Life upcycling:  a lesson from Cuba


Debbie Forster

02 February 2017

Time ticked away as I made my way through the crowded Havana market, working around tired housewives dragging bored children in their wake. While colourful and buzzy, this was no tourist market. There were no Cuban flags or Fidel caps to be found. Instead beneath the tin rooftops were row upon row of tables, covered with mounds of inexpensive shirts, underclothes, outdated kitchenware and dozens of mysterious wired gadgets. How on earth was I going to be inspired to ‘design’ something here? I’d never described myself as an innovator or a ‘designer’. Help!

This was the fourth day of our Havana Quest. I’d visited briefly, early in the year, and fallen in love with the place. So when the Quest opened, I leapt at the chance to get beyond the mojitos, cigars and vintage cars – to get to know the country and the people underneath better.

By this point in the trip my head was filled with facts, figures and statistics told us by academics and experts on the history, politics, and economics of Havana. I’d seen first-hand local businesses. I’d met young tech entrepreneurs, budding designers and the most inspiring farmer I’d ever seen. I’d walked through the beautiful but crumbling old city, stayed in a grand hotel and experienced a more humble home stay in a quiet, tidy residential section of Havana. And talked to people, so many people.

Today we were visiting Clandestina and meeting the entrepreneurs and designers behind it. I’d fallen in love with the shop, its whimsical designs and the cleverness with which the team dealt with the scarcity of raw materials. But more than the pretty things, I was excited by the two women founders behind it, Idania Del Rio and Leire Fernandez. Their inspiration as Cuban entrepreneurs still resonates with me months after leaving Havana.

Leire spoke with passion and humour of the “beauty of recycling and the joy of handcrafting.” This came as a shock. To me, recycling is about trying to remember which sort of rubbish goes in each coloured bin. Handcrafting was an expensive ‘value add’ to a product, not something you did yourself. But in a country which has faced fifty years of trade embargos and restrictions – on an island which struggles to feed itself – getting what you need is a daily challenge, and recycling and handcrafting required a new mindset. But far from creating a sense of despair or bitterness, everyone we spoke to approached these difficulties with a sort of weary and resilient optimism and humour. It was hard, but it just was. Leire smiled when she described how Cubans “are living and thriving in a constant state of crisis…Cuba is unstoppable like a train.”

Clandestina designs and creates their wares from whatever they can get their hands on, creating ‘upcycled’ shirts, bags, and stationery that we scrambled to buy as gifts for friends and family. This recycling and handcrafting wasn’t just happening in design shops for tourists. It is difficult to find raw materials: there’s no reliable or affordable way to access the internet. Wherever we looked, we saw ‘Cuban style’ innovation. Whether it was the tech entrepreneur keeping his government job to retain access to the internet, or hearing how Fernando Funes-Monzote started his farming project at Finca Marta, choosing an old farm not on prime land with no easy access to water. He found innovative ways to use what was available, and made it flourish.

But this was not going to help me in the street market. The challenge was to go with Clandestina and design something using materials found in the market; to discover the beauty of recycling. Which I wasn’t discovering. Not at all. I just saw stuff, much of which I didn’t understand. And I just kept thinking, as I stumbled from stall to stall, “I’m not a designer, I’m not creative; I help innovators, I don’t innovate myself.”

Looking at one strange object, our guide smiled and explained. “Oh, that’s what we use because we can’t get hot water. We’ve taken the wiring but encased it in the pottery. You hook that up to the tap and it heats the water.” Abandoning my British health and safety horror, I was blown away. It was so clever and simple. He laughed at my amazement and said, “It just solves the problem of cold water.”

Rounding the corner, I came upon Leire. When I bemoaned my lack of inspiration, she smiled gently and said, “Just look around and find something you can use to solve a problem you have. Just solve a problem.”

It was a painfully simple lightbulb moment for me. I’d never seen myself as the creative type, the designer or the innovator. I just fixed things, made things work or made problems go away. But here, this made me a designer, a problem solver. I’d discovered my inner Cuban innovator.

This was transformational for me. This trip had occurred at a personal crossroads – I was trying to decide on my next chapter. Like many women, being at a turning point left me questioning what I’d done thus far and wondering where I’d find the next magic ‘something’ to help me succeed. Arriving in Havana, we’d been told (nay, warned!): “When you go on a Quest, be ready to discover yourself”. In that crowded local market, I did. That night, I spoke about it to a fellow Questor, sharing my revelation. I was still worrying over my next step. He smiled and gently said, “I think you’ve already taken it.”

That day in the market – and indeed, the whole trip – has made me look at the world and my work differently. In my day job, I’ve had the privilege of working with tech entrepreneurs and innovators, young and old. It has been an amazing journey, but like many people, I feel the words innovation and entrepreneurialism have become hijacked. We act as if only bearded hipsters building new apps can be innovators; as if the only innovation is something on a screen or needing to be plugged in.

But Cuba reminded me that it can be simpler than that. When we really look at a problem, we can get a clear sense of what is needed. We don’t have to just build something new – we can upcycle. The joy and beauty is in finding and using the resources already around us, to carefully craft a solution – which may or may not need plugging in!

We often think that what we need next is some new and different skill or idea outside ourselves, when in fact we already have what we need. It may just need a bit of Cuban recycling. And sometimes we need a problem, a crossroads or a crisis to realise this, to force us to upcycle ourselves. Like Cubans, we can survive and thrive in a state of constant crisis. It takes humour and resilience and some creative thinking…and some mojitos might help. But, like Cuba and the Cubans, we can be unstoppable like a train.