Iowa connection to jungle vine bags

Nature Bag image from
Nature Bag image from

I like keeping everything local on Homegrown, so I was happy to find a great local connection to a green product that helps keep a group of people in southeast Asia out of poverty.

Bill Newbrough sent an e-mail to me after I asked about a bag made from kudzu vine by the Khmu people of Laos. He is providing startup funding for whatís being called the Nature Bag poverty reduction project. Bill is an Iowa native who has lived all over the state, including Fort Dodge, Latimer, Waterloo, Waverly, Estherville, Ames, Iowa City, Coralville, Windsor Heights, West Des Moines, Urbandale, Grimes and Des Moines. He graduated from Valley High School in West Des Moines in 1963 and has a B.A. in Political Science & Journalism (1967) and M.A. in Mass Communications (1969) from the University of Iowa, where he was editor of The Daily Iowan from 1967-68. Heís been a manager at AT&T, a consultant and communications specialist.

Bill said his most recent conspicuous activity in the Cedar Rapids area occurred in 1990/1991 when he was serving as special consultant to a movie filmed in the area titled "In the Best Interests of the Children."

Iím trying to find out what brought him to Asia and will update this when I hear.

Itís also great to hear about a use for kudzu, which is an invasive vine in the United States, especially in the south. I wonder if itís viewed the same way in Asia.

Here is more about the bags and the poverty reduction project from Todd Brabender. If you go to the Web site at the end, you can see a video that includes Billís voice, as well as background on how he ďdiscoveredĒ these bags:

From its handmade and homemade production to the heartfelt humanitarian effort behind it, it is a multi-use bag unlike any other. A uniquely green consumer product called the Nature Bag, once known only to a small group of people in the higher elevations of Southeast Asia, is now available to consumers all over the world. And the sales of Nature Bags are aimed at reducing poverty in that region for years to come.

For thousands of years, bags like these have been handmade only in the homes of the Khmu ethnic group of Laos, a landlocked country in Southeast Asia, which has one of the lowest per capita income levels in the world. The Nature Bags are now being produced for sale to others by the Khmu as part of a poverty reduction project for the region headed by young Lao student Bonsou Keoamphone, the son of a poor rice farmer in the remote, mountainous Oudomxai Province in Northern Laos. By making Nature Bags now available online to consumers internationally, Bonsou has developed the concept of linking the primitive Khmu with the modern world. This poverty reduction project is designed to strengthen and extend those links, giving the traditional a means to progress technologically and economically while preserving the ancient ways of the Khmu. The project's startup funding is coming from a retired Iowa philanthropist.

Nature Bags are stretchable and expandable, light-weight but extremely strong. But this is not your mother's generic mesh-like bag. Most Nature Bags have an appearance that is somewhat shiny, like silk or satin, and have colors that range from a very light tan to medium-dark brown. The walls of the Nature Bags have considerable stretch and form around the items inside.

Fragile items such as fruits and vegetables are much less likely to be bruised, and the unique mesh design of the bag permits airflow throughout.

Because each Nature Bag is handmade at homes of the Khmu tribe members and not in a factory, no two bags are identical.

What Are Nature Bags Made From?

Wild-growing, organic tropical Kudzu or now called JungleVine(tm) is used to make the Nature Bag fabric. It is a naturally growing, hearty perennial vine with a deep spreading root that grows quickly during the rainy season and can be found in various parts and higher elevations in Southeast Asia.

JungleVine(tm) cord is lightweight but nearly impossible to break, is biodegradable and virtually mold resistant. This is the first significant commercial use and production of both product and fabric and it continues thousands of years of sustainability.

The Nature Bags range in size from 10 x 6 inches to 24 x 12 inches and range in price from $10 - $76 and are available online at:

Here's†what†ran in The Gazette on 2/17/10:

†Nature's way; Iowan lends support to poverty reduction project

By Cindy Hadish

The Gazette

†† An Iowa native is lending a helping hand to people half a world away.

†† Bill Newbrough, 64, a University of Iowa graduate, is providing seed financing for the Nature Bag poverty reduction project in Southeast Asia.

Nature Bags, flexible pouches handmade from kudzu vine, are being produced for sale by the indigenous Khmu people of Laos, with Newbrough's help.

†† Newbrough was given one of the bags in 2006 and was impressed by its strength and versatility.

"My interest in the very special characteristics of the bag is what made me decide to become involved initially," he wrote in an e-mail.

†† The more he learned about the bags, the more his interest grew.

Newbrough liked that the bags are organic, "the ultimate in sustainability" in being made from the prodigious vine, and that they probably have been used for thousands of years by the Khmu.

†† The Khmu want to maintain their traditional lives, which are at risk of being left behind as the country of Laos rapidly develops.

The landlocked country has one of the lowest per capita income levels in the world.

†† To begin the project, Newbrough teamed with a young Laotian student, Bonsou Keoamphone, the son of a poor rice farmer in a remote, mountainous province in Northern Laos.

†† Keoamphone made Nature Bags available online, thus linking the primitive Khmu with the modern world.

†† The poverty reduction project is designed to strengthen that link, providing a means to progress technologically and economically while preserving the ancient ways of the Khmu.

†† The bags are sold at several Des Moines retailers, in Kansas City and in Los Angeles as well as online at

Newbrough, who has poured $150,000 to $200,000 into the project, is based in Des Moines, but has lived in several Iowa cities and was editor of The Daily Iowan from 1967 to 1968.

†† He's been a manager at AT&T, consultant and communications specialist, and worked on a movie filmed in the early 1990s in Cedar Rapids, called "In the Best Interests of the Children."

†† Newbrough first traveled to Asia in the early 1970s to visit a friend from Waverly-Shell Rock High School who was in the Peace Corp in Malaysia.

He ended up visiting Laos, "a life-changing experience as it turns out," he wrote.

†† Newbrough was the first white person the Khmu had seen during one visit to a remote village.

†† "After we had communicated with gestures and facial expressions and seemingly became friends, I reached out to shake hands," he wrote. "Both adults and children moved away in fear, not wanting to be contaminated by touching a white person. It was only after the Village Head shook my hand that some of the others would let me touch them."

†† Word is still spreading about the bags, which can be used for carrying produce from farmers markets and numerous other tasks.

††† Once people learn about them, however, they are well-received.

††† "It is rare for me to travel on public transport in Asia and Europe and not be approached by people interested in the Nature Bag that I always carry," he wrote.Comments: (319) 398-8428

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