Africa’s Beautiful Bag Lady: One Woman Making a Difference

Photo of Lori Robinson in AfricaWhen my friend, and fellow writer, Lori Robinson, was seven years old and living in Miami, Florida, she told her mom she wanted to go live in Africa.

Little did she know her childhood dream would turn into a lifelong passion, and culminate several decades later in a simple, yet exhilarating project: The Bag Project.

Lori was twenty-four when she finally made her way to Africa. She’d originally planned to work in wildlife conservation, but her good looks launched her into the world of modeling and television. For three and a half years she dazzled the camera during photo shoots and also hosted South Africa’s most popular live entertainment television show, Prime Time.

It may have been Lori’s modeling career that first opened the doors of Africa for her, but it was her heart that took her back again and again.

Lori Robinson in AfricaOver the past thirty years Lori has traveled extensively throughout the continent and has been deeply involved in the Jane Goodall Institute (JGI). Currently she travels twice each year from her home in Santa Barbara, California to East Africa where she leads tours and also participates in volunteer work with JGI.

For part of her stay, she resides in the small town of Tenguru, Tanzania. It’s here that Lori has made an impact on the lives of thousands of Tanzanians with her Bag Project.

Watch this short video to see Lori’s project in action.

“The simplicity of it, is what makes it work,” she says as she flashes a quick smile.

“It began six years ago when I was in Tenguru and noticed a problem plaguing the beautiful landscape; plastic bags were everywhere. They were blowing in the wind, tangled in the trees and fences, stuck in rivers. They were strangling the environment.

“Not only that, but grazing goats and cows were also eating the bags, and frequently dying as a result—a devastating loss for a family who relied on the animal for its daily milk. It was a really big problem.

“Another issue is that stagnant water collects in the folds of discarded bags and is known to breed mosquitoes carrying malaria,”

Lori estimates that nearly every person in rural Tanzania uses and tosses out one plastic bag each day. That may not sound like a lot, but when you understand that most villages do not have trash pick-up or recycling, that means all these bags are drifting in the environment.

Her solution? Simple. Canvas tote bags.

Lori Robinson's bag projectLori has collected tens of hundreds of tote bags in the U.S. and taken them to Tenguru, where until now they had been virtually non-existent. In 2005 she brought over her first shipment and set up a stand at a local marketplace where she distributed them. Her only requirement? Each person had to collect at least twenty-five plastic bags and bring them to her in order to receive a free canvas tote bag.

Lori was astounded by the response. She was literally mobbed. During her latest trip in February, she distributed 1,100 canvas bags in two hours–all to members of the community who had proudly helped cleaned it up. Some had even walked ten miles to receive one. It’s a win-win for everybody. “Totes that might otherwise end up in our garbage dumps in U.S. are replacing plastic bags that would otherwise end up on the roadsides of Africa,” Lori says.

Photo of plastic bags in AfricaLori has personally received and transported over 33,000 plastic bags to the Arusha, Tanzania dump. Even more exciting is that now well over a thousand people are equipped with canvas bags, which means these shoppers will no longer be adding plastic bags to the environment. She estimates that in the next year they will save the region more than 400,000 plastic bags.

I asked Lori to tell me what surprised her most about her bag project, and this is what she said:

“The most wonderful and surprising thing is how easily everything fell into place. The inspiration of giving totes in exchange for litter, getting the thousands of totes through customs, getting the message spread in the village that I was doing this project—there were so many pieces to the project that seemed like potential obstacles, yet nothing got in the way. I am also wonderfully surprised by all the people here who have taken this project on to collect totes, give money, and spread the word. It has been so great to watch the project touch others to be called to act. I often say it was divinely inspired because I was completely in line with what I was supposed to do. When that is the case, things happen effortlessly.”

Lori believes Tenguru could become a model of progressive, sustainable living for rural Africa. She will be going back in January and August 2012 with more totes.

When I asked her how somebody could help or get involved, she said:

The best way to help right now is to:

• Share the video so others can see how damaging plastic is to the environment.

• Travel with Lori to Africa on one of her Trips with a Cause (

• Donate money for extra luggage fees, garbage dump fees (for all the litter collected), and for paying people on the ground in Tanzania who help make this project so successful.

Click on this link to make a donation:

Or donations can be made to the Tribal Trust (a non profit accepting donations on behalf of this project) and sent to Lori Robinson at PO Box 31199, Santa Barbara, CA 93130.

If you ever doubted that one person could make a difference, Lori is living proof. I hope you will help support her project in whatever way you can.

37 thoughts on “Africa’s Beautiful Bag Lady: One Woman Making a Difference

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  3. Becky, I found your blog on She Writes (I just joined) and wanted to tell you how much I enjoyed this post–I posted on my Facebook to try to spread the word! And your blog is beautiful! I look forward to reading more.

    • Tina, thanks so much for swinging by my blog. I appreciate your kind words, and I especially appreciate you taking the time to re-post Lori’s story FB. I know she’s grateful too. Looking forward to getting to know you! I’ll check out your blog too.

  4. My goodness. I just read through all of the comments and my heart is warmed. Thank you Becky, and thank all of you for your comments about my project. Some of you kindly said you wish to donate. I have set up an umbrella non-profit to take donations. So checks can be made to Tribal Trust and sent to Lori Robinson, PO Box 31199, Santa Barbara, CA 93130. Thanks so much.
    Send me your email too so I can keep you in the loop of what is happening with the project. I return in January and this time will involve kids more than ever. They need totes for school supplies and other things. Lori

  5. There are a lot of things you can do with a blog post — making a difference is perhaps the best. What a fantastic post. Thank you for drawing our attention to this remarkable story, and your incredible friend. (She’s lucky to have you, too! Someone who believes in her.)

    I almost cried when I watched the video you included, and learned that there are women, just like me, who will walk ten miles for a tote bag. I had no idea.

    I do believe deeply in charity, and volunteer and even teach my children how to recycle and do community projects. But for some reason this image of the tote bags has floored me. I have half a dozen lying around that I never use. And I still get paper bags when I go to the grocery store. You’ve inspired me to start using the reusable totes for my groceries, and to check out your friend’s website to include her cause in our holiday charity donations.

    Thank you for another wonderful post.

    • I came here thanks to Melissa who included a link in her comment on my Earth Day post.

      I’ve been to Southern Africa and have seen how plastic bags end up everywhere. My sincere congratulations to your friend Lori. What an unbelievably simple yet marvelous solution to clean up a country that doesn’t have a garbage service.

      • Thanks for stopping by my blog. Melissa was sweet to send you this way. I experienced the same thing in South Africa too. Just as sad was seeing the scourge of plastic bags in Tibet–even at Mt. Everest.

  6. Becky, a truly remarkable story about 1 person making a difference, something I believe in wholeheartedly. I’ll share this on my FB page, too! Thanks for posting it.

    Candice Coghill

  7. I love when the universe offers seemingly-random bits of synchronicity…. The day after reading this post, another blogger I follow, Roz Savage, posted on plastic. She promoted a documentary coming out in April, with some pre-screening opportunities online in December. Made me think of you, Becky, and Lori and everyone here, as something that might add to our awareness and commitment. Thanks again for creating this dialogue over here!

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  9. I just read all the wonderful comments and it sounds like each of you are so caring and committed to making a difference. So you go… nothing you do from passion will be too small or unsubstantial. Follow your heart and things will unfold for you in ways you did not think possible. I am not trying to sound preachy here but I am now so inspired by all of YOU. LOL

  10. Becky, I am so in awe of your blog site, your writing… and am honored that you would write a post about my bag project. Thanks again so very much for all your support for this simple little project that is making a huge difference.

  11. She is an Inspiration Becky. As people say, “Be the change you want to see in the world”. And no one other than Lori be the perfect example for this quote. Let’s hope we all will do our bit to make this world beautiful, safe, pain free & terror free. May be one day we can achieve these things, if all of us really want to change the world for better.

    Great post. Your blog is inspiring lots of people for sure.

  12. Awesome woman and story – thanks for sharing this one, Becky! Hits close to my heart… Arctic villages in Alaska experience similar problems (bags blow out of the dump, sprawl all over the tundra, blend in with the snow, kill animals) and many have banned plastic bags as a result. Thanks to Lori and all of our inspiring problem-solvers!

    • Glad you enjoyed it, Tele. I’m so happy to hear about the plastic bag ban. It’s happening in more and more places–thank goodness. I think plastic bags are probably one of the worst things that has ever happened to the environment.

  13. Thank you for sharing such an inspiring story! It’s easy to feel moved about an issue, but it’s a whole other story to actually take action, especially on your own. It’s reading stories like these that remind me that I, too, can make a difference for someone somewhere. Thanks again.

    • You are very welcome. Lori’s project made me think a lot too. I hope you’ll share her story/video so others (like you and I) can realize how one person really can make a difference. Thanks for stopping by my blog and taking the time to comment!

    • Lori says it’s the simplicity of the project that makes it work, and I think she’s right on with that remark. One woman. One idea. One big change. I’m sure she’d be the first to say that she has a lot of help, but I’ll be sure to pass your comment on to her.

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