In 2014, a waste-to-wealth factory opened in Kosrae, recycling post-harvest banana trees into a variety of handmade products. Green Banana Paper turns the sustainable resource of banana fiber into stylish wallets, providing a sustainable and ethical alternative to leather, while creating jobs for locals. It didn’t take long before the world took notice.
The man behind the Good Market-approved product line is Matt Simpson, a former member of World Teach, a worldwide organization of professional volunteer teachers. Simpson never thought he would spend more time in Micronesia than he needed to. And he certainly never thought he’d become a business man on the islands for that matter.
But after 12 years of adventures in Micronesia, Simpson is still here and thriving in fact. The 33-year old went from teaching preparatory life skills in the classrooms at Kosrae’s high school to teaching a livelihood in his five-year old paper factory.
Simpson’s newfound profession stemmed from his love for the islands early on during his teaching days. “I fell in love with the islands,” Simpson said, “definitely, the island ways, exciting new cultures, healthy activities and low stress level.”
Simpson’s first introduction to the region began in the Marshall Islands in 2007, where he taught for a year on the island of Wotje. A year later, he took up an offer from WT to pioneer the program in Kosrae. “I ended up staying in Kosrae, teaching high school kids for four years,” Simpson said. Those four years quickly melted into 12 exciting ones in no time.
Hailing from the coastal town of Old Lyme in New London County, Connecticut, Simpson is also an avid surfer. So understandably, he was very excited at the prospect of learning about other cultures and surfing in tropical places.
Over the years he noticed something very alarming in Kosrae; his top students would move on to the United States to continue their education, while the rest of his other students would either join the military or move off island in search of better income opportunities. “A lot of people don’t want to leave Kosrae,” Simpson said, “but there are no job opportunities for them at home.”
Next to the government, the private sector is the only source of income opportunity on the island. More troubling, funding under the Compact of Free Association with the U.S., has significantly decreased over time, resulting in few or no jobs at all.
In 2023, the now-trickling COFA funding will come to a complete stop. Money theoretically saved up by the four states in the FSM— Yap, Chuuk, Pohnpei and Kosrae — will then kick in to replace the Compact money. To top things off, the cost of living in the islands has been on the rise for some time.
Simpson said he also noticed the population dwindled from 9,000 people when he first arrived on Kosrae in 2008 to less than 6,000 today as result of brain drain. “I felt like creating jobs for them. The artist in me wanted to do something,” Simpson said.
His creative and adventurous spirit shoved him head-on into entrepreneurial mode. He looked for the need and quickly found himself selling snow cones in 2011, when there was no school lunch program.
A short while later, he took up importing laptops into the islands at the insistence of a state official. This was a time, he said, when the only vendor on Korsrae, because of lack of variety and competition, monopolized the market selling a $120-laptop for $1,500.
Simpson wanted to get laptops into the hands of students to enhance their learning experiences. But government employees were the bigger part of his customer- base. “That got pretty successful with only two employees,” he said, “but I still wanted to do more, provide more jobs.”
In 2012, a friend suggested he look into banana fibers. So, Simpson took the revenue from his computer business and invested it in research for a possibly new and exciting enterprise. Thrilled with all his questions about banana fibers being answered in 2013, he finally stopped teaching in the classrooms, rented a piece of property and plowed ahead with his new venture.
Banana fiber. Photos courtesy Green Banana Paper.
The paper factory became a reality in 2014. And the very next year, the young entrepreneur from Old Lyme finally began his journey with Green Banana Paper, which became a Good Market approved vendor in March of 2018.
These days Simpson is able to provide up to 40 jobs for Kosrae islanders. “I found a direct purpose and felt a little more connected to the community,” he said, adding he is also enjoying surfing more.
According to his company’s blog, the surfer pays his employees “two to four times the minimum wage ($1.42) in Kosrae as we want our employees to have savings and not just a living wage.”
Simpson was recently on Guam attending the University of Guam Conference on Island Sustainability. He also gave a talk at the Payless store in Mangilao, and spent time at the Micronesian Mall where he talked with bystanders and interested folks.
Last November he spoke at the UOG/Bank of Hawaii’s Center for Entrepreneurship and Innovation Entrepreneur Series entitled “From Waste to Wealth.”
A banana fiber wallet
Making the raw material
Before he went back to Kosrae, Simpson said he is still learning “how to run a factory, take care of my employees and their needs, how to take care of our customers, and create a financially sustainable business from a very small island.”
Looking ahead, Simpson sees himself running the factory as long as the government of Kosrae wants it there.