04 Sep 2018
Berkane, Morocco
Resource Efficiency and Sustainable Waste Management

Faiza Hajji had a brainwave when, as a child, she saw a traditionally woven Moroccan bread basket. Why not use those same handicraft techniques to convert plastic bags a long-time scourge on the picturesque face of Morocco into bag design products? Hajji developed the concept while studying in Paris before returning home to found Ifassen (hands, in Berber), an organization that trains and employs women in rural communities to produce the bags.

Ifassen distributes its social impact broadly. Women receive vocational education and an extra source of income, while children learn more about Moroccan culture and recycling through a range of outreach programs. Now Hajji wants to continue Ifassen’s rise, refining its business model so that it can turn consistent profits.

Faiza Hajji’s journey to founding Ifassen, a non-profit organization that converts plastic waste into reuseable shopping bags and fashion accessories, began when a patient of her mother’s could not cover a medical bill. As a child, she recalls the Moroccan woman offering a bread basket made from recycled materials in lieu of money. “Seeing that basket made me think that we could do the same thing with plastic bags,” Hajji says.

Morocco has a chequered relationship with plastic bags, a notorious contributor to environmental damage. When Hajji conceived the idea for Ifassen back in 2006, Morocco was the world’s second-highest per capita consumer of single-use plastic bags. In 2016, Al Jazeera reported that each Moroccan citizen used an average of 900 plastic bags per year. The North African country has made several attempts to reduce this social problem, culminating in a 2016 blanket ban on plastic bag production, importation and sale.

These reforms have not taken hold overnight though plastic bags remain available for now. Ifassen plays a valuable role in changing local attitudes to plastic waste, while also empowering women in poorer communities by providing vocational training to its workers. “Our organization is not just about selling bags,” Hajji says. “We take more of a holistic approach.”

From French university to Moroccan village:

Inspired by her mother’s bread basket, Hajji developed her business concept for recyclable bags while completing her engineering degree in France. Her prototype bag won first prize in a student design contest, which led to other designers contacting her with a view to collaborating on the project. Hajji’s concept continued to attract financial grants, and even featured at the fashion show, Paris Prêt á Porter, in 2008.

In 2006, Hajji returned to Morocco to implement the second element of her vision training local women in rural areas to handle the bag manufacturing process. Employees receive vocational training in creating bags with traditional weaving techniques, but Ifassen also has one eye firmly trained on the future. Soon, Ifassen’s staff will learn how to use 3D printers, which will play an important role in manufacturing a new interior design object featuring, of course, elements of Ifassen’s signature Moroccan weaving.

At present, Ifassen works with a total of 60 women spread across three communities in Chouihia, a town in far northeastern Morocco. Each workshop draws plastic waste from the local community, receiving valuable assistance from government authorities, “eco-families” and even dry cleaners who, perhaps unsurprisingly, have a surplus of used plastic wrapping.

The SwitchMed initiative, the umbrella networking group under which The Switchers project falls, has also given financial assistance to Ifassen, helping Hajji and her staff purchase high-quality flour bags to convert into durable shopping carriers.

Hajji had answered a call for proposals to offer alternatives to plastic bags in Morocco. “We carried on a six-month project working on finding alternatives to plastic bags, and thanks to SwitchMed, we managed to carry out that project either through research, marketing or awareness campaigns,” Hajji notes.

Hajji also added that her mission is ideally about giving plastic bags a second life. “With this project we went a step forward to try to understand how to offer alternatives made from used or recycled flour bags,” Hajji adds. She also highlighted that throughout the project, they managed to hire more women for an increased social impact.

Additionally, Ifassen gave out thousands of reusable bags as part of social awareness campaigns. “We don’t only recycle plastic bags but also plastic bottles and our first prototype is a lamp 3D-printed from recycled plastics,” Hajji says.

With the feedback received from SwitchMed, Ifassen managed to tweak the prototype and its design to fit the market.

Hajji’s main plan is to scale up through a collaboration with famous architect Aziza Shami and through using local knowledge and local materials, while using different techniques.

Importantly, Ifassen’s business model works around the varying schedules and demands of its employees. The women contribute to Ifassen outside their existing commitments, which range from caring for children to working on farms. “[Ifassen’s business model] is not disturbing the cultural structure of the family,” Hajji says.

Drawing in more clients:

This philosophy necessarily raises commercial challenges for Ifassen; the organization does not have a consistent production line. For now, the business does not cover its costs in itself not a major concern, given its charitable aims. “We need to find a balance between the sales we can make and the products we can offer,” says Hajji.

For this reason, Hajji has explored a range of different channels for selling more design products. Ifassen has sold bags online, although its website faces technical obstacles. Ideally, Hajji says, Ifassen will be able to employ a full-time marketing specialist to deal with issues like online sales and reaching more customers. “[Marketing] is one of the keys for being sustainable and moving forward,” Hajji says.

Hajji has also entered discussions to attract larger orders on a more consistent basis. Ifassen collaborated with architect Aziza Chaouni Projects to provide bags and Moroccan carpets (made from used flour packaging) for children to sit on during an exhibition at Musée du Quai Branly, a Parisian museum. The initiative did not stop at creating an outlet for Ifassen’s sales; it also raised awareness amongst French schoolchildren about Moroccan culture and the importance of recycling.

On top of this, Ifassen has helped shape attitudes of the next generation towards plastic waste much closer to home. Hajji speaks with pride about Ifassen running student outreach programs in Moroccan schools, where children are encouraged to bring discarded plastic from their homes to school for recycling.

“The children are our future,” says Hajji. “So their education should promote sustainable development and global citizenship.”


Learn more about Ifassen through its website and Facebook page .

Photos: Courtesy of Ifassen.

Since getting his MA in Middle Eastern studies last year, David has worked as a freelance journalist based in Accra, Ghana, and Cairo, Egypt.David Wood
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Ifassen Resource Efficiency & Sustainable Waste Management