Making things

Sand-filled bottles are stronger than bricks – and supposedly bullet-proof

After an intense few days inside one of Uganda’s largest refugee settlements, I’ve stumbled upon two slightly different (and a bit more uplifting) movements.

On the way back to Kampala, I stopped for a night at the Social Innovation Academy, created about two years ago to address the desperate lack of job prospects in the country.

60+ young people aged from 18 to late 20s live in dorms and traditional African huts and new constructions made from sand-filled plastic bottles; several more buildings are in various stages of completion, including new housing for volunteers and a huge hall. Hand-painted signs are dotted around: “Do something every day that scares you”, “People who say it cannot be done should not interrupt those already doing it”.

Scholars get free rent and board, and training for as long as they need it to develop business ideas that will benefit themselves, the community, the environment, or all three. As well as building houses with plastic bottles, there are groups turning cement sacks into shopping bags, and tree bark into purses; others knitting, painting and making jewellery. “Waste is only waste when you waste it”, several of the youths said to me.

Education and awareness doesn’t only target girls – men usually control household expenditure

Back in the capital, I’ve been talking to various organisations who make biodegradable or reusable sanitary pads from locally available materials. One innovator said they estimate about 90% of women in the country don’t use expensive imported pads — instead using bits of cloth, banana leaves, etc. Many people can’t afford to spend money on what is not considered a necessity.  But now that funders and entrepreneurs know what African girls have known forever — that having your period means missing days at school each month — things are starting to happen.

There are different schools of thought about what product type is best — e.g. reusable is better for the environment, disposable works better for people who don’t have soap and water to wash— but as one interviewee put it, “girls deserve choice, especially affordable choice. You wouldn’t expect girls in the West to only have access to one type or brand, so why expect it here?”. The more players on scene, the better news it is for their customers — the girls whose needs have till now been more or less ignored.

Read more about the Social Innovation Academy, and other adventures, on my Africa blog here.

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