How Ghanaian Entrepreneurs Are Turning Trash Into Treasure

In much of the Third World, by contrast, the relative standard of living causes people to find value wherever they can, including by digging through rubbish dumps. This isn’t always restricted to rudimentary scavenging, though: Ghanaian ingenuity has manifested itself in some truly interesting ways.

The Employment Situation in Ghana

Although Ghana’s unemployment rate is very low by international standards, the number does not take into account the percentage of the population employed in the “informal sector”. This term covers occupations such as subsistence farmers, sidewalk traders, day laborers and, of course, rubbish scavengers.

Those who can’t claim to have an employer in the traditional sense aren’t necessarily poor – some do better than others, some pay taxes and some don’t. Most Ghanaians will still jump at a chance to land a regular job in the formal sector, though, where the government remains the largest employer. By First World standards, this isn’t the golden goose: the average salary is only 800 Cedis (US$ 180) per month. True, the cost of living is quite low, but that average figure is also distorted by the fact that a shortage of skilled personnel means that Ghana’s economic pyramid rises to a fairly sharp and tall point.

Laying a Path to the Future

Anyone who has spent time in Accra will know that the cleanliness of public spaces is not one of the city’s high points. For former network engineer Nelson Boateng, though, this represented not an eyesore but an opportunity.

With the help of over two hundred employees, he uses a process he developed himself to convert discarded plastic and sand into paving stones that are not only cheaper than their concrete counterparts but have an estimated lifespan of half a millennium. A lack of capital to expand his business is hindering his operation, though, meaning that 98% of plastic in Ghana continues to be sent to poorly managed waste dumps.

Employ the Poor and Sell to the Rich

One of Ghana’s main exports, aside from primary commodities, is its handcrafted artwork and accessories, including bolga bags. Inspiration doesn’t stand still, though, and one team of Ghanaians have adapted traditional patterns and techniques to new materials. Instead of being harvested in the wild, their raw material can now be picked up off the street or from the swathes of polluted grazing land surrounding Ghanaian cities.

Rather than shredding or melting the discarded plastic sachets which forms most of their feedstock, they create their totes and handbags by directly stitching these together to create a variety of colorful patterns. Each bag is made by hand and is literally one of a kind.

All That Glitters Isn’t Gold

There’s no need for jewelry not made of precious metals and stones to be trashy – except perhaps in a literal sense.

Numerous Ghanaians have created a living for themselves by hand-crafting bold, colorful bracelets and necklaces from garbage and selling them online. Their materials include plastic, glass and metal, while the designs are as diverse as their creators’ imaginations.

The value of these ornaments doesn’t lie in which materials are used, but rather in the skill and patience of those who make them. Rolling and threading beads, knotting and weaving yarn and painstakingly carving detailed patterns is enormously time-consuming. Few people in the West would go to that amount of trouble to create something selling for under $50. In Ghana, however, a few such sales can mean earning a respectable monthly income, sending your children to college and providing a decent retirement for your parents.