Running a charitable health clinic in Uganda

The experiences and the ongoing challenges and enjoyment of managing a philanthropic health facility. Watching it grow through active community support and helping through coordination with national programmes, local NGO and groups and international like-minded people.

Tuesday, September 01, 2009

Strawbags – so many benefits for makers, users and the environment

List the things you know about plastic:

• It is made from fossil fuels (oil) and so each new bag is from a finite resource
• Governments encourage us to use fewer bags – some ban their importation
• Shops help us change our habits by charging us for thin bags
• Cheap, thin bags break and go in the bin
• Things you put in the bin are burnt or buried – both are bad for the environment
• Drop a bag on the ground and it blocks a drain or chokes an animal

Remember what a responsible person should do? It is ‘Green’ and saves you money:

Reduce the use of resources that are finite
Re-use items, find a second or third job for things you own
Recycle, efficiently, what can’t be re-used anymore

Kinawataka Women’s Initiative is based in a village that has become a suburb of Kampala, in Uganda. As well as thin plastic bags blocking the drains - that are so necessary in fertile Uganda with two rainy seasons – the women found plastic drinking straws that had been used for locally made juices in a bag as well as commercial soft drinks and beer. These straws are gathered, sorted and sterilised in a big drum before being rinsed and sun dried.

The next stage is to flatten the straws – this is a skilled task as the correct pressure must be applied in order to squeeze out all of the air, generate enough heat to create a crisp edge to the sides of the straw but not stretch its length. The younger members of the Kinawataka group are out-of-school children and orphans in the care of the Women’s Initiative. Their earnings from the manufacture of the bags contribute to their school materials so that they can attend a few classes in the next term.

The next task is the skill that Benedicta Nabingi, the founder, has developed and refined and now taught to other women in the group. The straws are woven, as you would with grasses and natural straw, to form a long strip in the shape of a thick belt. These strips are the basis for the original plastic straw mats – used for kids to play on and in several of the local mosque. By joining several strips and sewing corners to attach flat panels together, Benedicta started making purse handbags, shopping bags and now with zips, the parents’ bag and sports holdall.

The different stages: strip making, joining to make mats or panels, stitching to form bags and the finishing each provide a direct income to the member of the group that provided that time and labour.

And the result is a range of bags which provide an income to the community members that make them; remove plastic waste from the environment and enable it to be re-used; it reduces the use of disposable plastic bags which would be torn and discarded or burnt; it protects the water-course for drainage and the new drinking water; the bags actually work.

We use them to carry large bags of flour or stacks of pineapples. They are strong enough to carry bottles and jars without breaking, resist water and wet swimming kits and can be washed after the muddy soccer boots

Strawbags - Money from old plastic

Helping People, Helping the Planet

"At least I have my health” – a joke said for hard times in the US and Europe. In Uganda health is not so much a personal description of well-being but a day to day concern that requires nutrition, the time to visit the over-crowded and under-resourced government facility, or money to visit a non-government clinic. For women living in the Kinawataka village in Kampala, Benedicta Nabingi saw her retirement from over 20 years of public sector work as the start of her challenges.

Benedicta and other retirees have looked at their households and watched the large houses being built around them, the city’s roads getting busier and new shopping centres built; covered with adverts for designer clothes, mobile phone companies and new types of soda drink. Around the village the green hills of Kampala are testimony to the rains that allow the countryside to feed a rapidly growing population – but in the urban areas the ‘shambas’ for growing food are being taken for roads and kiosks to sell phones, beer and soft drinks. The waste from these kiosks include plastic drinking straws and disposable ‘kavera’ or bags. These bags are so thin and weak that they are used once, become the night-soil and then fill the waterways. The abundant rains then come, the waterways are blocked, the paths fill up and the basic households with marginal nutrition are at risk from all the diseases of poor sanitation. Worse still, the urban setting means the government health unit is far away and over-crowded.

Kinawataka Women’s Initiatives ( took all these features of urban life and developed a solution to discarded plastic bags, reducing the landfill needs of waste plastic drinking straws, allowing women to develop a skill, earning an income and supporting not only their own children and household but the orphans from HIV and internal displacement….Weave the drinking straws into bags.

One of the new members, we shall call her Jane, says: “I can sit here for the day with my baby next to me. I flatten the straws which we washed yesterday. I then weave a long strip of straws and I can choose to make the strip into a bag tomorrow or sell the strip to the Kinawataka group today and I receive enough money to buy eight meals”. And how does this compare to growing vegetables in the shamba and selling them to neighbours? “If I grow something to sell, I can lose that thing when it goes soft or if there are other people selling the same thing – I lose my stock and all my effort. With the straws, there a hundreds of them, they don’t go bad and my work has value today or next week. I will learn how to join the strips into a whole bag and can sell it for enough to buy 25 meals. My friends make three bags a day”. Kinawataka is working with Hope Clinic Lukuli to train more women so that they have the money for food and healthcare