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Beacon of Hope : The Inspiring Story of Isatou Ceesay, Climate Hero

by Lisa Clutterbuck 28 Aug 2023 3 Comments
Beacon of Hope : The Inspiring Story of Isatou Ceesay, Climate Hero

In a world grappling with waste-related challenges, one woman's remarkable journey stands out. A close friend of mine happens to work at Waste Aid UK, and it was through her that I stumbled upon a collection of unique bags and purses that caught my attention. Intrigued by the origin of these products, I embarked on a search that led me to the awe-inspiring journey of an extraordinary individual: Isatou Ceesay. Her story stands tall as a beacon of hope, proving that even in the face of adversity, a single person can spark a movement that reverberates far beyond expectations.

Isatou Ceesay: Empowering Change Through Innovation

As the saying goes, "A strong woman stands up for herself, a stronger woman stands up for everyone else." Isatou Ceesay is undeniably one of those stronger women. She's earned recognition alongside icons like Emma Watson as one of  five female activists making a significant global impact. Here's the remarkable account of how she achieved this status...

A Growing Crisis Ignites Innovation

Isatou's journey began in her home in The Gambia, a region facing dire waste challenges due to the absence of regular waste collection services. The absence of such services led to the accumulation of waste in the streets, painting a grim picture. Isatou's memories harken back to a time when her fellow villagers discarded refuse behind their homes. Plastic bags, once a convenience, had become ubiquitous, wreaking havoc on the environment. These bags harmed animals, triggered malaria outbreaks through mosquito breeding, and contaminated soil, stifling agricultural growth. Disturbingly, her friends were even using plastic as fuel for cooking, oblivious to the toxic fumes endangering their health.

A Determined Vision Takes Shape

Despite the enormity of the challenge, Isatou's resolve was unshakeable. Guided by her sister's crochet teachings, a ground breaking idea took root – upcycling troublesome plastic bags into valuable creations. She rallied a women's group, initiating the collection and cleaning of discarded bags. Through skilful crocheting, these bags were transformed into "plarn" or plastic yarn. Crafting a single purse demanded around eight hours of meticulous work, using approximately ten plastic bags. The sense of accomplishment among these women was palpable.

Photos by Luke Duggleby

Economic Empowerment Through Innovation

The pursuit continued, with the women diversifying their creations to include shoulder bags and cosmetic purses, all crafted from plarn. This venture not only marked a breakthrough in waste reduction but also became an economic lifeline. Many women were earning for the first time, helping their families during lean periods. The newfound income bridged the gap during "hungry months," a period of scant agricultural harvest.

With financial stability, Isatou aided women in opening bank accounts, fueling their empowerment. Families could now afford healthcare, education, and sustenance. In an altruistic ripple effect, the women initiated a community garden, addressing food security, and supported orphaned children's education.

A Legacy of Impact and Transformation

Isatou's endeavours were recognised in 2012 when she received the Making a World of Difference Award from the International Alliance for Women. Her brainchild, the 'Women’s Initiative Gambia,' has trained over 11,000 individuals across the country on plastic hazards and waste upcycling opportunities. Her efforts earned her the title "Queen of Recycling," a moniker well-deserved.

Pioneering Change: One Plastic Bag at a Time

Isatou Ceesay's organisation, 'Women's Initiative Gambia,' pioneers recycling in The Gambia. Defying resistance and ridicule, Isatou created a movement that tackles not only environmental degradation but also gender disparities. Employing hundreds of West African women, the organisation provides monthly income, a noteworthy achievement in a male-dominated society. Since its inception in 1998, Isatou's project has evolved into an educational platform, spreading awareness about recycling and waste reduction.

In a testament to its sustainability-driven growth, the organisation has undergone significant evolution and expansion. Now, the women artisans play a pivotal role in collecting and meticulously cleansing the waste plastic that originates from air freight shipping.

Gambian women washing the air freight plastic wrap

Gambian woman washing air freight plastic wrap & hanging it to dry

Photos by Luke Duggleby

Turning Challenges into Triumphs

Isatou Ceesay's journey epitomises the adage that where others see problems, visionaries see opportunities. She didn't just aim for a cleaner environment; she aimed for transformed lives. Isatou's legacy is a testament to the power of innovation, determination, and the unwavering belief in the potential to effect change, no matter how daunting the challenge.

Bringing Isatou's Legacy to Your Doorstep: The RainbowLife Connection

At RainbowLife, we believe in the power of conscious consumption and the positive impact it can have on communities around the world. That's why we proudly offer a collection of products crafted by Isatou Ceesay and her team as a part of our online store. These unique bags and purses are more than just accessories; they embody a journey of transformation, empowerment, and sustainability. By purchasing Isatou's creations, you not only adorn yourself with exquisite pieces but also contribute to a meaningful cause that transcends borders.

Browse our collection of these unique handcrafted products here.


close up image of Gambian artisan hands crocheting 'plarn' plastic waste yarn

Photo by Luke Duggleby

What sets our partnership with Isatou apart is the shared vision of fostering change. Photographer Luke Duggleby, moved by RainbowLife's commitment to supporting social enterprises, generously donated his captivating photos that he created for an article for 'Climate Heroes'. Inspired by our mission to promote sustainable practices and uplift the lives of artisans like Isatou, Luke declined any payment for his images. His gesture perfectly encapsulates the spirit of collaboration and dedication that defines RainbowLife's ethos.

As a multimedia storytelling platform, 'Climate Heroes' is dedicated to producing compelling documentaries that spotlight the valiant efforts of individuals who are steadfastly combatting environmental challenges and mitigating the impacts of climate change.

Having met Isatou in person, Luke was not only moved by her unwavering determination but was also inspired by the transformative power of her actions. Struck by the resonance between Isatou's mission and RainbowLife's commitment to supporting social enterprises, Luke decided to contribute his poignant photographs to our cause.

In a world where images are worth a thousand words, Luke's photographs encapsulate the essence of Isatou's work and its impact on both local communities and the environment. His generous contribution is a testament to the interwoven threads of purpose that connect individuals like Isatou and organisations like RainbowLife.

By choosing RainbowLife as your destination for Isatou Ceesay's products, you become a part of a global movement aimed at nurturing both the planet and her people. Every purchase carries the ideals of sustainability, empowerment, and community upliftment, fostering a world where positive change is not just a dream but a tangible reality.

Photographs by Luke Duggleby/Climate Heroes . Find Luke's inspirational documentary & portrait photography work on Instagram. 

Isatou Ceessay, Climate Hero, standing within a landfill in her home country, The Gambia
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29 Aug 2023 Trudi Field

Great article Lisa, telling the inspirational story of Isatou and her innovative repurposing of low-value plastic.

The efforts of these trailblazing women inspire many of us to keep on making the changes needed to prevent the harm waste pollution causes to all life on earth.

29 Aug 2023 Jane Corrie

This is a fascinating story Lisa, thank you for sharing it. And as the owner of one of the bags I can confirm how beautiful they are. Using it now I know the back story will only add to my enjoyment

28 Aug 2023 Katie Diallo

Really fascinating blog and a story well worth telling! Wonderful that Luke offered his photos free to promote your initiative.

Having spent a lot of time in Senegal and a little in Gambia, I can tell you that there are lots of wonderful strong women working to empower other women. I’m not sure what the numbers are now, but for quite a long time, Senegal had significantly more women representing them in parliament that we had here! (in UK). They’ve not had a female president yet but it can’t be far away!

I have family in Senegal and Gambia and know well the precarious nature of their existence. Ironically it was only a few years ago that Senegal discovered oil on their coast and there was much excited anticipation of the revenue it would bring. Now they need to harness wind and solar power.. Resources which are not in short supply in Africa!

Let’s hope their time has come and they can move on from their position of poverty and powerlessness. But for this to happen the richer echelons of society who dominate politics in many of these countries, need to be replaced by individuals who put the good of their communities before the privileged few. A belief that applies equally here in the West!

Issatou Cissé is an inspiration! It’s amazing that she is creating beautiful items from the millions of blue plastic bags strewn everywhere in Senegambia. Thanks for bringing her and her project to our attention!

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