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."

Machine Woes

08 Aug

Necessity is the mother of invention.” – Plato

Even before landing in Kampala, I knew that developing a straw-pressing machine was a key objective for my soon-to-be supervisor and founder of Kinawataka Women Initiatives (KIWOI) and its sister organization, Kinawataka Straw Bags (KSB). And since staring my fellowship back in June, the creation of such a technology has continued to dominate many of my conversations with Benedicta.

As the for-profit extension of KIWOI, the mandate of KSB as a social enterprise is to reduce poverty in Uganda by engaging vulnerable and marginalized women in the production of handicrafts made from discarded plastic straws. Based in the slum community of Kinawataka (commonly pronounced ‘Chin-a-wa-ta-ka’) in Mbuya Parish (eastern Kampala), KSB teaches trade skills in weaving straw products to advance women’s economic empowerment, in addition to environmental protection through recycling. But pursuing such a mandate hasn’t been easy.

The lack of technology has forced Benedicta and the women she trains to use makeshift blades to press straws flat and straight before they can be woven into a range of unique products.

Not only does this present serious safety concerns, but health issues as well for the women artisans she employs, whose hands are callused and sore from hours of pressing straws. For that reason, many of the women that Benedicta has trained have chosen to no longer resume working with her organization.

As she puts it, “The process of pressing the straws by hand has scared many of them away.”

One woman who had traveled from Gulu in northern Uganda to be trained by Benedicta described her experience to me in this way:

“So, I went to this training some two years ago. We went with this madam here [pointing to Joyce Laker, Director of Through Art Keep Smiling or TAKS Center] to Kinawataka and we [began making straw products] and we loved it also. But the problem is this one [gesturing to a straw she had just flattened using a dull blade]. This one is the problem for us – pressing this thing to become straight so that we can make anything.”  

Because the lack of proper tools has dissuaded many women from working with Benedicta in her business of making straw products, they haven’t been able to benefit from the very income-generating activity that was intended to help improve their livelihoods. Benedicta’s inability to retain artisans has also limited the production capacity of KSB, whose straw bags can’t be produced fast enough to meet both domestic and international demand.

“2004, 2005 and 2006 were very hard [years] for me,” explains Benedicta. “I sat here in my house and I cried. Still, I am without a machine, but I know that God is testing me and that it will come soon.”

Although a number of engineers have tried, they have all failed to produce a working straw-pressing machine for Benedicta. When I bring up the topic, I can hear the frustration in her voice, as she recounts the amount of time and money she invested in trying to invent a new technology for her business.

Currently, there are three machines that sit idle in Benedicta’s workshop.

The first straw-pressing machine was developed by Victory Machinery in Kampala from 2008-2009. Close to 1.5 million UGX or about $582 was spent to make it, which was financed by the Office of the President here in Uganda. The machine was built completely from metal and could be operated using a manual crank. Straws would be fed into the machine, whose rollers (in theory) would flatten them.

However, when tested the machine failed to press the straws flat. Despite the engineer’s attempt to rectify the problem, he and his team lacked the skills to do so.

“Being a new product on the world market, they had to do more research to design a working machine, which they could not do,” explains Benedicta.

The second straw-pressing machine was developed by Mufumbiro & Company in Jinja, Uganda in 2010. It cost 8.5 million UGX or approximately $3,298 to build, which Benedicta paid for using a 2-year loan she received from the Centenary Rural Development Bank here in Uganda. Unlike the first machine, this one actually worked for 3-months, pressing 40 straws at a time, although most of them had to be pressed again by hand using a dull blade because they didn’t come out flat enough. But that was just the first of many problems with the machine.

Because most of its parts were salvaged from other machines, the second problem was that the parts frequently failed to work. The gears that operated the machine were made from plastic, which began to melt when the machine was in continuous use. As a result, the machine had to be turned off and allowed to cool every hour, which slowed down production and forced the women to resort back to using dull blades for flattening straws.

In talking with one of the engineers of the machine, I learned that replacing the plastic gears with metal ones would have addressed the problem at a cost of about 800,000 UGX or $310. However, because the machine was poorly constructed from the get go, Benedicta felt it best not to invest more money into making such repairs.

The last major problem with the machine was its motor. The engineers had used a spare motor from an old lamination machine, which initially worked fine. However, when the part eventually failed to work, the engineers weren’t able to find a replacement unless they took apart yet another lamination machine, which was both expensive and inefficient. Desperate to get the machine working again, Benedicta took it to Makerere University’s Technology Department, where it remained for a month as the faculty tried (and failed) to correct the problem of the machine overheating.

The third and final straw-pressing machine that sits idle in Benedicta’s workshop was developed by Kishore & Company in New Delhi, India in 2009 at a cost of $8,700 (it was not actually until 2011 that the machine was delivered to Benedicta’s workshop in Kampala). The Uganda Export Promotion Board – a public trade promotion organization, which operates under the Ministry of Tourism and Industry – financed its’ construction. Then the Private Sector Foundation Uganda – self-described as “Uganda’s apex body for the private sector” – provided partial funding for Benedicta to travel to India on two separate occasions: the first, for a 5-day meeting with an Indian engineer to discuss her machine’s design. Then three months later, Benedicta returned to India to have the machine tested.

Although the machine that awaited her could flatten straws as Benedicta wanted, it did so at such a temperature that caused the straws to fold and curl once they exited the machine.

“The [Ugandan] government [also] sent an engineer from the Uganda Industrial Research Institute to India to check the machine. [He] discovered the same things I discovered – that the machine was not working. Then, the Ugandan Export Promotion Board asked me as a machine user to recommend whether the machine [should] be brought here [to Uganda]. And when they asked me, I recommended the machine be brought here although it was not doing the work I wanted. I thought our [Ugandan] engineer plus the engineer from India could make it different. When it reached here, the machine was taken to the Ugandan Industrial Research Institute for one year [but] there was nobody interested in [fixing] it. Then, I had to request the Ugandan Export Promotion Board to surrender the machine to me, so that I [could] look for local engineers to look at it.”                                                                                                           

And so for the past two years, Benedicta has been soliciting engineers from both near and far to build her a working straw-pressing machine, but to no avail.  

“Engineers? They do come. Some try to work on it, but nobody has come [up] with a proper solution,” she tells me.  

But despite how many times she’s been disappointed in the past, Benedicta remains hopeful that one day, she’ll have a straw-pressing machine that will not only allow her to retain the women artisans she trains in making straw handcrafts, but in so doing, continue to make a social impact in her local community.

Posted By Meron Menwyelet

Posted Aug 8th, 2013

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