Water hyacinths are not only beautiful pond decorations – they are also noxious weeds that pullulate across the world, creating all sorts of problems by blocking the flow of waterways. In India, they notably cause blockages in canals that irrigate farmers’ fields, which local governments struggle to remove every year. But one entrepreneur is putting this troublemaker to good use: he’s taught women living in rural villages to weave them into handbags, laptop bags, wallets, and other crafts, which provides them with sustainable livelihoods in areas where employment options are scarce.

Abdul Mujeeb was born in a village near Tenali, in the southern state of Andhra Pradesh. He was brought up in Hyderabad and trained as an electrical engineer. After graduation, he ran a tutoring institute. In 2014, he was searching for ideas for a student’s science project when he came upon articles about water hyacinths that explained that its stalks could be dried and used in weaving. Mujeeb saw an opportunity: near his native village, water hyacinths were everywhere, and the women who lived there had very few opportunities to work.

An irrigation canal near Tenali blocked by water hyacinths.
 

He tells the rest of the story:

"Our plan is to empower women leaders to run their own franchises in villages all over the region and the country"

Weaving seemed like the perfect opportunity for women in my village: most did not work outside the home, because the only work available was working in fields, which is only seasonal work and requires traveling many kilometres. Weaving, however, could be done at home, all year long.

Also, the water hyacinths were becoming a major problem in the area, and not just for farming. They were causing water to stagnate, which attracted mosquitoes that were spreading dengue fever. And when the government did remove them, the plants were usually burned or thrown onto the banks in piles, which resulted in them rotting. When that happens, they release methane gas [which contributes to climate change].

In 2015, after traveling to northeastern India to learn weaving techniques, Mujeeb founded the social enterprise Allika Weave with six women from my village. He was helped out by the Bala Vikasa International Centre incubator and the Surge Impact accelerator, which provided me with coaching during the first two years. Today, 80 women artisans from four villages work with us.

Artisans weaving dried water hyacinth stems. Photo courtesy of Allika Weave. 
 

This is how it works: with the permission of the local authorities, we hire men to collect water hyacinths. They have to do this carefully, by hand, so as not to break the stalks. Then we lay the stalks out to dry and press them through a roller.

Water hyacinth stalks laid out to dry. Photo courtesy of Allika Weave.
 

The women first learn to weave in our workshop, and once they master the skill they can then choose to work from home, which is useful for those who have to take care of their relatives. The crafts they make are sold both online via Facebook and by resellers across the country; the majority of our customers are Indian, but we also get some orders from abroad.

Newly trained artisans receive a certificate. Photo courtesy of Allika Weave.
 

We offer the women training not just in weaving but also in English and in marketing skills. Our plan is to empower women leaders to run their own franchises in villages all over the region and the country. We also want to turn water hyacinths into other products, like eco-friendly sanitary pads and compost.

At first it was not easy to convince women to join the project: they were not used to working outside the home, and their husbands didn’t necessarily like this idea. But the fact that they have the option to work from home helped convince them, and the added income has helped many families: for example, one woman has been able to send her kids to private school in order to get a better quality education and learn English, while another has saved up enough to send her son to the nearest city for university.


Handbags made by Allika Weave. Photo courtesy of Allika Weave.

Baskets made by Allika Weave. Photo courtesy of Allika Weave.

Article written with
Gaëlle Faure

Gaëlle Faure , Journalist