‘Queen of Recycling’ Isatou Ceesay fights plastic pollution in The Gambia

Isatou Ceesay founded a social enterprise that is helping to fight plastic pollution and empowering women and young people to gain economic independence.

Isatou Ceesay is a 41-year-old social entrepreneur and the Director of the Gambia Women’s Initiative (WIG), based in the village of N’Jau, 681 kilometres (423 miles) away from the Gambian capital Banjul. Isatou’s initiative aims to improve the economic empowerment of Gambian women through sustainable, income-generating initiatives focused on the conservation and protection of the environment.

In 1997, together with four other women, Isatou founded the Recycling Centre of N’Jau, now renamed Gambia Women’s Initiative in her native village in Northern Gambia. Initially, the goal of her project was to educate fellow villagers on the importance and benefits of reclaiming waste through plastic recycling, thereby discouraging the act of littering. But, over the years, the project has grown and now empowers marginalised poor women with support and income.

Isatou, queen of recycling

In an interview with LifeGate, Isatou recounts how she started her recycling journey, “One day, I stood at the edge of my village staring at the ugly heap of rubbish piled high on the red earth. Amongst the discarded tins, food and bike tyres, one thing stood in my sight. I saw a lot of plastic bags everywhere. Mosquitoes swarmed above murky puddles of water that pooled among the bags on the ground. Some of my neighbour’s goats scavenged on the dumpsites and in the process they nibbled at the plastic bags. A couple of years ago, butchers found plastic bags knotted in their stomachs. You can imagine the extent of plastic pollution.”

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Member of the Njau community women’s group collecting plastic waste © Luke Duggleby/Climate Heroes

Isatou explained that she decided to take action after witnessing the increasing amounts of rubbish piling up outside her village. “I started seeing a lot of people indiscriminately dumping their garbage at the back of their houses and in the street. The problem was only getting worse and other than just looking ugly, the waste piles were also causing other issues in my community.

Taking action

Isatou said that, in an effort to clean up her community, “We plucked plastic bags from trash piles and took them home together with my four friends. We washed the bags, dried them, cut them into strips, and crocheted them into bags. Other people made fun of us but we never gave up, we just pressed on, knowing that we were doing it for a good cause.” Isatou disclosed that the majority of the people in her village did not support her, adding that villagers thought digging through rubbish piles to collect plastic waste was an embarrassing job. Even worse, Isatou’s meetings were often frowned upon by men in her village who did not approve of women taking up jobs perceived to belong to men.

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Isatou Ceesay dressed in pink sits with friends in Njau village as two of them embroider waste plastic into bracelets © Luke Duggleby/Climate Heroes

However, Isatou had a strong sense of belief in what she was doing and so, despite the snares and judgment from her fellow villagers, she, along with her friends, continued their work in secret. They would gather in Isatou’s home at night to make the purses and after months of work, Isatou took them to market in the city. To her delight, she sold every single one. Isatou successfully turned her recycling activity into a successful small business venture. “My entrepreneurship spirit has since helped to empower many women through providing them with the means and support to generate an income, now they’re able to care for their families,” she explained.

With the collaboration of a Peace Corps USA volunteer Peggy Sedlak, Isatou learned how to treat and make some products based on recycled plastic waste, a material that accounts for up to 20% of the waste that can be found in Gambia. The women of WIG make bags, purses or rucksacks from plastic bags that they wash, cut and sew. They eventually sell these products, turning plastic into income: a sustainable business model.

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Isatou Ceesay saw the potential in plastic recycling and has empowered women to achieve economic independence © Luke Duggleby/Climate Heroes

And Isatou didn’t stop there. She and her friends have used some of their income to fund a community vegetable garden, which raises money to send orphaned children to school.

International markets

Today, Isatou and her organisation have started producing crafts that are even being sold internationally. She shared that her group has now branched out and they are currently looking at other innovative ways to use other waste products, such as turning food waste into compost and making jewellery out of tyres. Remarkably, the women eventually ran out of plastic waste in N’jau to make their crafts, so they went to other nearby villages to use the waste from there. Consequently, Isatou and her team have started sharing their knowledge about recycling with more people from other villages.

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Some of the finished products made from recycled plastic waste © Isatou Ceesay

In 2009 Isatou got a job working for Future In Our Hands, a Swedish non-profit. This provided her with the opportunity to work with a wider range of communities in the Gambia. In 2012, Isatou also won the International Alliance for Women’s Difference Maker award. Today, her story has also been published in a book called One Plastic Bag’ authored by Miranda Paul and illustrated by Elizabeth Zunon.

Undoubtedly, Isatou’s story is unique and remarkable. It teaches us that we all have a duty and a responsibility towards our environment and that our little efforts can go a long way.

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