Estimated reading time: 2 minutes, 23 seconds.
On a ice cold coke in Josephine’s chaotic room in the Social Innovation Academy in Mpigi, Uganda
Ugandan’s chance for change
Uganda is a country known for its breath taking nature, encounters with some of the last mountain gorillas and the staple food Matoke. Uganda is a country that amazes but also makes you shiver looking at the mountains of trash that are dumped besides the roads. One social entrepreneur tries to combine the cultural heritage of Uganda with the obvious and pressing problem of waste management. Josephine Nakiyimba started Ssuubi Designs and Mutuba Uganda trying to reshape our attitude towards waste and sustainable resource management.
I am standing outside. It is hot today. The wind cannot take away the rising heat. Not today. I am taking shelter in Josephine’s room. She is one of the senior members at the Social Innovation Academy (SINA). She summarises SINA in the following way, “It aims at empowering youth majorly marginalized youth from different backgrounds with their projects to start social enterprises.”
“You are here because you are looking forward to start a business and you can’t start a business while sleeping.”
Being in her private chamber, a world full of exciting objects opens up to me. That is probably how someone must have felt like in the rooms of Aristotle or Galileo Galilee. Everything looks exciting. Materials are spread over the desk, the floor and the bed. Different tools are lying around. Everything is colourful. Somehow I am getting excited. What is it that Josephine does?
Never actually getting a university degree Josephine left high school with the passion to have a lasting impact on her country. Soon she realised that SINA could be a life changing opportunity. It turned out to be just that. As one of the first fellows at SINA in 2015 she is now coordinating parts of the program herself. Her passion is creating new things. I would not call her a designer rather a creator. Fabrics are not limiting her. She sees something new and she wants to build it herself. Side note… my Kenyan Maasai warrior necklace was taken hostage for 2 hours.
In her two businesses she focuses on utilization of waste and natural resources. Ssuubi designs creates necklaces, bracelets, earrings and other accessories made from waste such as plastic bottles. In her second venture Mutuba Uganda she explores barkcloth to create laptop cases, purses and other types of bags. Barkcloth is inscribed in the UNESCO list of intangible cultural assets for Uganda.
Seriously her products are pure beauty. I myself had to take a bag of things back to Kenya. Moreover, Josephine tries to employ either disabled people or Ugandans that are home seated and not being able to pursue a regular job. Get to know what she learned from Muhammad Yunus, founder of Grameen Bank, in the full interview.
Religion and the beginnings
What are your values?
First of all, what I take from my family is that they are God fearing. They love God so much. We even have a nun in our family. So when we were brought up we were so religious. We go to church, we pray, we go to different praying centers for ourselves and basically everything we do depends on God. That is what I like most about my family. That is what shaped me and also taught me discipline in some ways.
So we are here at SINA in Mpigi around one and a half hours drive away from the capital Kampala. Can you give us an insight about what SINA is?
SINA is the abbreviation for the Social Innovation Academy. It aims at empowering youth majorly marginalized youth from different backgrounds with their projects to start social enterprises. We don’t look for jobs but create our own opportunities so we are able to sustain ourselves in the future.
How does the environment here support you?
SINA empowers you to interact with different people because when you are here we believe I don’t know it all and the other person doesn’t know it all either. So we believe we learn from one another and that is really unique here. When you request support from anyone here they are always willing to support you where necessary. The environment here is unique in a way that there is some kind of responsibility. You wake up and it is you to prepare for the day. No one is going to tell you to do that, do that or do that. That’s our system. It’s all about you. If you decide to sleep for the whole day, it’s OK. You can sleep and have lunch and supper and go back to sleep. But at the end of the day what have you done for yourself so that you move forward. You are here because you are looking forward to start a business and you can’t start a business while sleeping. It doesn’t work. So the responsibility part and acting like a mature person is really important and this place gives you that exposure because you can learn from others how they do their stuff.
Reshaping the attitude towards waste
So what about your business?
Wow, so I have two businesses and I’m going to explain one by one. The one is called Ssuubi Designs it majorly focuses on doing jewelry for both men and women. Basically we do necklaces, earrings, bracelets and so many other things of jewelry. Basically it focuses on up cycling waste majorly the papers and plastic bottles plus wood, the plywood. We do necklaces out of paper beads. I get them from old magazines. I cut them, roll them and come up with paper beads, which are used to connect necklaces and earrings.
You showed me the different parts of the bottle, which was very interesting. Sometimes you use the sides, the bottleneck or the bottom.
Every part of the bottle I use it for something. Out of wood I collect old plywood. Clean it, vanish it and cut it into two different designs and then combine it with paper beads to come up with earrings. So that is what Ssuubi Designs does though we use some other materials as well. But those are the major three materials we focus on.
You say “we”, what does “we” mean?
“We” means that I don’t do it alone. I have different people I work with. I have a group of ladies I work with from Kampala. They sell my products with commission. Others I work with them in form of production. We produce together because I can’t do each and every thing. Yes, so I work in a team. That is Ssuubi Designs.
Awesome, I also had the opportunity to see it and I really like the design. So what about your other business?
My other business is called Mutuba Uganda. It basically deals with old traditional barkcloth. It is a biodegradable material. It is from a tree we call Mutuba tree. So I use its bark. I don’t actually do it myself. I have different tailors. With 5 of them I work with to do the production. I am more in marketing, designing and supervising to see how the product comes up very well. So I use the barkcloth combined with African fabric to come up with different products for men and women even children.
What is the social impact of your businesses?
First of all, these businesses are impacting the environment in a way that we just get the peeling from the tree but the tree is not cut. So it remains growing. You can remove the cover of the tree as long as you want for many years. So we have local men who know how to do it and even know how to look after the trees so it doesn’t dry out at the end of the day. This material when it is thrown in the environment it is biodegradable. So there is no waste affecting the environment. Even the African fabrics most of them are out of cotton and are also biodegradable. They will decay and decompose themselves. So I believe I’m not affecting the environment. For the social benefit I am looking at choosing disabled people in the long run. Mostly those who are home seated not always disabled. I’d love to employ more people through buying sewing machines and make something like a center where they can be making these Mutuba products such as wallets so that they can earn a living for themselves. That is my goal.
What was one advice you received that was particularly precious to you?
“Go out of the building and to a market and see how you are able to access and sell in that market!” that is what one of my mentors told me… a very good lesson.
The businesses you are working on right now do you make money with them? Do they pay the bills?
Let me say 60% because at the moment I don’t pay rent. Right now, the businesses sell from here. I would love to see the businesses expanding and then they will be able to go outside, pay rent and still continue moving on. I need to get into contact with professional tailors. I also need professional sewing machines around 5 and at least 1 for the start. Furthermore, I need someone to train people but let’s see how the business is moving forward.
Meeting Muhammad Yunus
You were on a conference and met Muhammad Yunus which is a person I really admire. I read his books as well. He is a very passionate and inspiring person. How was your experience with Yunus?
When I met Yunus it was like a surprise to me. I went for a conference and I didn’t know I was going to meet him. There were many, many people and I didn’t know whether I could even talk to him. But he came to my table because I was an exhibitor. Anywhere I go, I go with my products. So I went with some of my products. The stand actually was for SINA to explain more what SINA does. Then he came to our table to see everything we do. We interacted with him. Afterwards we went to the nearby Business School where he shared his experiences with students, which was really a great thing. He actually recognized me in the crowds and was like “Let’s take a picture”. So we took a picture with him. You can see it over there (pointing at the wall) which is great for advertising SINA for social entrepreneurs. I’m super happy that I’m taking part in different conferences to meet inspiring people from all over the world.
Interviewed by Marlon