An innovative social enterprise is teaching underprivileged women in the Philippines how to ‘upcycle’ discarded waste into wearable pieces of art.
The story behind the story:
I was supposed to stay in the Philippines for three weeks. The holiday I've been planning for two years kept being postponed due to my work schedule, so when I finally booked my tickets for February 2020, I decided that nothing was going to stop me from going. And nothing did. However, the COVID-19 pandemic managed to stop me from coming back home three weeks later. Nationwide lockdown has caused local and international airports to close and this is how I ended up stranded on the Negros island for four months.
Before the possibility to go around the island was taken away as well, a friend introduced me to Lumago Designs and a group of extraordinary women from Candau-ay in Dumaguete. Their story opened my eyes about how different one's experience in self-isolation can be, depending on one’s geographical location. For many of us in the Western World, the biggest challenge in the current circumstances is finding things to do to pass the time while stuck indoors. But for others, the things we are forced to do out of boredom represent a chance to earn extra money and provide for their families.
The article was originally published in The Guide Istanbul (May/June 2020).
Staying at home during mandatory self-isolation has turned many people into amateur craftsmen. Due to a lack of supplies, we repurpose materials found at the back of our closets (like many of us used to do as children), turning old shirts into face-masks or making home improvements using items we didn’t have the courage to throw away before.
As entertaining as this sounds at times when our choice of activities is limited, for many people around the world, “upcycling” isn't just another way to kill time. In many cases, scavenging and turning scrap materials into everyday items represents a means to provide for one’s family and ensure that basic needs are met.
This idea is central to Lumago Designs, a social enterprise that employs nearly a dozen women from underprivileged parts of Candau-ay near Dumaguete, on Negros Oriental island in the Philippines, where the region’s largest dumpsite is located. Taking its name from the Tagalog word for “blossom,” the project helps local women do exactly that: utilize their creative skills to turn discarded items into wearable pieces of art.
When I first met the Lumago team in March, they were working on an order for placemats from a soup kitchen in Candau-ay. It is the same place that brought them together during the difficult times that followed the 2011 typhoon.
Set up by American social worker Whitney Fleming to support the local community, it is also where they learned to make paper beads, which for many of them has become a primary source of income.
“Two of my children are now in college, thanks to Lumago,” artisan and coordinator Flor told The Guide Istanbul. “My eldest is graduating with an IT degree this year, and the middle one next year with a business degree.”
All the women who now work for Lumago have been part of the team since the project first began in 2011. Currently managed by Becky Stanbridge, who took over the project after Fleming's return to the US, they all receive a fair and steady income for the work they do.
“Before I started, they were mostly getting paid for ad hoc orders,” Stanbridge tells The Guide Istanbul. “Now, to make sure it is regular, we have to have big orders coming in.”
“Literally every order we get is such a big help,” she adds. “We started getting repeat orders, and that’s how you know it’s working.”
From needs to beads
The story of the paper bead doesn’t begin in the Philippines. It begins in Victorian-Era England, where stay-at-home wives used to fill their free time with various practical activities.
Time consuming and requiring a great deal of precision to make, paper beads have never been mass produced. Revived in the 20th Century, the craft has since been embraced by various social causes in Africa and Asia with a view to providing income-generating opportunities to those in need.
For Lumago, paper beads embody the spirit of the Candau-ay community, where almost every local family is–or used to be–somehow involved in scavenging at the local dumpsite. Although dangerous and potentially hazardous to one’s health, the practice is still an all-too-common occupation all over the country.
Scavengers collect recyclable materials found at the dumpsites, including paper (the cheapest recyclable), plastic and iron scraps, all of which can be sold according to the type and weight of the material.
Unlike recycling, by which used items are converted into reusable raw material, “upcycling” is a way to reuse waste by creating new products with added value. At Lumago Designs, almost every element of their accessory line is made from upcycled materials.
“We have some women’s relatives working at the dumpsite, so when they have big deliveries of paper, such as old magazines or documents from schools and offices, we can get them as soon as they come,” Stanbridge explains.
“The same for plastic,” she adds. “One of the ladies' mom works at the dumpsite, so she makes sure it gets scrubbed clean so we can work with it.”
There are also several product designs that require types of material that can’t be found at the dumpsite, like scrap leather, which Lumago buys from local factories.
Although Lumago uses a wide variety of materials in its work, the paper bead remains at the heart of its design concept. In order to fashion a small handful of beads, multiple pages of paper must be cut, rolled and glued by hand, before being dipped in resin to ensure durability.
Although many of their designs appear to be color-coordinated, buyers are often surprised to hear that they don’t dye the paper they use to make their products.
“It's all colored paper, such as magazines, newspapers or brochures,” Stanbridge says. “It’s really difficult to do color coordination, especially if someone says they want an item in a particular shade.”
“But white is quite easy,” she adds. “We just use paper donated from the local university.”
Some of Lumago’s artisans, like Annabelle, have learned to express themselves creatively through their product designs. She first learned of Lumago from her mother, who used to work at the soup kitchen. Now, Annabelle says, she has surpassed her teacher in terms of the quality of her bead-making.
“This work helped me support myself when I was pregnant,” she says.
Giving a name to a new accessory is the designer's prerogative. Some of the artisans have fashioned entire product lines that bear the names of their many family members.
As I listen to their stories, I try my hand at rolling a bead, but the half-inch ones keep slipping between my fingers despite the brief tutorials I receive from the smiling artisans.
“It takes a lot of concentration at the beginning,” Stanbridge says encouragingly. “Once you get used to it, though, you can do it while watching TV.”
How to get involved
To order Lumago Designs accessories, you can visit one of their online stores at lumagodesigns.com.
To make a donation, visit Lumago's GoFundMe page at bit.ly/Lumago. All donations go to supporting the community and Dumaguete's frontliners.