In South Africa, a country where HIV/AIDS is taking a severe toll, burying a loved one is not cheap.
A coffin can cost between $300 and $400 – a heavy burden on South Africa’s poor.
Shaun Cozett, from South Africa’s Working for Water program, says the country’s increasing death rate has led to a “great social need for coffins.”
“We noticed that in the last five years, the death rate within the country has increased by about 56 percent, and the funeral industry has become quite a lucrative one,” Cozett says.
“It’s at the point where people are being exploited and they’re being charged really ridiculous high prices for funerals.”
South Africa’s Working for Water program has come up with a solution to the spiraling funeral costs – use wood from invasive trees to produce coffins.
Working for Water, in partnership with the Alliance of Religions and Conservation, has just been given a US$150,000 grant from the World Bank’s Development Marketplace to turn that idea into reality.
With the grant, Working for Water plans to employ about 15 people in a pilot program and ultimately manufacture about 100 coffins a month, which will be sold for between $50 and $60 – 15 percent of the current price of a coffin.
Cozett says invasive alien trees and plants pose a number of problems in South Africa, not the least of which is the impact on the country’s water security.
“On average, they consume about eight percent of our mean annual run-off,” he says. “They pose large risks of fire, flood and of course, famine. By their nature, they are invasive, so they out-compete indigenous vegetation for natural resources.
“In a country where the economy is largely based on eco-tourism, the potential losses to the local and national economies are enormous if we lose our biodiversity.”
South Africa’s Conservation of Agricultural resources Act has already declared a total of 198 species of woody, herbaceous and aquatic alien flora to be invasive.
Since it’s virtually impossible to eradicate them, it’s vital for the country to seek ways to bring the alien species under control.
Cozett says Working for Water has already set up a number of small businesses using wood from the invasive alien plants for garden furniture, mulch, and organic fertilizer.
But he says the coffin project was proposed because of its dual purpose in dealing with invasive trees as well as helping the poor, by offering an alternative to the high prices charged by funeral homes for new coffins.
“The project will start with the cutting down of the trees, which is our normal operation. Then there’s the planking, treating the wood, cutting the boards and assembling the coffins,” he says.
Income generated from the sale of the coffins will be used to help reduce the cost of clearing the alien species.
Working for Water will also partner with faith-based organizations to ensure the coffins are not only affordable for the poor, but that they are also culturally acceptable.