Meron Menwyelet

Meron Menwyelet (Kinawataka Women's Initiatives - KIWOI): Meron was born in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia and grew up in Colorado. She graduated cum laude from Colorado State University with a bachelor’s degree in political science and studied abroad in Amman, Jordan. Prior to graduate school Meron worked in the Office of the Coordinator for Reconstruction and Stabilization at the U.S. Department of State. At the time of her AP fellowship, Meron was pursuing a Master of Science in Foreign Service at Georgetown University, with a concentration in international development. She also served as president of the Africa Forum at Georgetown. After her fellowship, Meron wrote: "The field experience I gained was very valuable and relevant to my academic focus on women's empowerment; economic empowerment; and civil society capacity-building in sub-Saharan Africa. I saw first-hand the challenges of operating a local NGO in a developing country and was inspired by the persistence and dedication of my host organization to achieve their goals. I definitely learned a lot about myself."

Inspiring a New Generation

31 Jul

“A great idea is one that spreads” – Unknown

During my first week at Kinawataka Women Initiatives (KIWOI), I was met by an independent film production company from Scotland, who were interviewing Benedicta for a story about the challenges facing Ugandan entrepreneurs.

The following week, we received some visitors from Feature News Story (based in Washington, DC) who were interviewing Benedicta for a story airing on CCTV. While my best guess was that visits like these would be few and far in between, I’ve come to realize they’re actually more of a regular occurrence!

It’s quite remarkable how Benedicta has managed to raise the profile of KIWOI in recent years. Not only are her shelves filled with awards, but the walls in our office walls are covered with framed photos of Benedicta showing her straw products to President Museveni of Uganda, President Kagame of Rwanda and President Banda of Malawi.

As interesting as it is to listen in as Benedicta answers interview questions for international reporters, what I’ve enjoyed the most is watching her interact with members of the local community, with whom she’s able to share her story with directly. Recently, I had a chance to accompany Benedicta and some of the women artisans from KIWOI to a career exhibition (aka a career fair) at the Nabisunsa Girls School.

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Because of credit cards, people are able to buy expensive valuables such as jewelry. Nowadays, having a safe place to store your valuables inside the house is a major concern. Metal safes that were once the exclusive necessity of businesses and the upper class are fast becoming a common addition to most houses. Various safes for different purposes are being manufactured to meet the demands of clients. There are even whole rooms that are made to be impenetrable from the outside. These panic rooms are also fire proofed to provide people with a safe haven in case their house catches fire. What is the cost for all of this? Installing a panic room costs just a wee bit more than remodeling a single room in your house.

Many of the organizations that were featured demonstrated a commitment to environmental protection in the work they were doing. For instance, at the table in front of ours, there were some local artisans showing the girls how to make paper beads using recycled magazines. Just beside us, there was another organization demonstrating how to make briquettes entirely from recycled materials.

Then, in the center of the courtyard where the exhibition took place were members of the Kampala Capital City Authority (KCCA), which oversees city maintenance. They were standing beside three large containers – one marked for recycling, another for composting and the last for trash – and explaining how to sort garbage and maintain a clean environment. Each bin was covered with sticky notes where messages like, “Together, we can have a clean environment” and “For a safe and a better tomorrow, don’t burn waste” were written to help drive their points home.

It was no surprise to me that once the KIWOI table was all set up, Benedicta and the artisans who had accompanied her attracted quite a lot of attention with their straw products. Within minutes, we found ourselves surrounded by a group of chatty teenage girls, each rattling off a question while carefully examining the  straw products we had so neatly displayed on our table.

I had a chance to talk to some of the girls who visited our table and ask them what their first impressions were of Benedicta and her work with KIWOI. One commented as follows:

“For me, when I saw her, I thought of her as being a very creative woman in that many people see the straws and no one can think of  making something out of [them]. Some just see them as wasted. But she has managed to make very good things out of [them]. She’s a very wonderful woman. And she also says she’s going around teaching young people how to make them. She’s doing a very good job in that way in that she teaches the young creativity, so [her] creation can go on and on and straw [waste] will not become a problem.” – Rachel, Senior 3 (15 years old)

I also had a chance to talk to a KCCA employee and ask about the biggest challenge facing Uganda when it comes to protecting the environment. Her response?

“Lack of sensitization. People are not sensitized. They’ll find rubbish there and they will say, this is KCCA that’s supposed to [clean] this, but it’s everyone’s responsibility to keep everywhere clean.” – Miriam, Data Clerk (Nakawa Division, Health Department)

In a city where more than 600 tons of plastic are disposed of every day – most of which ends up littering the streets of Kampala and creating serious challenges to public health and safety – exhibitions like the one at Nabisunsa bring city officials, NGOs and private organizations together to reinforce a simple message: that all individuals have the ability to positively impact their community.

KIWOI’s ability to repurpose more than 4,000 plastic straws to make a single bag is just one example of how one person’s good idea, resourcefulness and ability to think creatively about solving a social problem can inspire others and have an impact on multiple generations.


Posted By Meron Menwyelet

Posted Jul 31st, 2013

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