She barely concentrates on the cooking as clouds of smoke from the cooking stove hover over the workplace. “Alert me when it starts drizzling so I can put my garbage into the shade,” Catherine
Nkwata, 67, a resident of Kiyaga Zone in Nakulabye calls out to her six-year-old granddaughter.
“Garbage? What do you need it for?” I inquire. “That garbage spread out there is my source of income. I use it to make charcoal for cooking,” she explains.
Betty Birungi, a mother of six, also a resident of Kiyaga, says she does not remember the last time she went to the market to buy charcoal. “We have learned how to use garbage in our homes to make charcoal briquettes,” says Birungi as she beckons me to see the briquettes burning on the charcoal stove. She says briquettes are economical compared to ordinary charcoal. They also burn slowly and in a day she uses about four to five briquettes. Besides, they are smoke free and her saucepans are never coated with soot.
Nkwata and Birungi are among the many women who have been financially liberated through Alice Zalwango’s briquettes making project. “Kiyaga Zone is one of the filthy slums in Nakulabye, a Kampala suburb, with majority of women unemployed housewives and others teenage mothers.
To empower them financially and also keep the environment clean, we teach them how to make charcoal briquettes out of the garbage in their backyard,” says Zalwango, the director Nakulabye Briquette Making Technology.
Robert Mutebi, a resident, is happy the project has managed free the area of garbage. “They move around with wheelbarrows collecting all the garbage,” Mutebi says.
As he explains, Twesige, 14, arrives with a sack of garbage. He sells garbage to Zalwango. “For every sack I earn sh2,000 which is just enough for my day’s upkeep,” Twesige says with a tinge of satisfaction.
New idea comes to life
The idea that was conceived as a family project in April 2010 has now transformed the entire community. “By then we were running a health clinic.
We realised in order to have a healthy population, we needed to improve the sanitation. There was a lot of garbage in around,” recalls Zalwango. With her daughter Tophus Namutebi, then a student of Makerere University, Zalwango came up with the idea of making charcoal briquettes from the garbage.
“We started by collecting and burning garbage in our backyard. We mixed the powder with clay and moulded balls; spread them out in the sun to dry and later used the charcoal balls to cook. The idea worked perfect,” she says.
They started collecting the garbage, which they would sort and burn to make powder. “I encouraged women to come and learn how to make the briquettes to cut down the cost of buying charcoal. Some women picked interest and the number grew,” she recounts. Today, the group has 100 members, men inclusive.
Zalwango recalls how, one mid-morning as they braved the scorching sun making briquettes in the backyard, the Community Integrated Development Initiative (CIDI) workers visited them.
CIDI is a not-for-profit organization that focuses on mobilizing and empowering communities to carry out activities in areas of; enhancing food security, primary health care among urban dwellers, supporting income generating activities in agriculture, environment protection, water and sanitation.
“They liked what we were doing and donated three manual machines to ease our work.” News about the project went round and in July 2010 members of Living Earth; an organization that focuses on environmental protection visited Zalwango.
They were impressed with the innovation and invited them for a three-month training course in urban enterprise development programme at G1 Hotel in Bakuli. “The course enhanced our skill and at the end of the training, we were given a molding machine and a charring drum (carbonizing drum), Zalwango recalls. She says the charring drum is where the garbage is burnt while the molding machine makes the briquettes. In November, the group took part in a competition, ‘Echoing Green’ organized by International Labor Organization, and worn a prize of $700.
This money, according to Stephen Monday, the project’s production and marketing manager, went into buying equipment, masks, gloves, gumboots and overalls while part of it was used to pay rent.
They later opened an office and registered the project, Nakulabye Briquettes Making Technology.
Renigio Bukenya, the LC1 chairman, says the project is a big milestone for the community. “We have been relieved of garbage and the project is also equipping women and teenage mothers with life skills to earn a living,” Bukenya says. He adds that Kiyaga Zone has many teenage mothers who drop out of school.
With the rapid growing population (3% annually) which comes with an increasing demand for wood fuel and a dwindling forest cover, this project could not have come at a better time.
Uganda loses 70,000 hectares (about 175,000 acres) of its tree cover every year, making it difficult for women who shoulder the responsibility of feeding their families to do so.
A sack of charcoal that used to cost sh25,000 three years ago now costs between sh70,000 and sh90,000, three times higher. The problem is even bigger in densely populated slum areas, where dwellers survive on less than a dollar a day. One of the beneficiaries, Phiona Atukwase, 17, who stays with her aunt, says the briquettes are a big relief. Rosemary Nantume, an elderly woman in the zone, says the project has helped them tackle the problem of idleness which breed crime.
“Most of the time women are busy making briquettes,” Nantume says. Davis Shakillah, the production supervisor, says in the start they would produce 5,000 briquettes a week but they can now produce 1,000 pieces a day and sell close to four bags a week.
A bag of briquettes costs sh100,000. “We also sell in small quantities at sh1,000 a kilo which has 8-10 briquettes. Our biggest customers are hotels, schools and roadside vendors though we also sell to households,” Shakillah says.
Zalwango says the project is paying off. “We make about sh1m profit monthly. We pay rent, workers and buy materials like clay and cassava flour.”
To make about 1,000 briquettes, Zalwango says they use about 2kg of cassava and a bag of clay takes them a month. One bag of charcoal powder mixes about 2kg of cassava flour and 3kg of clay. A bag of clay costs sh30,000 and a kilo of cassava sh2,000.
Monday says their biggest challenge is rain. Sometimes they fail to burn the garbage because it is wet. Besides, after molding, the briquettes take long to dry. There is also lack of space for production and spreading of the briquettes to dry faster.
Zalwango says they need a bigger charring machine to meet the demand. “Our market has grown,” she says. To achieve their target, she says, they need to buy an acre of land to expand the business. “Once we acquire bigger land, we shall shift the production section and keep the offices here for training and other management issues,” she says.
From the savings, the group also plans to buy a bigger molding machine and charring drum. “There are prospects. When I see garbage, I see money. There is hidden treasure in the garbage that people do not realise,” Zalwango confesses.
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