On the dashboard of my regular vehicle is a bathing sponge – the type I was raised on, made out of the cucumber-type plant that back in the day was staple in most of our homes.
It’s called a Loofah (Luffa) and originates from somewhere in Asia – in fact, the original name for it is Arabic – ‘luf’. But in Uganda we call it ‘Ekyangwe‘.
The one in my car will join about eight others placed in various spots round my home. I don’t actually use them – the details around which will be best kept private – but started gathering them up recently because of an interesting twist to a trend Kampala dwellers should have certainly noticed by now.
At various roundabouts, road junctions and traffic-heavy spots there are groups of little children vending these loofahs in categories. Some of them (the loofahs, not the roadside children) are as bare as the one in my car, but others have a cloth piping round the edges to make them look nicer.
These children, in the beginning, appeared to be urchins begging for change. But someone somewhere hit upon this interesting idea of conscripting them into a sales team. When I first started noticing them and declined to make the purchase I was being enticed to, they tended to ask for some bottled Rwenzori Water or, in rare cases, money to buy a snack.
But one day my wife and I were taken aback when two of these children, little girls, handed us two loofahs and insisted that we take them both free of charge. I couldn’t understand how this would work in their favour, and quizzed them briefly.
“So that next time when you come you will buy,” said one little girl.
It was nonplussing, should the word exist. Did these little girls have a marketing budget that provided for free sampling? By the way, how come they are so many in number? And they all appear to be the same size and age…?
Actually, wait! This appears to be a rather lucrative and well-organised industry going on here right before our very eyes! Whoever is behind the business is so orderly that they have recruited a sales force, trained them, probably put them in some sort of uniform, and deployed them strategically at points of vantage.
The one problem, besides the possible lack of the relevant licensing for this trade to continue uninterrupted, is the use of children in situations that put them at risk.
The people behind this Loofah trade, though, are more sophisticated than many other businesses I know that have not gone so far as to open branches anywhere!
But that’s not all that this clever entrepreneur, or even one better than them, could do.
It is a very easy plant to cultivate, so making excuses about it not growing would be difficult. The internet presents a myriad of recipes from almost every country in Asia, that involve this plant – including its young fruit, its rind and all!
Besides food it also gets to be used as medicine for a long list of ailments (administered carefully).
Back when we were little children every home in our neighbourhood had one of these vines climbing up trees and little homestead buildings so I imagine we would be at middle income status by now if we had continued this practice with focus.
The first use of the ‘ekyangwe‘ we all know as the Bath sponge, though some of us also used bits to wash dishes through the 80s and 90s, before the imported scrubbers became normal.
In Paraguay, however, they make furniture and house construction materials out of the loofah by combining it with other vegetable matter and recycled plastic – a point I am going to raise with my colleagues at Coca-Cola who do plastic waste recycling.
In Japan it is grown over buildings to shield windows from harsh sunshine, while many other countries use it as a decorative creeper the way we did when my grandmother was still alive, complete with those bright yellow flowers.
In the United States it is also used as a bath sponge.
Note that the ones that the little children sell by Kampala street-sides go for Ushs1,000-2,000 each if they don’t have a piped border, and Ushs2,000-2,500 with the piping. The ones in the US go for US$10 a piece…
The Kampala roadside children don’t have internet access to establish that last fact alone and establish contact with the people who could buy their sponges and put them on Amazon – but YOU do.
Even if you can’t work out how to turn ‘ekyangwe‘ into food or furniture, lazima you can go down to those children and buy up their stock, liberate them from the street, then make a very neat profit selling them on Amazon!
Opportunity is spelt ‘Ekyangwe‘.