JBDC Converting Banana Waste into Profitable Paper

Converting ‘waste to profit’ is a concept that the Jamaica Business Development Corporation (JBDC) incorporates into many of its projects. Through these ground-breaking undertakings, mainly non-traditional raw materials, some of which are usually considered refuse, are used to create useful, unique items.
One such initiative is the banana paper-making project, which involves making stationery and other products from the trunk of the banana plant, which would normally be left to rot after the fruit is reaped.
Manager of Technical Services at the JBDC, Mr. Colin Porter, tells JIS News that this project, which began in earnest in 2002 after first being introduced to the JBDC team by two Japanese visitors a year earlier, is considered “almost like the flagship project that we have that demonstrates the whole ‘waste to profit’ concept.”
He said that the JBDC looks at the concept more as a philosophy than an individual project, because it encourages the use of innovative principles.
“Banana paper is only one representation of the ‘waste to profit’ philosophy, because we have persons making (items) from other materials that you would consider waste. In other areas, we look at other types of natural fibres and materials which can be converted to profitable material, and these would be considered waste material before,” he points out.
He says that the JBDC has been promoting the banana paper-making initiative as an alternative business opportunity, utilising waste materials to make something unique, different and local. This is done through workshops and attending trade fairs and expos, with focus on community groups, particularly in areas where banana farming is a major activity.
“One of the triggers of this project.was the fact that there was a decline in banana production and the sale and export of the banana fruit. So for persons, who traditionally would have been employed in these areas and saw a reduction in job opportunities, we sought to pitch this as an alternative to farming the banana fruit,” he explains.
The Technical Services Manager notes that when the project started, the initial focus was on parishes in the eastern end traditionally considered banana-producing areas – St. Thomas, Portland and St. Mary. But, it has been extended to involve groups in Flagstaff, St. James and Cockpit Country communities, as well as individuals.
Mr. Porter says that the Technical Services team that he manages, is not only responsible for providing creative solutions to persons, they are the individuals who engage persons who want to be a part of the banana paper-making process, normally through workshops.
These workshops are usually held over a two-day period. Day one would entail explaining the whole process and showing opportunities where persons can make things from non-traditional materials.
“The process includes the actual physical operation of how do you extract the fibre from the plant of the banana tree.we use the trunk of the banana tree,” he explains.
“So, it’s literally a thing where persons have to get (their hands) dirty: its hands on. We show you how to extract the fibre, which is the primary material, from the trunk, how to refine the fibre and how to convert it and make paper,” he observes.
That procedure can take the entire day, or it can go over into a second day, if there is need to delve into more technical aspects in terms of different variations in the paper and so on.
“But typically, on the second day, what we do is explore different product options from the paper because, once we create the paper, the paper in itself can be a finished product, or it can become raw material to make some other paper-based product,” Mr. Porter states.
“It is very hands on, so persons who participate in the workshop are expected to make sheets of paper, and experiment with the fibre and the pulp to see what possibilities they can get from it,” he says.
Following the workshops, participants interested in starting their own operation can opt to purchase a start-up kit offered by the JBDC, for a minimal cost of about $6,000. The kit includes: a mould and deckle, a two piece device which, when immersed in water, helps to form the shape of the paper; a small amount of pulp; a paper-making manual; and a vacuum box.
The vacuum box, Mr. Porter explains, would be attached to a vacuum cleaner, which is not included in the kit. Persons will need to purchase their own vacuum cleaner, typically a five-gallon wet/dry vacuum. During the banana paper-making process it is used to extract excess water from the moulded sheet of paper.
“We (also) encourage persons to buy a heavy duty blender, because the banana pulp itself can be dried and typically, that’s the way we store it. You store the pulp dried, but you can add water to it to get it back into that porridge-like state before you can mould the paper. When you add the dried pulp and water to it, and you turn on the blender, it brings it back to that state. So the blender is also necessary,” the Technical Services Manager notes.
He also points out that it would be very difficult for persons to obtain the specialised equipment required to convert fibre to pulp on their own, because of the prohibitive cost. The JBDC however, has it available in-house.
Once persons have purchased the kit and the required appliances, persons would now have the tools to produce from home or any suitable space, as not much space is needed to start a small operation. Persons would also need a sturdy table top that can withstand water damage, and a vat to submerge the pulp in.
Mr. Porter cautions too that, because it is a hand-made process, persons using a single mould and deckle by themselves, would not be able to produce too many sheets of paper at any one time, or over say, an eight-hour period.
“An individual, I would think, on a typical day, working eight hours, perhaps can do maybe close to 100 sheets of (letter-size) paper,” he notes.
It is for this reason that the JBDC encourages the process to be done as a community activity, where several persons can make sheets of paper at the same time to produce enough volume to be able to supply a market.
The sheets of paper can also be moulded into other standard paper sizes such as the tabloid size. Apart from producing plain sheets of paper, different things can be done to enhance the paper, such as using dyes, dried plant materials or any other material which can change the look and texture of the paper.
Individuals need not worry should the process becoming overwhelming, as the Corporation conducts ‘hand-holding’ sessions with clients.
“We believe in hand-holding so, once you purchase a kit, or you go through some kind of process with us, we allow you to come in or we keep in touch with you to ensure that you are going along the correct path,” he says.
He points out that even though the JBDC is pitching the paper, the fibre itself, doesn’t have to be converted to pulp and paper. The fibre can be plaited and/or woven.
“In our situation, we’ve been using it almost like straw to make different products like hats and mats, and stuff like that. However, at a different level, which we haven’t really begun to explore yet, it can be woven into fabric,” he informs.
Pointing to the durability of the products, Mr. Porter notes that they have proven to be long-lasting, and that the fibre and paper are resistant to pests, mildew or any type of discolouration.
“It’s odourless, it’s not poisonous or harmful if you (happen to) take a bite out of it,” he adds.
Attesting to the economical viability of the venture, he notes that there has been a growing demand for hand-made, recycled and natural papers, and other 100 per cent Jamaican products. He also states that the JBDC was currently exploring value-added activities or value-added products.
“The paper is not the same as you would buy a sheet of paper in the store to run through your computer printer … it’s hand made, primarily targeted for the craft industry. You could paint on it or you could use it to make invitations…boxes…clocks or bags or wide variety of stuff that can be made from paper, and this is where the value comes in to the sheet of paper itself,” he notes.
He adds that in the future the JBDC will be looking at an initiative to stimulate the demand for the paper within the creative industry.
He also points to plans to create a space within the Corporation’s Incubator and Resource Centre, to accommodate persons who do not have adequate space to conduct their banana paper-making operation.
Mr. Porter points out that the incubator section provides a space where persons can come in and do small-level production-type operations. Already, a fashion incubator is in place equipped with sewing machines and other facilities, where persons can conduct their tasks for a contracted period of time.
In terms of the resource centre segment, the team from the JBDC’s Technical Services Department man the Corporation’s three main resource centres and provide technical support for clients.
The Jamaica Business Development Corporation, which falls under the Ministry of Industry, Investment and Commerce, assists businesses, particularly micro, small and medium-sized enterprises (MSMEs) with business and technical support services, such as guiding business start-ups, providing training, and offering consultancy advice for established businesses.

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