by Elisa Franceschinis
Can we turn trash into a means for women’s economic empowerment and, possibly, a business opportunity, as well? Siham Nuseibeh, a young Kuwaiti social activist of Palestinian origin certainly thought so when she envisioned Project Arij for The en.v Initiative.
Project Arij (Arij) was launched by Theen.v Initiative (en.v) in March of 2011. Arij aspires to provide an alternate source of income to underprivileged women in the outskirts of Beirut, Lebanon. What makes this project especially innovative is the way that this is achieved: Using waste-water and waste-paper, women are taught to “upcycle” by turning trash into contemporary stationery and accessories, which can then be retailed to turn a profit. “Upcycling” has gained popularity in the United States and Europe in recent years, but this Arab initiative also incorporates a cultural and socioeconomic component; converting local heritage and eco-consciousness into a sustainable business model.
en.v is a Kuwait-based, carbon-neutral organization that promotes social responsibility in the Arab World. en.v and its parent organization, El Boutique Creative Group, are seen by many as a beacon of alternative art and creativity in Kuwait – compounded by a strong message for social progress. REUSE, an annual exposition to promote eco-friendly living, is one such example of en.v’s unique platforms to promote sustainability. Over the span of four days, REUSE showcases the efforts of innovative and socially conscious Arab entrepreneurs, artists and initiatives via creative mediums such as film, music, art, fashion, and so forth.
In early 2011, en.v launched en.v Social Programs – A not-for-profit division within the organization to foster and support social development programs in the region. Their objective was simple: “we need to play a hands-on role when it comes to our community and society’s development.” Arij is one of several en.v Social Programs (one they are particularly proud of!).
en.v selected The Arab Resource Center for Popular Arts (Al-Jana, ARCPA) to be the implementing partner and project lead for Arij. Al-Jana is one of a handful of NGOs that attempts to preserve and promote cultural heritage by working with underprivileged individuals in Lebanon. Al-Jana has launched a host of initiatives in the field of the arts, such as the Palestinian Film Festival, the Children’s Film Festival, and the International Youth Photo Gallery. Through Arij, Al-Jana continues to support art and culture in a modern eco-friendly format, while providing training and opportunity to marginalized women, as well.
The first phase of Arij was funded by The Body Shop Foundation. The Foundation is The Body Shop International Plc’s charitable trust. It supports innovative projects in the fields of human rights, environmental sustainability and animal protection. The Body Shop Foundation selects initiatives to fund on an annual basis through recommendations made by their global network of employees. When Arij was recommended to them (by The Body Shop, Kuwait), they were so excited about the prospect of the program, they tripled their initial grant offer! Thanks to their generous support, the first phase of Arij was completed successfully.
Eight women were selected to participate in the first phase of Arij. All eight women were previously unemployed and came from low-income families. They are a varied and spirited group of women. Some are married with children, some are widows and some are single. They are bound by a thirst for knowledge and a will to help support their families.
In order to help facilitate their ambitions, Arij secured a workspace, and re-developed it into a functional facility where the women can be trained in the art of paper-making from agricultural and paper waste and transforming it into stationary, decorations, post cards and gift bags. The women also engaged in trust and confidence-building exercises in order to match their new skills with greater self-assurance and self-esteem. The results were spectacular. As Laila, a 52-year-old Palestinian widowed mother of four puts it: “I feel how important I am now and that I have rights and should do my duties.” Or, as Zahira, a 48-year-old Lebanese mother of two, points out: “I increased my will and self trust, and I can now express myself freely.” The women have just developed their first sample collection, and are eager to move forward to the next stage of the program.
The first collection includes colorful and original trays, bowls, photo albums, bags and portfolios, as well as heritage notebooks, cards and envelopes. The level of craftsmanship and creativity achieved was made possible by the expertise of artist Deborah Di Fiore. Deborah, a guest trainer and graphic designer from France, personally trained and guided the women in developing their own techniques and original designs for their first collection.
Arij is now embarking on phase two, which includes a fundraising-event in Kuwait as well as a marketing and business-management-training component for the women. en.v and Al-Jana aspire for the women to fully own and manage Arij as a self-sustainable business within the next 16 months. And so, feel it important to equip the women with the tools and encouragement to take their first collection to boutiques and retail outlets around and about Lebanon, market it, and hopefully have them place orders to stock their products.
Arij also aspires to take it one step further. They envisage having graduates from the program host workshops in year three; as previously trained workers will be able to run their own empowerment courses to pass their know-how and skillsets onto other women in the community.
“Arij has the potential to become wholly autonomous and sustainable in the long-term, improving the lives of a great many number of women. In order to achieve this, it has to be supported and nurtured in the short-term – financially and scholastically.” Zahed Sultan, CEO and Managing Partner, en.v.