Ashanti Mbanga’s eco dress made of old Archie comic books. In Manila, Mbanga will create awareness on rhino poaching and conservation of wetlands in South Africa.
(image: Shamin Chibba)
• Georgina Cost
Operations manager: SA Fusion
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Current Miss Earth South Africa, Ashanti Mbanga, is a people person. She can engage anyone in the room like a veteran socialite. But it is not her friendliness or intelligence that draws people to her; her attractiveness comes from her humility and the respect she shows others.
It is perhaps these traits that won her the crown in 2013. For someone who is constantly reminded of her beauty and who, for the last year, has been attending events as a VIP, she remains grounded mainly because of those traits, instilled in her from childhood.
Born in the rural town of Butterworth in the Eastern Cape, Mbanga saw how people living in poverty did not have access to clean water and food, and suffered from a lack of housing and healthcare. This experience shaped her views on environmental sustainability and its social impact.
Since she won Miss Earth South Africa, the 24-year-old transport economics student has been determined to use her position to improve the lives of the less privileged and make the world aware of South Africa’s environmental problems. And she will start spreading her message at the international leg of Miss Earth to be held in Manila, the Philippines, on 7 December.
Mbanga will be in the Southeast Asian country for three weeks, during which she will raise awareness of rhino poaching and challenge misconceptions about rhino horn. Many Vietnamese, Chinese and Thai people believe powdered rhino horn can cure cancer and malaria. And since the theme of this year’s Miss Earth is water cooperation, Mbanga will also propose ways to conserve wetlands, a source of clean water for animals, plants and humans.
“I will make people aware that the planet must come before profit,” she said. “Because we are living in a material world we are making profits at the cost of the environment.”
In Manila, Mbanga will join 115 other women from around the world who are working to create awareness of the environmental issues affecting their countries. During her stay she will travel throughout the Philippines, visiting schools and communities, and meeting dignitaries and environmental bodies to promote her environmental cause.
Causes and advocacy
Mbanga is passionate about devising efficient ways to move people and freight while reducing the impact of transport and logistics on the environment. In fact, she hopes to implement her solutions as a transport minister someday.
“Our wildlife is being affected by transportation,” said Mbanga. “For instance, a wetland doesn’t need to be destroyed for a road to be built. We can build bridges over the wetland instead. And though it may be costlier, we will save in the future because we’ll have better quality water.”
A transport economics student at the University of Johannesburg, Mbanga knows her chosen industry is one of the biggest culprits in environmental degradation. Vehicles pollute the air and roads are built over sensitive ecosystems. But Mbanga knows there are solutions that can balance the needs of transport and the environment.
Mbanga maintains that many transport companies are looking to adopt sustainable practices. “Transport companies are for the environment,” she said. “They want environmentalists to know they want to help.”
When she started studying, Mbanga was unaware of the effects transport had on the environment. But her interest was sparked when she won Miss Earth South Africa.
After a few months of work in the sustainability world, she came up with her own approach to tackling environmental issues. She believes people can make a number of small changes that build up to one huge impact. “When I started reading about these issues in the newspapers and engaging with more people, my focus slowly became about all the small changes people can make.”
Wearing her heritage
Fashion designer Sonwabile Ndamase was tasked with designing the national costume Mbanga will wear at the international Miss Earth, and he had just one thought in mind. “When I sat down with her I said she should dress to show where she is coming from, not where she is going to.”
Ndamase, who designed the brightly coloured “Madiba shirt” for Nelson Mandela, wanted to create an outfit that would represent both her South African identity and her traditional heritage.
Mbanga is from the Eastern Cape, so Ndamase created a traditional Xhosa outfit: a blue and green mbaco (wraparound skirt), a white ncebetha (apron) and a black iqhiya (headdress). “The inspiration for this dress came from me wanting to take my Xhosa tradition with me,” said Mbanga. “I chose the South African colours for the isigcina [beaded necklace]. The green and blue wraparound skirt contains the colours of the Earth.”
Mbanga’s second dress was designed by Redhill High School pupil Suzanne Bell. Miss Earth rules stipulate that contestants must wear an eco-dress at the event, made from responsibly sourced, sustainable and upcycled materials.
Bell created the dress from recycled Archie comic books she found in her house. To get the desired effect she used a technique called “napkin podge”, which plastered the comic book pages to scrap material. The dress was made as part of a project run by the school’s Generation Earth council, a platform for young volunteers wanting to work on environmental issues.
Miss Earth a leadership programme
In choosing Miss Earth South Africa 2013, judges were looking for a woman with leadership qualities who could also relate to all people, from children to politicians. Mbanga, with her approachable quality and her ideas about sustainable public transport, was the perfect candidate.
According to Miss Earth South Africa founder, Ella Bella Constantinides, the initiative is more a leadership programme than a beauty pageant. It aims to empower women and make them ambassadors of environmental sustainability.
The South African programme does this through three projects, focused on energy efficiency, water management and food security. “The programme is unique in that for one night it is a beauty pageant and for seven months it’s all hard work,” said Constantinides. “We provide a leadership programme so we are not just taking the face value of the ladies – we are challenging them too.”
For Mbanga, the idea of being an ambassador is emphasised by the use of the word “delegates” instead of “contestants”. “Everyone has this misconception that Miss Earth is a beauty pageant when it really isn’t. It is actually a leadership programme.”
Her impeccable social skills and her ideas for a cleaner planet may make Mbanga just the right delegate to win Miss Earth in Manila. “We have no doubt Ashanti will do us proud,” said Constantinides. “She knows what it takes to go all the way, to compete for a title that represents everything she believes in.”