Ethiopian packaging project offers helping hand to female farmers

In 2020 Ethiopia’s government took the bold step of banning single-use plastics, in a bid to tackle the country’s levels of plastic pollution. But implementing the new policy has been a challenge, since there is a lack of suitable alternatives. Half a million tonnes of plastic is still dumped, buried or burned in the country every year.

Now scientists at Bangor University’s BioComposites Centre are hoping that they can transform organic waste from Ethiopian crop residues including leaves from the false banana, or ‘Ensete’, along material from other more conventional banana varieties  – into an alternative to plastic packaging, in a project that could also offer a much-needed revenue stream to the country’s female farmers.

Bangor specialists are working with two collaborators in Ethiopia  the  Ethiopian Pulp and Paper SC and the Bio & Emerging Technology Institute, , to investigate whether the fibrous leaves of the plant, usually discarded during food processing, could form a new type of packaging material. The research project is funded by Innovate UK’s GCRF AgriFood Africa Innovation Awards.

The leaves will be shipped from Ethiopia to the BioComposite team’s unique facility in Anglesey to see if their larger-scale  processing  equipment can break down the material to a pulp that can then form cardboard-like moulded packaging prototypes.

The project will provide valuable knowledge as to whether Ensete and banana leaf more generally  is suitable for industrial processing back in Ethiopia.

Senior Research Fellow Dr Adam Charlton explains: “If the leaf and stem material  prove suitable, we’ll produce a variety of prototype products that we can bring to a workshop with the company, inviting representatives of the government and the private sector, so they can see the rationale for moving beyond the feasibility study.”

The project has another dimension too; if larger-scale production is approved, it will benefit the country’s female-led farming groups who could supply the necessary biomass.

Although women make up half of  Ethiopia’s rural labour force, their productivity is lower than male farmers, due to a lack of access to land and seed. Providing the crops for industrial processing could be an additional revenue stream for these women.

Bangor has decades of knowledge and know-how on  processing  a wide range of  agricultural,  forestry and food processing  residues , but false banana represents a new test product. From the centre in Anglesey, the Bangor team are aiming to produce a variety of products: soft and hard fruit trays, pot moulds, and egg boxes – for the workshop later this year.

Dr Charlton says: “The potential supply chain infrastructure is already in place, since the Ethiopian Government and the United Nations Industrial Development Organisation (UNDO) have set up special agro-industrial parks, where local farmers bring their different types of produce to be processed.

So if the prototypes are successful, and we can tap into local expertise, this could work for everyone and create a sustainable alternative to plastic packaging.”