Aweko Faith on Social Entrepreneurship
RK: Were you born? Where were you born? What was your childhood like?
AF: An Alur by tribe from Nebbi but I was born and grew up in Naguru Go Down.
RK: What was life like?
AF: I grew up in an extended family. My mother loved to have relatives at home mostly because they would work together. She had a canteen at Naguru Katale Primary School. She also used to dig in people’s gardens in Naguru quarters. Then she also had a salon at home. With the relatives around, they would be able to take on more work as they looked for more work to do. Some of them would end up as maids and others askaris.
RK: How many people were you at this home?
AF: Between 12 to 15 people.
RK: May I ask you something personal? You may answer or not; what size of house was this?
AF: It was a one bedroomed house.
RK: Were you always involved in any of the businesses?
AF: The work was not hard because we enjoyed doing it. We would wake up at about 4 am to prepare the snacks mainly pancakes and samosas that were to be sold at the canteen. In the evening, we would hawk vegetables and maize. In holidays, we would help with her salon, plaiting hair especially the twists.
RK: Where were you hawking the food stuff? Did you have a stall where you would sell them?
AF: We would hawk around the neighbourhood but on Saturday, we would sell at the food market at Naguru Go Down. But for her, she would still go to the market before going to the canteen to sell.
RK: Tell us about your school journey.
AF: I studied at Naguru Katale Primary School. In S1, unfortunately, my mother passed on thereafter. I was at City High School. In S3, I went to Kyambogo College School with two sisters. Our father had always wanted us to go to that school to get better education.
RK: How did you cope with the passing of your mother?
AF: It was actually a very big challenge because I was so close to her. My father is an engineer. He used to come home once or twice a month. And since my mum was available, he was rare at home. But he is very quiet and tough. My elder sister kind of took over. She would look after us. For about a year, dad would step in. Our mother left a two year old and our sister was like our mother.
RK: What happened at Kyambogo College?
AF: I was at Kyambogo from S3 – S6. Things changed in academics. From primary to S2, I used to perform well. In my 1st term at Kyambogo I was the last. I was warned that I would be (chopped) expelled. That is when I decided to study harder. I was promoted to S4. By that time I was a bookworm.
RK: Can you describe to people who a bookworm is
AF: I used to read a lot but we did not have electricity at home.
RK: So how would you study?
AF: With a candle. So I would maximise on reading from school. There was a window to read from 5pm to 8pm at Kyambogo.
RK: What happened after S4?
AF: I went back to Kyambogo till S6. I later joined Kyambogo University to pursue Economics and Statistics.
RK: Did you finish your degree?
AF: No. I dropped out in 3rd year.
AF: In S3 when we were choosing subjects to do, I chose art. I really loved art, design and fashion a lot. In S5 when I chose art, my father declined. He said it would not take me anywhere. I had to drop it. So at University, I thought I would do art. While at university, I wanted to do art but my father could not allow it. He wanted a degree. Since I had not studied art at A level, I would only do it at diploma level. That is how I studied mathematics and statistics.
In my S6 vacation, my sister and I started doing jewellery. We bought a few pliers and materials and we started to make anti recycle materials at home. My sister was then at University and she would sell for me. That is how I would make some money. Then I would go to Owino Market to buy t-shirts and sell them. When I joined campus, I was already doing business. At campus, I continued doing jewellery and selling it to the students.
In my 3rd year, I went to Gulu to the local government to do my internship and that is when I realised this is not something I wanted to continue with. I had left my business behind. After two weeks, I realised that this was something I wanted to do. I asked myself if I was going to sit there all the day doing data entry and the answer was no.
I called my sister who was working with the OPM in Gulu and told her that I was not going to continue with this internship. She told me; “You’re dead and there’s no way I’m part of this.”
I just packed my things and came back home.
My dad asked me why I had come back so early. I told him I had finished the internship. Then he asked me why I had not stayed behind to volunteer. I said they did not have slots but they would call us.
RK: Faith you are too much! (Laughs)
AF: I also had retakes at campus. With that and what I had seen at the internship, I decided to pursue my career in fashion and design. I continued doing my jewellery and the t-shirts. Towards graduation, I asked my sister to tell my dad that I was not going to graduate. She said, since you stay in the same house, you tell him. But I insisted. She told him and he was quiet for months like three or four. One day he asked me if at all, I had any plans of continuing with school or all I wanted was the useless stuff I was doing.
We had a misunderstanding and I had to leave home. That was around December 2016. That was how it was with school.
RK: At what point did you become a social entrepreneur and the plastic waste.
AF: In 2017, there was a call for social entrepreneurs to join the Social Innovation Academy in Mpigi. A friend saw the link and shared it with me and I applied and I went through.
At the academy, we were tasked to do research mostly on our childhood experiences or communities where we come from or in our families about the social problems we see around us.
I zeroed down on my childhood experiences while growing up in Naguru Go Down. Growing up, I was greatly affected by the plastic waste pollution. Because every time it rained was when my family and the neighbours would think of disposing off waste both organic and inorganic waste. We would not carry the waste to the gazetted sites by KCCA because it was too heavy. So we would keep waste behind in a sack and wait when it would rain and we go pour into the trench which blocked them and they would flood. I researched about that and I realised that the problem was not because of heavy rains or the floods but it was about the clogged trenches especially by plastic bags.
That is how the research began on how waste is disposed off in Uganda. I realised Uganda produces 500 tonnes of waste every day and 51% is not collected. This is why when it rains, we see plastic bottles floating across the road. This is the waste we throw through windows while on the road.
In rural areas, people did holes where they bury the waste both organic and inorganic. In Kampala where people burn the plastic waste, it contributes to air pollution.
RK: So, you came up with a novel idea that you turned into work, what is it that you decided to do?
AF: When we were researching, we went to different areas some rural, some urban. In Mpigi, we realised that most of the school going children were going to school with books in their hands or a polythene bag and they walked long distances. The books would get torn. We visited some of the children at their parents’ homes who told us they could not afford to buy a school bag of UGX 30,000 but they could afford a kaveera of UGX 200 which was a bigger cost in the long run.
We thought of making bags from waste. When we were looking at the solution available, we released that plastic bottles were being taken care of but for kaveeras, there was close to no remedy. And with Uganda being an agricultural country, the kaveera was affecting the soil making it hard for water filtration. That is when we decided to turn plastic bags into school bags.
RK: So what did you do? How did you go about that?
AF: I had a few friends and my co-founder also had a few friends from other countries and we were asking them what solutions people were doing in different countries. Then also we landed on a website called precious plastics that has research on plastics and how it can be recycled and the different kinds of plastics. We zeroed down to using that research in addition to YouTube and Google. Through trial and error, we realised we could fuse plastic bags together because the plastic bags are light and can easily tear. We fused between 7 -8 of them to come up with a thicker material.
RK: What I am very keen on knowing is the women you put together, how did that happen?
AF: When we went to Kiteezi- 0ne of the biggest dumping sites here in Kampala (about 53 acres of land) where waste is dumped. 80% of the waste pickers are women.
RK: What do you mean by waste pickers?
AF: At the dumping site. There are people who pick up waste for recycling. When waste is dumped, there are people who sort it out; plastics, paper, glass and all other stuff. They mainly pick out recycling material. Most of them collect for the middleman. For example Coca-Cola may want like 10 tonnes of plastic but each person can only collect like 10kg but cannot wait to wait until they can make a tonne. At the end of the day, they sell to the middlemen who sell to Coca-Cola.
Then, there are women who collect on their own. Those are the ones we work with. We are a small business, we cannot employ a big number of women currently. So we only work with those few who work on their own.
RK: Take us through the process, how does waste become bags?
AF: It all starts with women who collect the waste. We call them and place our order and they start sorting for us. Most times the waste is mixed up with organic waste and for us we need only the plastic kaveeras. After they have sorted it, we go and pick it from wherever it is. We take it to our workshop in Entebbe where women from the area who part-time with us come and wash it up and it is dried.
A team of youth recycle the bags into the sustainable material I was talking about. After that, we have another team of tailors sew the bags and the supply. We do not have a shop yet. For now we supply retailers in Kampala and Gulu. We also export.
RK: You dropped out of university to pursue something you absolutely loved, is this something you absolutely love?
AF: Yes. I have always wanted to be in the creative industry and designing these bags, for me, is something I love.
RK: What happened to the love for mathematics?
AF: Yes. But now with the knowledge I have in statistics, I am able to use it here though it is still low.
RK: What kind of customer base are you looking for? What’s your dream?
AF: We are setting up a recycling hub in Entebbe where students come and learn about recycling. We have managed to secure machines with Plastic-preneur- though still in process- where we are going to recycle hard plastics like plastic bottles, broken buckets and chairs so that we can be able to make furniture for kids. The product we are prototyping is making recycled cloth pegs from hard plastics. It is currently moving on well.
RK: I would like to give you a product you should research about. As a farmer, one of the name tags we consume are name tags for cattle and nose rings when you want to stop calf from suckling the mother.
AF: Thank you.
RK: Faith, I would like to take you back to an issue we did not resolve properly, so you and your dad, mmhhuu? Where are we now?
AF: The relationship is getting back slowly though he was very disappointed with all the effort he put in to make sure we get a good education. But passion is something you cannot run away from because with time, it catches up with you.
When I decide to make this move, he was not impressed. He kept on referring to how I was doing a lot of useless things. With time, I was not updating them a lot with what I was doing. I did not tell them also when I had my first flight.
AF: I went to Zanzibar for a Change Makers Exchange Programme. When my step-mother got to know about it, she was not happy that I had not told them about it.
With the TV and newspaper interviews, I was not telling them until one day my uncle saw me on TV and told him. Then one day, also my dad read about me in the newspapers. That is when my mum emphasised that I should always tell them wherever there is such a thing. They are happy with what I do. I sustain them as a family.
RK: Are you happy with what you are doing?
AF: Yes, I am.
RK: Does it have a future?
AF: Of course, it does.
RK: There are people listening to us who can change the fortunes of what you have to do, if you had to make an appeal to them, what would you tell them?
AF: We began producing the bags in 2019. We have so far produced 10,000 bags. We are earning profits out of this business. We have bought about 5 sewing bags and employed over 50 people. We have been featured on IMF, BBC & VOA. Last year we made a profit of UGX 39 million. We have won a couple of prizes as well and most of them have been monetary awards.
RK: You are a hero, Faith. You are great. A lot of respect from me for staying true to your beliefs considering the circumstances of life. Just know there are people like me that admire what you are doing. I so proud of you.
AF: Thank you so much. I am very glad.
Comrade Otoa: Beyond what you are doing right now, where would do you see yourself five years from now and how best would you like to be supported?
AF: We would have opened up a recycling hub where we can train people on recycling. Currently we are recycling 300kg of plastic a month. We want to recycle a tonne per month. We also need a bigger space and machinery to be able to do more. In December, we partnered with UNFPA which sponsored production of school bags which we gave out to school going kids in Kyaka II settlement camp. There is a market for bags. We have over 70% of kids in Uganda going to school and most of them do not have access to bags. Those are our target.
We have ventured into export. We currently have 8 shops in Europe and America that are buying our bags on wholesale. The problem now is to be able to reach a bigger market. We currently do not have the capital to make that possible.
RK: Faith here has a good problem and her product is unique to her.
What about the bit of school? Do you have plans of ever going back?
AF: I am hoping to go back to school to study human resource management or international business. Hopefully, something else comes up. We want to work with women in communities. We need to train them in business. They are hard to manage. We need a professional to work on that. I have done a number of short courses so far.
James Bernards: You talk about social entrepreneurship, how Faith can you help us recruit potential donors?
AF: Sell your story. People want to hear more. People will pick interest in your story and then buy your products.
Festo Kato: I would like to volunteer to offer the service of running the social media accounts and website.
AF: Write to us through www.reformafrica.org
Anthony: Fundraising is very hard among innovators, how does she go about it?
AF: I encourage them to join entrepreneurship programs like Tony Olumeru Enterprise Africa. There is a lot of funding for start-ups that are more than two years old.
Gilbert X-tian: How does she intend to sustain the market abroad?
AF: It is buy producing more.
Kiggundu Sairus: I bought pegs from Reform Africa. The pegs are 100% recyclable. I would like to ask everyone here to buy the pegs and support her business.
AF: Thank you Sairus. You can order for our products through our social media platforms.
Emmanuel Bamwesigye: Can we join Faith as individual partners?
AF: we have partnership agreements. You can write to us on www.reformafrica.org
RK: If you were to stand before a group of you girls between 16- 21 from a disadvantaged background like yours, what would you tell them?
AF: I would share with my story and tell them why I did not give up. I did not want to have all the efforts of dropping out of school to be in vain. I also did not have where to go afterwards. Giving up meant I had to go back to my father’s house something I was not ready to do. Being able to persistently follow your dreams knowing that things will get better one day. Also do not feel sorry for yourself. I have been through a lot but I do not make my past define me. It is good to be vulnerable but it is not good to be in that state all the time. The world is harsh. It does not want to know who grew up in the slums or who is an orphan. People want to see work done. No self-pity.
RK: Tell us about your sister now.
AF: All my siblings have been very supportive from the time I dropped out of school. It is the only family I have. They all had to back me up. I have been constantly receiving support from them. There was a time I cut them off but regardless, they have been very supportive to me.
RK: Let’s go back where we started, you said something about dieting and feeding the body, talk to us about that.
AK: I have grown from a girl who had low self-esteem to someone who can now speak for myself and I have gained this through fitness. I have grown discipline both in my business and my health. I have grown to love myself and show up for myself.
RK: Can I ask you a personal question; is there someone in the picture. What would you expect from a partner?
AF: Someone who is supportive of what I do both for my fitness and business but also someone who has their life figured out together or who has walked through a journey of personal growth. Someone who wants someone they can grow with.
What I did not tell you is that I am also big on mental health. With the things I have gone through from 2016 when I moved out of home, it affected me so much.
RK: What are some of the challenges that you went through?
AF: With time, I grew bitter with my family especially my dad. I began the blame game. But I realised I had to work on myself. I had to go on a forgiving journey whereby now, I believe there are people who have gone through a similar or worse experience and they are not talking to family. But you need your family support. At one point I wanted to give up since my family was not supporting me. But I am glad I stayed.
RK: I am so grateful for what the time you have taken off to share with us. You have taken me to school today. I absolutely admire what you do and who you are.
AF: Thank you so much. I am honoured.