The Eco-Coffins pilot-project was started in 2005 at the Cedara Agricultural College in Howick, Pietermaritzburg, to creatively address the three issues of water scarcity, unemployment and the exorbitant funeral costs in South Africa.
The project took off in 2005 with funding from the The Invasive Alien Species Programme (IASP) of the KZN Dept of Agriculture and Environmental Affairs (DAEA) and the World Bank. Since its start, the project has created over 60 jobs for previously unemployed residents in the area by training them in the manufacturing process to transform them into coffins with low environmental impact.
The Eco-Coffins Project is managed with the assistance of various government and civil society agencies such as the Working for Water Programme (WfW) and the Alliance of Religions and Conservation (ARC) in the UK. Since the start of manufacturing in 2007, they have produced over 12 000 coffins (currently +- 35 coffins per day at the Cedara workshop), cleared approximately 113 400 category two alien invader species (mainly pine, wattle and gum trees) in the Howick / Pietermaritzburg area and created jobs in clearing, carpentry and health and safety in the work place.
Although the production of coffins may appear to be a melancholic business, in South Africa where funeral costs can have a devastating effect on the poor; eco-coffins can dramatically assist by providing an affordable alternative. Not only do the coffins create employment for locals and assist with water security but they are also sold at just R300–R450 each as apposed to the average coffin, which can cost anywhere between R2000–R5000 alone.
Prominent South African politician, the late Professor Kader Asmal, was the first South African to commit to using a Cedara Eco-coffin in the event of his death (in 2011), and others have followed his example since. But despite the lower cost and support from influential figures, the biggest challenge for the project has been breaking into the competitive coffin market.
However, the project is gradually expanding and in 2012 an Eco-coffins workshop was opened up in New Germany in Durban. The skilled workers at Eco-coffins are also expanding their range of wood products to church benches, school desks and household and office furniture.
Actively addressing significant environmental and social issues specific to an African context, the Eco-Coffins Project is hoping to be replicated throughout South Africa in the near future. Perhaps with enough support, we’ll see more of these projects coming to life and being sustained.
Examples of products by Eco-Coffins, Cedara, Kwa-Zulu Natal
Above: Church pew made out of gum
Above: Double combination school desk made out of gum
Above: Pulpit made out of gum
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