BAGS WITH A MISSION
With her upcycled bags, 24-year-old Vania Santoso is simultaneously protecting the environment and empowering women in urban villages, or kampungs.
At glance, the bags and clutches she developed look like they are made of leather. In fact, they are used paper cement sacks that have been processed with natural coloring and eco-friendly waterproof coating.
Vania, a university student from Surabaya, East Java, uses her innovative bags to empower housewives in three underprivileged kampungs in the eastern part of Java.
“It is about women’s empowerment,” Vania said on her recent visit to Jakarta. “We want to show that housewives can do more than just the housework.”
Under the brand of STARTIC — which stands for Stylish Art in Ecopreneurship, Vania partnered with over 30 housewives in Surabaya and Sidoarjo in East Java, and also Wonosari in Yogyakarta. She taught the housewives to color the used cement sacks with tie dye folding techniques and to apply the water color coating.
Together with the housewives, Vania has developed numerous bag designs, sewing together the colored cement sacks with batik and songket woven cloth to create ethnic bags and clutches. Before initiating Startic in late 2000, Vania had already gained a reputation as an environmental activist. Before turning 20 she had already received numerous awards for her innovations in waste management and environmental projects, including the Satya Lencana Wira Karya award from the President.
It is all started in the sixth grade, when little Vania and her big sister Agnes – who was at college, initiated an environmental NGO, AV Peduli.
AV Peduli, which bears their initials, was established after the sisters witnessed a flood inundate their house in Surabaya.
“It was an unpleasant experience,” Vania recalled. “We learned that it was due to heavy rainfall, and also human factors — they didn’t care about the environment […] Trash clogged the gutter.”
AV Peduli kicked off with simple environmental projects at Vania’s elementary school.
“Basically, I gathered my school friends together to do simple things, such as cleaning up the surrounding environment,” she said.
The sisters’ green movement expanded to more schools as well as orphanages and kampungs in Surabaya and beyond.
Aside from holding green-themed fashion shows and music events, the sisters taught the students and residents to separate organic waste and encouraged them to plant more trees and keep the environment clean.
Vania recalled that some residents underestimated her just because she
was a child
“But, we would not give up that easily. We kept on sharing information about environmental damage. As time went by, I learned that I must listen their concerns before sharing my information.”
The chats and discussions with kampung residents brought one conclusion: the residents want to improve their livelihoods.
“I knew that we should not promise them that they would earn money by joining the program. They would be disappointed if we failed to deliver such promise.”
Instead, Vania found ways for residents to save their hard-earned money. This came in the form of medicinal herb gardens, which are fertilized by organic domestic waste.
“By having this garden, they can save on medical expenses when their family member falls sick. They just need to take the medicine from the garden.”
Vania’s environmental activism became social entrepreneurship in 2007, when AV Peduli won the US$10,000 prize from Volvo Adventure in Sweden, an international environmental competition organized by the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP). At that time, Vania had just graduated from middle school.
“We were thinking about how to use the prize in a more sustainable way. So, we decided to make upcycled handicrafts,” she said.
Using used packaging of coffee sachets and other domestic waste, Vania and housewives from the kampungs started to create everything from headbands, belts and accessories.
The crafts sold like hot cakes when Vania brought them to overseas events and bazaars, but have met a lukewarm response at home.
“People looked down on the crafts. They became uninterested the second they learned the products were made of trash,” Vania recalled.
“At that point, I realized that I should learn to better manage this business. That’s why I took a management major at university,” said Vania, who is currently working on her final thesis at Airlangga University, Surabaya.
Her studies have indeed helped her to innovate, and she began focusing on using paper cement bags to make her products under her eco fashion line, STARTIC.
“My father is in the construction business. So, he can supply me with cement sacks. Aside from that, we also have trash banks that can supply materials,” she said, adding that they aim to invite more construction firms to help with their project.
The university helped her to create waterproof coating for the colored paper sacks, while her mother assisted Vania to give sewing lessons to housewives in the kampungs.
Startic provides flexibility for the housewives. They can color and sew the fabrics at home after completing their housekeeping and taking care of their children.
The bag line soon gained public attention and started receiving big orders. Startic products can be found at startic.avpeduli.com and a handful of stores in Surabaya, including at Juanda Airport.
“It is the residents’ excitement that keeps me going,” Vania said.
“They were amazed that their bags could be sold for Rp 600,000 (US$45) each. They couldn’t believe that their effort has resulted in a Satya Lencana medal from the President.”
Vania also represented Indonesia at the Global Student Entrepreneur Awards (GSEA), a student entrepreneur’s competition organized by global business network, the Entrepreneurs’ Organization (EO).
“EO, as a global organization, has embraced the GSEA because we know that through this program we would be able to inspire and educate students who are in this activity,” GSEA director for Asia Pacific, Jose Alberto Dimayuga, said in phone interview.
Vania said she felt lucky to be in the competition as she was able to receive mentorship from the experienced entrepreneurs in EO.
“Taking part in EO’s competition has helped me to expand my network. EO members are top entrepreneurs, like Lee Cooper, Contempo and Femina Group,” Vania said.
“The network helped me to connect with an Indonesian world-class designer, who is now in the process of collaborating with us.”
Through the upcoming collaborative project, Vania aims to tap into the wider market, including marketing the bags to high-end fashion lovers.
“My dream is that more people appreciate and buy eco-friendly, handmade products. I want to make this mainstream.”
GOING GREEN: Vania Santoso turns trash into fashionable bags.
AWARDING DAY: Vania Santoso receives the Satya Lencana Wira Karya award from then vice president Boediono.