Recently, I came across a news article celebrating an innovation by an eco-startup. Now I am a huge believer in the magic of young startups myself. On my weekly hunt to supply adequate resources to the readers of ourClimate Joy series, I am often on the lookout for positive climate news. The article in question was about a startup that had made a groundbreaking discovery on the art of making plates from grass, a practice that has been on the increase in developed countries. My first thought at the end of the article was, “…okay, now this is cool”. And then it changed almost immediately to, “…but this is not new’’ because here in Africa, we have been using plates made of consumable grass, vegetables and leaves across our continent for decades now.
Long before the white men reached the shores of the “Dark Continent”, Africans had their established ways of life and deeply-valued cultural practices. We worshipped our own gods and we understood that regardless of our tribal and regional differences, we all were parts of a much bigger communal heritage. To a very large extent, the African culture revolved around love for Mother Earth; intense appreciation for the fruits from our fertile lands, a deep love for the planet and of course, the struggles for self-preservation. The earth, we understood, provided for our sustenance (nourishing our animals and gifting us with plants) and in return, we were to love and nurture her as best we could.
With the incidence of slavery, colonisation and the advancement of technology however, a lot of these values and beliefs had to change. Our mode of dressing, ideals and spiritual orientation gradually took on a Western face but an area that remained largely intact though, was our feeding culture. In fact, the foods we consume today remain largely the same as those eaten by our grandfathers and their fathers before them. Now it is true that the menus have been expanded to include foreign items such as spaghetti and macaroni, but staples such as foofoo, rice, beans, freshly grown meat, our variety of vegetables, native soups, homemade spices and yam (to mention but few) have remained practically unchanged. From their planting seasons to their harvesting, processing and preparation into meals, down to our wooden cutlery sets (for consuming these foods) and the manner of their packaging for sale at the local open-air markets, we barely had any reason to change a thing (processed foods are too expensive anyways) and so we didn’t.
Food back in the day was grown naturally with no insecticides or boosters and for us today, it still is. After its preparation, these foods were eaten in ornate wooden cutlery and from enamel plates, with cool water poured from calabashes handmade from gourd plants which in turn were carved by local artisans from deadwood harvested from forests. When you were not using wooden cutlery, then it was locally made pottery and ceramics and if you had to carry food, it was often wrapped tightly in green leaves. Now this was not some makeshift packaging method; these were leaves specially grown for the purpose of packaging freshly ground beancakes (known over here as moimoi) because when wrapped properly, they are waterproof and retain their heat for hours.
Growing up in the 90s, this was the de facto method of packaging. When leaves were not used, old newspapers were deployed. As a matter of fact, for a long while, it was quite unusual to purchase goods in single-use plastic containers.
With smart marketing and persuasion however, plastic and PET bottles came to replace almost everything. Gradually, Africans started to view the old packaging methods as “local” and started associating them with people who lacked exposure and were not financially well-to-do, since the majority of Africans aren’t wealthy anyway and most goods (particularly food items) aren’t packaged in plastic containers.
Years now down the road, developed nations have begun to preach a new gospel: plastic might be cool for our ego but is terrible for the planet. Conferences and protests and a myriad of sensitization programs have made the rest of us realize that those packaging methods previously championed by the developed West as ‘progress’ are actually unsustainable and us Africans had been getting it right after all.
You would think then, that the time had come for these first world States to go, “…hey, these poorer people were right using their leaves; we are so sorry we confused the rest of you guys but they were right all along…” What we witness, ladies and gentlemen, is perhaps best described as the appropriation of these packaging methods by Western sustainable startups, and their subsequent labelling as innovative. These “innovations” are widely applauded and eaten up by the media, packaged and presented in flashy brochures and YouTube videos by budding green entrepreneurs. In reality though, these companies have simply managed to better market the cultural practices of certain groups of people.
This issue is one I addressed here in a not-so-dissimilar respect: it appears that the judges of ‘sustainability’ are the West and its media. From composting practices to sustainable cutlery sets, handmade wooden combs and food packaging methods, natives and indigenous peoples and place have age-long practices that are without doubt, sustainable. However, when the Western media covers these stories, the narrative is almost always framed in a manner that translates only to backwardness and the underdevelopment of certain regions of the world. For instance, a few weeks ago, I came across a video footage of an African child eating rice from a plate of wide green leaves while a few short steps ahead, the foreign newscaster relayed the sad state of daily living in that area.
Conversely, the moment a restaurant in say New York, starts serving their foods in green leaf trays and plates or the moment any other startup from a similarly ‘developed’ State designs food trays made of leaves, boom the narrative changes. With a little PR, the modest leaf plate becomes an innovation worthy of media attention. Apparently, sustainable wares are nothing more than locally made items found in a market in Kenya or some province in Philippines until an enlightened Westerner decides it isn’t.
Now Africans are not as eco-aware as their Western counterparts largely because we are still at the lower ranks of Maslow’s pyramid of needs (and also probably because climate change is tough to relate to seeing as we weren’t responsible for it in the first place) but that’s not my point. My point is that not only were we (Africans and other third world peoples) unintentionally getting it right (ironically because we couldn’t afford the finer things), the narrative of the sustainable lifestyle seems to be stacked against us regardless of whatever ‘good’ we do. Which of course makes the movement that much harder for us to take seriously.
I understand that it is the fundamental nature of capitalism to seize all such opportunities regardless of how exploitative they are or seem vaguely to be. I don’t necessary like this but I understand that it’s the way of business. However, a major component of the eco-movement is social and environmental justice and inclusivity, therefore it is only proper that startups in the eco space along with everyone else, employ more inclusive approaches to their businesses. Where a design is labelled backward when presented by one group and innovative when presented by another, one cannot help but wonder just how inclusive the community really is.
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Feature image via Leaf Republic.