Matt Simpson is a 31-year-old American expat who has lived in Micronesia for nine years. After graduating college from the University of Vermont, he came to the islands as a volunteer teacher with WorldTeach, an organization that places volunteers in developing countries.
He ended up teaching for five years before turning his focus from education to business. Matt found that most of his students would leave the island to work minimum wage jobs abroad, and knew that many young people wanted to stay in the islands, but couldn’t find any work. So he started Green Banana Paper, creating vegan wallets in hopes of creating as many new jobs as possible for his adopted community. We asked Matt a few questions about his journey and the products his team is making from recycled banana trees.
Below is an Interview with the Founder of Green Banana Paper. Matt Simpson
What inspired Matt to make wallets and paper from banana fiber?
A friend told me about a documentary she saw of people in Thailand using banana trees to make paper. So I jumped on Google, and the info was fascinating. I consumed every piece of knowledge, video and case study on paper making and that I could find. Banana fiber is unique because it’s very sustainable and rapidly renewable—and on our island, banana trees belong to the people rather than a single plantation. It’s one of the most eco-friendly and widespread resources we have.
I decided to make the paper wallets after discovering the water and tear-resistant properties of our papers. I spoke with customers who wanted fashionable wallets that are non-leather and earth-friendly. We made the first wallet prototype in May of 2015 and it worked really well. After testing and redesigning for strength, functionality and elegance, we are really confident in and proud of our wallets. We also have talented artists here in the islands with a very unique style, banana fiber paper and wallets give them a canvas to show their designs to the world.
We love your fair trade practices. Was there any initial investment or loan needed to help pay staff 50 – 150% more than minimum wage?
I have been doing business here in the islands, mainly as a custom import service finding suppliers and vendors for businesses in need here. We help import things like rain catchments for clean drinking water all the way to printers and computers for local businesses and government offices. Although this business has been fairly successful, it wasn’t enough to fulfill my personal commitment to the community here so I channeled every penny of profit from that into Green Banana Paper for salaries and equipment. This personal investment has been important, we’ve had foreign investors come in and take loans out to start businesses here, but most of them fail.
Do you think living on a small island with limited resources in comparisons to other parts of the world had an impact on what materials go into making Green Banana Paper products?
To answer that we have to really dig into the cause and effect that gave birth to Green Banana Paper. It’s quite possible that if I never came out here, this company just never would have been. Coming here to this small island and living here for years (going on 10 now) inspired me to find a way to make the local materials work, it was just a matter of HOW. Instead of looking at our surroundings and saying “wow, look at how much we don’t have” we are asking “how can I use what I have around me to make a positive difference for my community”.
Highlight some of the steps of your sustainable manufacturing process.
We use the sun and wind to dry fibers and papers, fallen coconuts to fuel the fire in the boiling process, and the laws of physics as much as possible. We’re lucky to have the beautiful coast of Kosrae here which gives us the trade winds a few months out of the year. It is one of the wettest places on Earth though, so sometimes we have to wait a couple more days before the paper is dry enough for wallet making. To decorate our wallets and papers, we use water-based acrylic ink which adheres wonderfully to the paper and doesn’t cause harm to the environment during clean-up.
With the exciting launch of Green Banana products soon to be available online, what are the next milestones for Green Banana Paper?
We’re in a constant state of mini-launches to help bring awareness to our cause. In March 2017, we had a successful Kickstarter that helped raise $25,000 and brought us some steady traffic to our website where we currently sell all of our designs and products. Currently, we are in the middle of bringing all of these products to Amazon fulfillment centers so that you can get a handmade wallet from Micronesia in 2-days with Prime shipping. As much as our fans and supporters love us, it’s hard to get on board with the shipping times from a remote place like this with only two overbooked flights a week. After that, we will keep the hustle going full steam to bring out new styles and designs of our wallets and explore new product ideas. We have a special new design that will be coming to Kickstarter this fall and I can’t wait to share those details with you soon!
Infograph via greenbananapaper.com