Gertrude Mlanga: The founder of Trashion

For most people, if they are not the city council, the probability of sweeping a market place equals none. And when they need funds, they will not consider sweeping the streets.

For Gertrude Gugu Mlanga, waste collection means cleaner cities and the creation of jobs.

Mlanga (R) demonstrates an armband making process while a colleague looks on

She is an artist with a trade called Trashion, transforming waste into fashion.

“I wanted my art to have a different story, tell a different story and have a different impact on people,” says Gertrude.

It’s a dirt job. Every day, she picks dirt and waste in bins, swamps and all dirt areas. However, she thinks collecting and dumping waste is not enough. For her, she sees gold in wastes.

Gertrude—with nothing, but hands— picks plastic bags and bottles which she turns into bangles, home décor and combines the same with paintings.

With this art, she has trained over 120 girls and 80 women, giving them an opportunity to hone skills in waste recycling, turning them into a sense of fashion.

Not only that, Gertrude works with different artists, including musicians, models, photographers and graphic designers.

She employed some of the artists and helped expose their various arts.

“I thought beyond what they would need. I came up with a creative hub for their work space and to display their works,” she says.

Justice Grey, a painter, says that since he got connected to Trashion, his life changed for the better.

He makes more money and has been pushed to achieve. Justice calls Gertrude a true leader who has pushed him forward and he anticipates a lot of success in Trashion.

In addition, the hub offers art and fashion designing classes- where people learn sewing, designing, drawing and painting.

This is also another income generating activity for the artists. So far, there are eight students.

Gertrude is also working with schools to train girls on how to produce various artworks from recycled products and promote entrepreneurship.

She helps needy girls meet their school needs after selling the products.

“Every girl has needs at the end of the day. Parents cannot provide everything that a girl needs. So, we teach girls how they can make something to afford what they need,” she says.

She adds that Trashion teaches girls to make something useful with cheap materials- with the highest costing K500.

“We taught them how to make bangles using a plastic bottle, a little piece of fabric and a bit of glue. Girls from different schools around Blantyre, including Namiwawa and Chilomoni primary schools, have benefitted from the intervention,” she says.

Nevertheless, there are many trades Gertrude could have picked other than plastics.

“I really hate the surrounding when it is filled with plastics. I think in Malawi, we have a tendency of throwing plastics anywhere. We are not aware that we should throw things in the right place,” she observes.

Plastic is the number one material ruining the environment. Many can attest to the devastations it has brought.

“I wanted to use that to actually educate people that this is one item that we can actually recycle,” says Gertrude.

She says, looking back to the last five years, it is clear that the agricultural aspect has not been good with soils being ruined.

She notes that when people throw these plastics, they actually bury them, adding that plastics don’t disintegrate, but stay the same- ruining the environment in the long run.

This, to Gertrude, was another aspect that she looked at and needed an immediate medium to get to people faster to make them aware of the wrongs in plastic disposal.

She picked music and fashion as the quick and effective ways of reaching people.

“We walk around a lot collecting plastics, especially in towns and in the evenings when all the dust bins are full. Sometimes we get to have clean-up days in the markets,” says Gertrude.

So far, they have managed to clean Mbayani Market and participated in the Zingwangwa clean-up day, plus a big walk that was conducted to ban thin plastics.

On whether every plastics goes, Gugu said there are times when a specific type of plastic is targeted depending on the day’s particular agenda.

“Sometimes we get to collect what can actually be disintegrated using proper machines. We have recycling plants in Malawi whose companies look for a particular type. We just target those and in exchange, we get cups, containers and combs,” she says.

Their plan, she says, is to distribute to schools with the phala programme.

Gertrude noticed—during a trip to some schools when they went to introduce Trashion—that some children waited on each other to use cups for porridge because they didn’t have their own.

In terms of expansion, she says they have the clean-up Mudi River project in motion, in which she has partnered with other people who deal with compost.

Not only that, Trashion is planning another training session for a second group of youngsters.

“My vision is to create a thousand jobs and more in the art industry and I want to reach every corner of the country, in ensuring that waste is recycled and disposed of properly,” she says.

The 24-year-old says Manotta, her friend has been her biggest inspiration and he has pushed her a lot in this.

“We artists have a problem whenever we are in our different artistic worlds. We have a problem connecting with people,” she adds.

She had a dream, but the entrepreneur in Manotta connected her to people with the knowledge in recycling and the industry. He made sure they got to where she thought Trashion should be.

Angelina Gerald said being a trasher has more benefits because when they meet, they share ideas and improve each other’s creativity and productivity.

The industry, however, is not smooth. Getting sponsorship for the project is hard, since they are young artists and Gertrude says people don’t take them seriously or don’t trust them.

Being a young woman in the industry is also not easy as she has to compete with men.

Gertrude is the first born of two children. She completed her bachelor’s of arts and humanities degree at Chancellor College in 2015.

She went to Bwala Secondary School for two terms and moved to Lilongwe Girls Secondary School.

Gertrude wrote her Standard Eight exams at Mtsiriza Primary School.

She did a years’ long internship with Green Land Services, from 2016, but realised that she was not cut for the job.

With the money she had, Gertrude bought a tailoring machine, fabric, paid for a shop and started to run her business besides work.

She quit her job in 2017 after realising her love for arts and went fully operational in her business which had already been running for six months.

“I wasn’t giving 100 percent attention to my job or business, so, I quit,” she says.

She says Manotta was not the only one who helped her get established, but her friend Dineo Mkwezalamba, an economist and entrepreneur, also pushed her and is always guiding her to do well.

Her artistry goes back to 2006 to 2009 where she would draw clothing designs for pay.

In college, she was already making pottery and design dresses for clients at a fee.

Both her parents passed away in 2011. She and her brother stayed with relatives. After graduation, she started living on her own and she helps support her brother who is in college.

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