Social entrepreneurshipUganda

Transforming plastic waste into school desks


Estimated reading time: 2 minutes, 31 seconds.

On a sunny day hiding in the hat that was built with plastic bottles in Mpigi, Uganda

Facing the waste problem

1 hour left before I leave to Kampala. But there is something I have to find out. This woman not great in size but great in ambition has one of the greatest visions I ever heard. Judith Nantume wants to transform useless and poisonous plastic waste into durable school desks. She just returns from supporting Majo with her Women empowerment project. She literally already worked all day but her focus is there like I have never seen it before. It is hot, late, in the middle of the week and Judith is as at 110%.

With her team she ventures into plastic waste upcycling to create simple and durable school desks. The way to her goal is long and strenuous but listening to her feels like on a mission in a spaceship effortless with hyper speed. Let’s go and travel with her for a while.

“Uganda is a freestyle place.”

Judith grew up in the slums of Uganda with a single parent aided family. Floods periodically haunted her home. I tried to put myself in her situation but it is just not possible. Her childhood was a constant fight. Anyhow, she never gave in wanting to understand why her home was constantly flooded.

Judith is holding the first prototype made out of plastic waste

Against all odds she stood up for herself and climbed to light. Joining the Social Innovation Academy (SINA) gave her the environment and the tools to understand the problem that caused floods in the slums. Waste of all types congested the trenches. From that moment on her mission began.

Wastics is her second social venture after failing with an app that helps with financial budgeting for single mothers. Everything she does is driven by enormous passion. Right now she is working towards professional upcycling of plastic waste. The team already put tremendous efforts in waste collection to understand the sourcing part of their social business. Right now they are trying to get a hold on a moulding machine. “We try to get machines. The machine itself is not that expensive because we can get a second hand moulding machine at $1,000 but these machines are only available in Kenya,” she emphasises.

Wastics is looking into products from frames, flower pots and plastic bricks all the way to plastic desks. I personally had the experience to see and experience hats made from mud. So making people use plastic bricks instead of mud will take tremendous efforts. However, only with a big vision anything can be achieved. The way is long but the team of Wastics just started. I already visualize the first desks made from plastic waste. Seeing her prototype gave me a first idea how the product could look like. The prototyping must have been a hell of an adventure not without a hell lot of danger utilising a frying pan (!!!) to create the plastic substance.

I feel honestly that the wild adventure just started. The spaceship is yet to reach outer space. I you feel like having an insight look into the spaceship check out the interview with Judith.


An evolving idea

Wastics sounds like a mix of plastic and waste. Tell me more about it.

Wastics is all about recycling plastic waste. We have our vision for Uganda for the future to recycle plastic to make plastic lumber. Plastic lumber can be assembled into many things. We are going to collect plastic and then recycle it. Right now we’re collecting waste (chuckles). I don’t want to pitch… We are a team of 4 people and we want to produce products made from plastic waste. The first concept was that we recycle the waste, we upcycle it and we make some sort of lumber out of it which we then assemble into desks.

Judith Nantume exploring the possibilities with plastic waste

The lumber is then made from the plastic?

Yes, the lumber is like plastic wood. We assemble it into desks and then the desks are for rural government-aided schools. We want to start with government-aided rural schools and organizations that advocate for quality and comfortable education. Organizations like Rotary, UNICEF and Build Africa. They purchase desks for the beneficiaries, the schools. Us, our desk is unique. it can last for more than 5 years compared to the wooden desk that lasts for only 1 year.

Challenges on the way

One year?

The desks are highly used and exposed to all sorts of aggression so that the replacement cycles are that short. As a way of organizing funds we started collecting waste and selling it to other recyclers. So that we can bring the funds needed to buy the machinery. Because the desk… We try to get machines. The machine itself is not that expensive because we can get a second hand molding machine at $1,000 but these machines are only available in Kenya. The transport costs and taxation are really high. It is a lot. So, we end up with products whereby we never know if we can ever make them with the machines ourselves. To make our products as we have our desk in mind and as we raise funds we buy the molding machines and produce the desks. We carried out research, we talked to schools. They have this problem. They get organizations building the schools and providing learning materials black boards and stuff like that…

But they don’t have tables?

They provide them with tables. But still after one year they are spoiled. One year only! So the organization can’t go and provide you with everything annually. You are lucky if organizations check on the schools once in 6 years. So that seems to be the situation local schools face. They have good structures but they don’t have the desks. The learning environment is not comfortable. The desks get spoiled each term. We have three terms in Uganda and after three months…

Market environment for Wastics

Spoiled… What does it mean?

Let me see they get cracked like broken and they have to be maintained after one term and after 1 year they have to be replaced. It’s really expensive in Uganda to maintain them and you find the schools put additional money on the school fees. Some schools are private schools like government-aided ones. Pupils don’t need to pay. But they are forced to pay additional money and some children drop out just because they can’t afford to pay those extra fees. So we want to tackle that. We really want to tackle that. Organizations are willing to pay for the desks because they have a vision of providing quality and comfortable education. But they are not willing to come back every single year to replace everything.

So they look for something durable that last longer.

Our desks we assume it can last for more than 10 years. But you know with the kids playing with things we give it a guarantee of 2 years for a start. But it can last for more than 5 years. Right now we’re working with recycling companies in Uganda to cut off the costs of production selling them our plastic waste and they will be making pallets for us. Pallets are created through recycling before you make a product. So they will be making the pallets for us and then we need one last machine that is a molder. It heats up and then molds and produces the product.

“You’ll find heaps of waste even above the houses. Kids are born in this area. It stinks even before you get out of the minibus.”

The molder seems to be the problem because it is hard to get. Are there alternatives?

Right now we’re looking into different products like making flower pots.

Making what?

Flower pots. Pots you can plant in flowers. Also we analyze the potential of making frames and then we’re looking at making bricks out of plastic. We’re trying to see if we can make plastic bricks and then for the plastic bricks we might not need a molder because there is a certain technology called bio fusion where you just need to heat the plastic and bring it together compress it so it brings out a durable product. We’re trying to see if it’s really durable. But also the adoption… Will Ugandans adopt it?

Creating the first prototype

What about the prototype?

The prototype, I have it here. We molded our plastic. The surface is rough. But still it’s durable. It has its own color by default. The coloring is quite expensive to import from China.

Coloring by default (laughs). So when did you start prototyping? Is that something that happened recently?

We prototyped once and we didn’t make a big desk. We made a small one and it is really dangerous to melt the plastic so if I show you how we did it from the start you think we are insane. It is really dangerous to melt the plastic because you can inhale the fumes. So people encouraged us not to do it. Here they are making the mold (showing pictures on the smartphone). Here it’s melted. You see… in a frying pan. It’s really dangerous. So we can’t do it continuously. But we had to try it once. It is green in color naturally. Schools are OK with that color.

Was Wastics the first idea when you came to the Social Innovation Academy here in 2015 or did it develop later?

It is my second project here. My first project was about an app. It was a bookkeeping app for single mothers and small scale retailers but I had challenges on the way and I couldn’t move on. So I started to work on Wastics instead.

Judith’s background

What is your connection to recycling?

I have a background with it. I grew up in a humble environment with a single mom living in a slum area. So our house would flood every time it rained. We used to shift a lot… change schools. I lost friends stuff like that. So I always thought about how to change this. After I joined the Social Innovation Academy I got the chance to do research. Why the floods because the trenches were well built? But still they could flood. So I did research and I found out that the waste blocks the trenches. So I got into recycling and did research to find ways to recycle and upcycle. We are going to repurchase the desks after they are spoiled. When the desks are done being used we will add it to produce new products with it again. Therefore, we complete the recycling cycle of zero waste.

How does your family background connect to your business?

I grew up in a slum area. So I found about the problem with the trenches as mentioned and when I did research I found out about the landfill the biggest one we have in Uganda. It is in Kiteezi. It is really bad. I thought I was uncomfortable but the people are more than uncomfortable there. You’ll find heaps of waste even above the houses. Kids are born in this area. It stinks even before you get out of the minibus. It is really that bad. Every day from the plastic that is brought there only 1% is recycled. I wanted to see how I can work with this waste. Right now, I’m collecting plastic waste in rural areas not in urban areas. Why? Nowadays, many people have come up as collectors. We’ll find that the trenches are not that booked. But in rural areas no one is collecting there apart from the council. It is sparsely populated. So you find the waste doesn’t only book trenches but even the wells, the gardens are full with items such as polyethylene bags. We have road floods. It is a big problem.

Wastics’ steps to success

What are your next steps?

The plastic lumber can be used in many ways. So our next step is trying to see how we can start production on a small scale. We want to start. For the production we have been collecting waste. We have sold some. We really collected. We know the ground. So we also want to tackle the production. Right now we are 1 year old and we’ll start producing this year.

What does it mean for you to give something back to society?

I’ve seen people who want to work with communities they didn’t grow up in. But for us who grew up from a humble background we know what it means to go to school and not being able to study because you didn’t bring the fees. I don’t want kids to grow up in a way that I grew up. I might not change the whole world. Nevertheless, there is something in life that I can change. One opportunity can transform a whole family. I am trying to change lives so that in turn a whole community can be impacted. That is why I want to engage the community more and to work with the community a lot also with young kids.

Her home country Uganda

If you could change one thing in Uganda what would it be?

The way they perceive the youth. Even if you study in good schools with high grades it is still almost impossible to find a proper job. They want people with experience. They think we’re narrow-minded. You can’t even talk in public. If we would be perceived as powerful with the ideas to change the world we could actually do that.

So you think that the negative perception puts people in a situation where they are unemployed and can’t grow?

Not even unemployed. They make us to be lazy and not creative. Imagine you are 27 and you are still ordered by your father what to do. They perceive youth as people that have to be ordered around, being told everything.

What are the challenges here apart from that issue?

We have a lot of corruption. Trust me it is a lot. You will find that even entering into school you want to go and study you have to know someone there if it’s a good school. You find we have orphanages where 3 quarters of the kids are not orphans but they entered the place because of something else. There are even scholarships that are given to children that are well off. You find that let’s say after finishing high school going to university you did well but your position was sold to someone else with money.

What are the good things here in Uganda?

Uganda is a freestyle place. You find that in your home country you have bills to pay, a lot of bills. But you can go to the rural areas here in Uganda and you get some small piece of land, plant vegetables, build a small, small house and you can live there without having a lot of expenses. I can live there for 5 years with almost no money. It is somehow Mother Nature that provides. I like that.

19th August 2017 Assam, India

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