When the internationally renowned designer Janice Ashby left the corporate world to found EcoAfrica Social Ventures - a unique paper-making venture that empowers Zimbabwean women - she never looked back. Several years down a rocky road that has involved two recessions, a cholera outbreak, and a significant move, she still boasts one of the most socially-responsible product lines on the planet. We first met Janice in New York in 2008 when EcoAfrica was just getting off the ground, and since then we've seen her and the women she has trained turn weeds and t-shirt clippings into gorgeous paper crafts. Today we caught up with her again in Cape Town, South Africa to find out how EcoAfrica has evolved.
When Janice went on holiday to Zimbabwe in 2008, she discovered handmade paper products with texture and colors she had never seen before. She immediately contacted their maker, Walter Ruprecht, who had built a special shredding machine that he then trained previously disenfranchised women to use, and then started order his paper for her products. Pretty soon Janice received a 6-container order of paper dolls, scrapbooking kits, notebooks, boxes, pens, bookmarks, and a host of other truly beautiful products and consequently started her own venture in order to have more control over the quality. At the time, she was able to employ as many as 400 women.
EcoAfrica couldn’t be more sustainable. Not only does the business recycle materials that are otherwise thrown away, including t-shirt trimmings collected at local manufacturing plants, but many of the paper products are made from weeds that are considered a nuisance. Also, despite having to downsize following Zimbabwe’s complete societal collapse and the United States’ recession, the company still employs a core team of 25 artisans who would not be able to find work elsewhere. Janice would employ the whole country if she could, but settles for bringing in contract workers when there is a surge in business. Janice moved back to South Africa in February this year in order to market her products in a more suitable environment. Already 13 stores throughout the country are stocking EcoAfrica crafts, and business is beginning to pick up again. Soft-spoken and gentle, this talented designer, mother, and grandmother is deeply passionate about the women she has grown so close to over the years. About her life in England, New York, and now South Africa (again), she says, “I never came away wealthy … but I’ve had a tremendous amount of fun.”