Help for Uganda’s women is in the bag

By Merna Emara
Staff Writer

What if with $15, you could help someone continue post-secondary education, support working women and reduce plastic waste going to landfills? Some of you might have already made this possible if you had purchased one of the bags at the Causeway Insurance glass display.

These bags, made and shipped from Uganda, have been selling fast and are becoming increasingly popular in Fort Frances.

The bags have been selling since 2018, after Crystal McPherson, insurance broker at Causeway, made a trip to Uganda in 2017 where she met Liz Beth, 25.

McPherson said Beth is the master-mind behind these bags and is always ready to ship more to Fort Frances when the inventory runs low.

McPherson met Beth when she was on a trip to Uganda in 2017. Beth then went to the hotel where McPherson was staying and showed her the bags. McPherson bought one and upon return to Fort Frances, received so many compliments and questions about the bag, so McPherson asked Beth if she could sell then in Canada for her.

“They’re worth a lot more here than they are there,” McPherson said. “She does a great job and she’s definitely one of my favourite people.”

Beth began making these bags in order to help support her pursuit of a post-secondary social work degree. After graduating, Beth wanted to pay it forward by creating a non-profit organization where she teaches women skills in order to help them support their families.

Beth then started a women empowerment program in 2019 to help women and girls in her village overcome social inequities, by being able to provide for themselves.

“We’re one of the poorest countries,” Beth said. “There are high levels of unemployment in Uganda so we’re trying to come up with these hand skills to encourage more women to engage in them so they earn income. We realize that there are high levels of domestic violence among women. Sometimes it’s because some of them stay at home and depend on husbands. They just end up being mistreated.”

After the training takes place, Beth raises funds to get the plastic material that she uses to make the bags. She said they order colourful plastic from a company that recycles plastics in Kenya.

Besides wanting to save the environment by using recycled plastics, Beth said they are trying to diversify the material that they use, depending on availability and customer preferences.

For example, Beth said, they are using seaweed, palm leaves and banana fibre.

However, Beth and her trainees are now faced with the realities of COVID-19.

“Ever since COVID-19 started, I only do the trainings and I’ve not been able to get funds to support them with a material. So they can start on their own but we’re only able to provide the skills,” Beth said. “That’s the problem we are facing right now.”

Beth said the time it takes to make a bag depends on how big the bag is, the material used and the skill level.

Despite being faced with these adversities, Beth said she is still determined to help women break social barriers.

“I want to reduce the stereotypes among people to not think that you can only just do this work to survive, but you can also be successful with a hat of creativity and talent, as long as you are determined and hard working,” Beth said.

“We need some market around the world so we can be able to sell a product not only locally but internationally. We are making these products right here, but they are less valued, and the market is not really favourable for the people who make them. This has been discouraging.”

McPherson said she has sold over 250 bags in Fort Frances. She usually gets two shipments per year, each package has about 70 bags.

The smallest bag is $15 and the biggest one is $30. Beth is also making hampers, baskets and placemats.

“Some people are wary about supporting organizations that aren’t local because they don’t know where the money is going to,” McPherson said. “But I’ve been there, and I’ve worked with her and her groups, and I know that it’s going to a good cause. I’m always happy to support her.”

If you want to get your hands on a bag made from recycled plastics in Uganda and support women continue their education, give McPherson a call at 807-861-0256. Causeway is currently closed due to COVID-19, but McPherson said she is willing to make arrangements with people interested in making a purchase.