineke Otter wanted to work on the project through Christ University’s Center for Social Action (CSA). She roped in a designer called Devika Krishnan from the National Institute of Design. It was Krishnan who designed the bags made out of tetra packs and taught the same to the women,” she adds.
Photo Source: ANU Life/Facebook
The group buys waste juice tetra packs (Appy, Frooti, Real, Tropicana, etc.) from Christ University on a monthly basis. “We require about 200 kilos of tetra packs in a month. We go in a tempo once or twice in a month, depending on how much we need,” says Mary Ann, the leader of the SHG in broken English. She looks after the accounts and day-to-day activities of the business. Once all the waste is brought back to the slum, the women cut the top parts of the tetra packs and rinse then in soap and Dettol water, wearing a sock in one hand. The packs are often gooey, especially of milk-based drink (like a chocolate smoothie) and attract a lot of flies. “It is difficult and not a very dignified job,” says Chinmayee. Once it is cleaned and dried, the next step is to cut the tetra pack into strips and begin weaving them like a basket.
Once the skeleton of the bags is made out of the tetra pack strips, they procure lining material and stitch some of the bags in their workshop.
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It was a successful business venture for the first four years but once Christ University waned their funding in 2014, the onus to carry on the business fell on the women against all odds. They somehow managed it for a year before Tineke Otter stepped in again and engaged Chinmayee. Anu Life was then established as a Trust in December last year and is currently awaiting its export license. Their main concern is lack of funds. Income from sales is not enough as they market their products through home sales with expatriates staying in Bangalore.
Meanwhile, exhibiting their products is one way of drumming up more visibility. Their most recent participation was in the Annual Handmade Collective by The Hundred Hands in December. “We participate at events where the stalls are provided free of cost. More than home, the reception of our products is much better abroad amongst foreigners and expatriates in India. They love taking these bags there, which are very durable and last for 4-5 years. But we would also like our own people to buy these bags,” Chinmayee says. At their last home sale, they sold bags worth Rs. 11,700. One of the German volunteers buys bags worth Rs. 25,000 every month. She entertains a lot of people at home and talks about the group to them. “We hope that our volunteers get import licenses in their home countries so that we can send more of these products,” says Chinmayee.
Anu Life has sent consignments of their products to Netherlands, Japan, Sweden, and Germany on several occasions.
Photo Source: ANU Life/Facebook
The group recently completed a photo-shoot with Amazon and is hoping to sell through the e-commerce platform. “We need to have different avenues as we can’t expect people to come here (in the slum) to buy nor can we sell everywhere. Even though we have tie-ups with a few local retail stores, it doesn’t help generate impressive sales. They don’t get back to us on how many items were sold and we don’t have the resources to spend on visiting them personally,” says Chinmayee. Foreign volunteers help them out every now and then.
The group currently has two interns from Maastricht University, Netherlands, for an 11-week internship programme. They have helped design a new bag and are also designing a website for them. Since the group cannot afford to pay them, they do it for free.
Times have been tough though — so much so that the women have at times not been paid their salaries. And yet, they march on, happy to be engaged in something creatively and sharing a bond of solidarity. One of the items on their wish list is to get an IFB washing machine that would help clean 90 tetra packs in six minutes, and thus save time and resources. However, it would cost Rs 1.3 lakhs, an amount out of their reach. “We have no corpus but the intermittent sales help us through,” says Mary Ann. “The women are so motivated to do their work that they don’t care if they sell the bags or not; they still ask for more tetra packs. They stitch bags out of cement sacks during the summer months when we don’t get tetra packs from Christ University. They have so many embroidered cement sacks that the stocks will last us for nearly one and half years,” Chinmayee says.
You can check out their work and help them through their page on Facebook or contact them at 9980480815/9980031272.