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A social enterprise in Morocco is making ethical bags from recycled plastic

A pioneering recycling project in Morocco combines contemporary fashion design, environmental protection, sustainable development and women’s empowerment.

15 Apr 2019

Plastic bags have proliferated for a long time in the peri-urban areas of Morocco becoming an unavoidable symbol of pollution.

“When I was a teenager, the landscape of plastic bags surrounding my village, as far as the eye could see, had a major impact on me,” says Faïza Hajji, a Télécom Bretagne graduate in France and president of Morocco’s Docteur Fatiha Association (ADF). “So I came up with the idea for a project during a competition of the French CCE [French Trade Advisors], in the international category.”

In 2006, two years after the competition, Ms. Hajji used the association to create the social enterprise Ifassen (”hands” in local dialect) in Berkane, her hometown in northeastern Morocco. Since then, the brand has recycled more than 56,000 plastic bags and given birth to three artisan women cooperatives, and it continues to grow and improve.

Based on local women’s weaving skills, the project combines environmental protection and social entrepreneurship, Hajji says. The women manufacture baskets and market bags using plastic bags and Alfa, a flexible and resistant local plant, traditionally used for weaving baskets. The plastic bags are cleaned, cut into strips, then woven by the craftswomen. The brand has since added other products, such as decorative objects, coasters and handbags.

At the beginning, the ADF association helped the craftswomen of the cooperatives, training them in quality and production processes, management, communication and marketing tools, as well as how to find business opportunities, either locally or for export.

In 2016, a major windfall pushed the entrepreneur to step up her game: the Moroccan government launched its national Zero Mika policy (”zero plastic” in Arabic), strictly banning single-use plastic bags’ production, import, sale and distribution.

Ifassen had to find a viable business model, increase production volume, and focus on developing partnerships and gaining visibility to get in line with the new national policies. “Thanks to ADF’s partnership with the European Union’s Switchmed program and the nonprofit Beyond Plastic Med [BeMed], Ifassen’s associated cooperatives were able to make and distribute reusable bags free of charge in the Berkane markets. All of this was combined with awareness campaigns,” Ms. Hajji explains.

Between March and April 2018, the ADF association conducted a market study among 100 Ifassen customers and 50 retailers in Berkane to understand how recycled bags are used. The study showed that women are more likely to use recycled bags than men, because they tend to plan their shopping beforehand, while men shop rather spontaneously. The inquiry led the brand to improve the design and functionality of its bags, now made from flour sacks, which contain polypropylene. Ifassen’s bags are now equipped with two different-sized handles, to be carried by hand or slung over the shoulder. In addition, once empty, the bags are easy to fold and fit inside a pocket.

ADF partnered with the Zero Zbel association (”zero waste” in Arabic) to produce 200 recycled plastic bags as part of a pilot program called “Alternatives to single-use plastic bags.” Today, Ifassen employs 60 women, involving seven designers to create new bag models from recycled plastic bags. The sales profits are used to finance the work of the craftswomen and ADF’s activities. All prices are fixed in agreement with the partner cooperatives, and reflect the women’s meticulous handiwork. The company must now find a balance “between potential sales and the products we can offer,” Ms. Hajji says.

Aiming to diversify and improve its quality, the brand is now investing in contemporary art through the new Moroccan Initiative for Craft, Art and Technology (MICAT) project, in partnership with the Moroccan architect Aziza Chaouni. The project’s goal is to recycle plastic bags and bottles and turn them into wire for 3D printers, then use it to produce a wide variety of high value-added crafts. The first prototype born from this operation is a lamp with a 3D-printed base. Craftswomen from different cooperatives and regions of Morocco will weave designs onto the base using various techniques and natural materials such as reeds and wool, or else recycled materials such as plastic and clothing.

“If we can find the necessary funding, we will present the lamps at the Venice Biennale from 11 May to 24 November 2019,” says Hajji. Many challenges await this project, not least its estimated cost of 61,000 euros (USD 69,000) – but the expected results are promising.

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