Plugged in and turned on. All paper. All the time.
Christine Wilson is a hand papermaker in St.Lucia, specializing in banana fiber papers and paper products. She’s been busy preparing for global entrepreneurship week, where she is hosting a brunch featuring women entrepreneurs in her community, but took a break to talk about her process, her passion for papermaking and her commitment to environmental stewardship.
The Fiber Wire [FW]: I read that you decided to become an entrepreneur after you were displaced by the events of the banana industry and that banana fiber is now the cornerstone of your paper products. What is the history of the banana industry in St. Lucia and how did it lead to the evolution of your idea for a papermaking business.
Christine Wilson [CW]: The banana industry started in my country in the late 1950s. At that time there was an arrangement to ship bananas to Europe. Globalization and changes in the European market since 1993 have left St Lucia’s banana industry in tatters. It flourished until the 1990s when the WTO (World Trade Organization) came into play. They thought that the Caribbean was being given preferential treatment with the bananas. People had to go through rigorous training and record keeping and a number of them were not equipped to deal with that. Added to that we had the Black Sigatoka, which damaged quite a lot of the bananas. It was a lot to combat with. So, with that they lost quite a chunk of the European market. A lot of people who depended on the banana industry had to seek refuge elsewhere, had to diversify.
FW: <laughing> I just asked you to summarize 40-50 years in less than five minutes, didn’t I?
CW: Yes, but in a nutshell that is how it happened.
FW: So, then there was a lot of agricultural waste from the banana industry that you saw as an opportunity for a business?
CW: Yes. When farmers harvest, they want the fruit. So they chop down the tree trunk and they let it go to waste. The tree trunk is very fibrous and the fibers are very strong. So, there became an opportunity for me, to take this tree trunk and convert it into paper, something I learned at the National Skills Development Center and Japanese consultant at the time.
FW: You learned from a Japanese professor. Will you talk a bit about that?
CW: With all that happened in the banana industry, there became a need to see what else could be made of the banana. With the fruit, they tried to do banana ketchup. Then they tried to make banana rope and eventually tried to make banana paper. A training center was set up and some people were trained with the National Skills Development Centre Staff. Along with a Japanese consultant there is a JOVOC program on the island with Japanese volunteers coming into St. Lucia. And so I learned to make paper. It was actually a two-week crash course. After that I had to do a lot of experimenting, trial and error, by myself, documenting everything that I need. I played with it to see how I could best refine what I had done.
FW: Your introduction to papermaking was part of enterprise development and I’m wondering if you enjoyed the process of papermaking at that point or were you looking at it mainly as a business opportunity. Or was it a mix of both?
CW: It was an instant connection because I was fascinated by the whole idea of converting waste into something that could actually be used. I jumped at the opportunity. After that I trained a few other young persons with the hope of setting up a cooperative, where we would have established a small business. But in the end they were not interested in that. What they wanted was a job. They wanted to come to a job and at the end of the month have someone pay them. They weren’t interested in being shareholders. So they left and I continued on my own. Since then I have employed three others who work with me, one full-time, one part-time and the third if I have a very big order I will bring her in. My niece, who is unemployed, will take care of the production aspect and I take care of the management, finances, that sort of thing.
FW: Can you talk a little about the banana fiber itself, like the characteristics of the fiber, what makes it unique, considerations when working with the fiber?
CW: It depends on the type. I use the trunks of the banana tree. A very young tree will give a very light, creamish colored paper. So will the inner fiber in the tree. The outer fibers in the trunk will give you a darker paper. This is my experience. It depends on how you prepare it because some times I chop, soak and boil. With that you get a darker sheet. But if I scrape the fiber from the tree itself, removing all the excess liquid I get a light paper. That fiber, the scraped fiber, is a very strong fiber.
FW: After you scrape the fiber you cook it?
CW: Yes, I cook with soda ash. It cooks very quickly, only fifteen to twenty minutes. That is an advantage I have in working with banana.
FW: Do you beat it by hand or do you have a beater that you use?
CW: I have a two-pound Hollander beater. The banana fiber takes less that five minutes to beat. I also have a heavy-duty hydraulic press that aids in extracting the water. And then I use western moulds.
FW: In July, you were posting photos your company Facebook page of a papermaking challenge you were working on. What was that about?
CW: I took twelve days off and I was trying to see if I could make 2000 sheets of paper by myself in those twelve days.
FW: Oh! <laughing> It was a challenge you gave yourself.
CW: <laughing> Yes.
FW: Did you make it?
CW: Yes. <laughing> Yes, I did.
FW: Where is it all now?
CW: I sold quite a bit. I have it in stock. I was making 250-300 sheets a day.
FW: I bet you slept well!
CW: I had one helper, my niece. Lesson learned. I think next time I need three employees to help. I was very happy with my results but I thought, “Lord! I am tired!” I was doing a lot of documenting, like, the amount of fibers that I used, the amount of sheets that I got from a particular batch of fiber, the texture, and so on.
FW: So it was a research and development activity, too.
FW: Who are your main customers for your products and what products do you make?
CW: Artists use the paper for their paintings, drawings and prints. Events people, like people who are planning their wedding, will use it for invitations and menu cards, that sort of thing. I sell stationary and jewelry made of paper to the hotel boutiques.
FW: You incorporate recycled materials into your papers and the company’s mission involves a high level of environmental stewardship. What environmental considerations were most important to you when you were developing your standards and procedures?
CW: I was concerned with primarily one thing; that our landfills were not being filled with the linen and the cotton from old clothing, because I use that as well for papermaking. And the fallen banana trunk, although it would eventually rot in the banana field and maybe turn back into fertilizer, that would take a little bit of time. And I saw it as a little bit wasteful because the farmer can make a little bit of money by selling the stalk. I looked at it in that light.
FW: So there are two important sides to your business. On one side you are an environmental steward by repurposing waste as a fiber source. On the other you are a source of enterprise development and local employment. How does Studio Kreativity Inc. influence the journeys of the people it employs?
CW: The women that I employ, some of them are single parents. Some of them do not have the educational background to get a well-paid job. Some of them are high school dropouts. These are the people who have the opportunity to remain in the community, and actually be employed doing something meaningful and be proud.
FW: What is Studio Kreativity Inc. up to next? What are you big plans?
CW: I want to go into scrapbooking, making scrapbooking packages, to encourage people, particularly young people, to use the sheets to put down their ideas or their teenage days or school days. I just got a cinch binder so that I can bind spiral notebooks. I’m working with an Export Development Agency, TEPAR, to export the paper into the UK.
FW: So you’ll be making paper for a long time, yet.
CW: Yes, I will. I’m actually looking into buying an old factory building that I can convert into a larger papermaking studio. It was used once to process the banana ketchup. Once I do it means that I will be able to expand my operation, employ more young people, ones that maybe were not academically inclined and need a job. Also, making it a paper center, inviting people and offering talks and workshops. That’s the way I see it going in the not-so-distant future. Once I get off the ground with the UK export it means that my demand would be more and I would need more employees, more hands on deck.
FW: When you expand will you still be in a production role or do you see yourself moving to an administrative role?
CW: <laughing> I think I will always be in a production role. I don’t see myself giving it up. I like getting my hands and feet wet.
FW: Do you have any advice for someone wanting to open a business, be it strictly for-profit or with the added community development cause?
CW: My advice is if you have a passion for it do it. I always tell people it’s always good to have multiple sources of income. And if what you are doing can help other people too, go ahead.
Check out the Studio Kreativity, Inc. Facebook page here