new technology in buliisa, uganda!


A FEW days ago I received a short video clip via WhatsApp that I inadvertently opened almost as soon as it arrived. Normally I let these videos pile up till I have enough time to watch and delete them in a pile.
I was very pleased with this one. In the clip, a young fellow was manipulating a ‘wire car’. I put the phrase in quotes because when we were children we had a knack for finding bits of loose metallic wires either from clothes hangers (discarded or stolen) or broken up bits of fencing material, and we made wire cars.
There was always one boy in the neighbourhood who taught the rest of us and kept making modifications every so often without explaining where he had learnt them.
The first wire cars we made used ‘chokolos’ (soda bottle tops – I still don’t know why they were called that) for wheels and we had to squat to push them along. The upgraded wheels were cut out of bits of sapatu (rubber or foam slippers), then the ones above those had chokolo rims inserted into the rubber or foam sapatu.
The next level of tyres were made of metallic wire rims and had rubber tyres made from strips cut from the rubber inners of actual car tyres, wrapped around cuttings of buveera for the off-road variety.
It took us about an hour to fashion a good car complete with steering wheels to drive it as you walked along, axles and even side mirrors and number plates if the materials were available.
In my case that was thirty years before what I saw in this WhatsApp video.
The teenager in the video was operating a ‘wire car’ that was a fully operational excavator! Standing at one end of the truck, he actually had a boom arm lifting the soil carrying bucket an the other end, and drove it round picking and dropping soil!
The amazed onlookers made various exclamations in Runyoro and Luganda, proving its authenticity, and one fellow in overalls walked round the young technician to marvel at his creation.
Eno yagikola nga tatunulidde bu lad bwo!” (He made this without looking at your instructions/manual/readings!) exclaimed one fellow.
The commentators even knew the parts of the excavator such as the “boom” and “circle drive” (I had to google to learn them).
“New technology in Ngwedo, Buliisa!” another declared, before my favourite by one who was as overwhelmed as I was: “Eh! I love Uganda, allo!”
I can only guess that the young man had probably spent time observing some road construction for a while and worked out a way of replicating the truck.
Sadly, I am not sure if there is a village called Ngwedo (thats what it sounded like) in Buliisa, and whereas I will ask people at the district to find the young fellow, I fear success may be limited.
This is the type of chap that needs to be located, nurtured and supported to take his technical prowess to a level of global commercial proportions. Not only could he set up an entire industry of local toy manufacturing, if a wise entrepreneur funded him, but perhaps he could enhance technical education by becoming a trainer (NOT a student) at our institutions.
The automatic steps some would take would be to place him into a school or university, but without proper planning there is a high chance that his creativity and innovation would be stifled there.
How else can you explain the existence of so many qualified Engineers, some with Masters Degrees and Doctorates, with so few wire truck excavators of this nature?
In fact, this chap would most likely be the type to create a host of technical solutions in agriculture, manufacturing…you name it!
Simply by observing and trying things out.
And rather than pick him up and out of his village in Buliisa, we (you, me, an entrepreneur, a university, the government…) should pick up from people like Emmanuel Angoda and implement what he is seeking Ushs65million for.
Emmanuel Angoda is a teacher of ICT who has been at work in Lira Town College for the last five years teaching, training and mentoring young people in his chosen field of ICT.
I have not spoken with him yet but find him heroic for many reasons: over the years I have noticed his name popping up quite humbly in professionally elevated circles because of his noble work. His students have won Awards at the Annual Communication Innovation Awards, they have stood out during ICT and Academic events and also Science Fairs.
This week, he sent out an email unveiling his dream of setting up an ICT innovation hub in Lira Town, called Walktrack Innovation Hub, in which his partners are some of the said students. The cost of setting up that dream is only Ushs65million. That is 1,000 times less than the cost of tarmacking one kilometre of road, which process probably spurred the innovation of the Buliisa technician.
Seriously, people, read his blogpost here: https://angodaemma.wordpress.com/
If we had a hub like Angoda’s in every district, imagine how many times we would hear the exclamation, “I love Uganda, allo!”

recycling, creativity, art and made in Uganda right at home


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MY weekend has been quite satisfactorily artsy and hands-on, starting with Friday’s delivery of this superb pot by Christopher Bigomba, after months of saving up for it.
I met Chris about five years ago under circumstances I can’t remember right now, and got him intricately involved in producing some bespoke pieces of art for me, in his specialty style.
He is a master at painting bottles, and I was a master at collecting them. Putting the two characteristics together and lubricating it with money and patience resulted in a very colourful collection of pieces that are dotted all round our home.
img_20160228_093310.jpgI’ve always been fascinated by how easily these bottles can be turned from rubbish into art, and spend too much time worrying that there cannot be enough time in the world for Chris to paint ALL the bottles in Uganda.
Enter Ronnie Kyazze, a pal I met under other circumstances I won’t go into now either, but that involved Land Rovers.
As we were discussing the mechanics of the vehicles one day, I found out he was actually an IT guy.
While we were talking about our IT interests, I spotted a neat wooden bird house hanging out of an avocado tree in his garden. It was so much better than the plastic doll house I had taken from my daughter and tied to a disposable plastic party plate, that I had to ask him for its source.
He had made it himself.
Then he told me he even decorates and cuts used bottles – and shot into the house to get me one. The word ‘non-plussed’ popped up in my mind, and that day I left with the gift of a glass he had cut from an old wine bottle.
Many months later he came over to take us through some bottle painting and cutting lessons.
I had neglected to soak my accumulation of bottles in water the night before, which is essential for getting the labels and their adhesive to peel off neatly. So I rallied the children round to help soak the bottles, before we washed them and peeled the labels off.
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After soaking them for a while the bottle labels and adhesive gave way to my pen knife scraping quite easily, and Ronnie threw in some liquid soap to quicken the process so that within a couple of hours we had an array of clean bottles in front of us ready to receive our bottled up creativity.
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That reminds me – back when I was a child I once scored 22% in a fine art assignment and my teacher was appalled. Her comments made it clear that I would never amount to much as far as fine art was concerned. I intend for none of the children I interact with to EVER grow up with such an idea in their minds.
We put together spray paint cans (only five colours), string, raffia, sisal, glue (different types), jute, some sea shells, masking tape and paper (recycled).
While cleaning the bottles I got to dismantle the pouring stoppers and extracted some glass marbles as well, specifically from Johnny Walker bottles – which I later sprayed golden and added to the decorative mix as beads.
For the designs we used the masking tape round the bottles, and stencils cut out of the disused paper, and the raffia and sisal.
The results were not as great as Christopher Bigomba’s, or even Ronnie’s own, but we were proud of our work.
After that we got to cutting bottles and creating self-watering planters as well as glasses. The process is so simple that, again, it’s a wonder that so many bottles still go into dustbins in this country.
Ronnie whipped out a bottle-cutter – which basically holds the bottle in place and enables you to make an etching where you want to cut it. After that, we poured hot and cold water along the etching simultaneously until the bottle came apart quite smoothly, before we sanded the edges down.

At the end of the day, we had a good array of decorative bottles and self-watering planters being looked over by my small group of highly energised young ones with proven creative juices in full flow.

Plus, if all else fails, we can make a living out of this – selling these recycled items Made In Uganda.

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 And there are certain ladies in our lives who are happy with these gifts:
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two journeys, one path – different destinations


TAKING a walk through Mutungo for health reasons – exercise, I must declare – I found myself at the top of a road I had ignored countless times before, and ventured down its lead.
The short walk was uneventful besides the number of people I had to prompt into responding with “Good evening!” as I walked past grey and brown walls shielding what appeared to be regular residential houses with regular grass gardens.
Then, quite suddenly, the grey and brown was broken by a burst of thick shrubbery. I believe my breathing changed before my mind had fully taken in what my eyes were seeing. The thick hedge ran for a regular distance but I slowed down my paces to take it all in, and to peer through it out of curiosity.
There was much more behind it than just grass and a house; the flowers and shrubs were not rare and in some cases not in bloom, but it was interesting to observe. So interesting, actually, that when I got to the gate and found it was wide open I took that as an invite.
Inside, the neat garden exceeded my expectations, as it came with many pots and plants,img_20160121_170250.jpg all of them obviously made (the pots) and nurtured (the plants) within the perimeter fencing. The house was obviously old, probably built when my grandparents were youths, but it was well kept. Against the front of the house, someone had carefully fashioned an archway of flowering shrubs that arrested my attention for a while before I called out, “Koodi?”
There was a stirring in the sitting room and a young man peeped out of the window to return my greeting and inform me that the person behind the pots and plants was probably in the smaller house at the back – and he left his television set on to pop out and check.
The fellow, who this young man identified as his cousin Joe of Jowy Creations, was indeed away but could be found on Facebook.
A few days later I returned, this time deliberately, to view the garden again and try to meet this Joe of Jowy Creations.
Again, the gardens were still but there was sound in the sitting room. This time I didn’t have to call out before the very same young man, possibly wearing the very same vest, stood up from his television viewing position.
His cousin was in, this time, and came out to meet me though I first summoned the TV watching youth to interrogate him a little bit. Top on my mind was the question: Had he been watching television non-stop since the last time I had been, a few days ago?
He laughed and said he hadn’t. He was on holiday, from his university course studying “IT”, and was therefore chilling. Did he have a laptop or something else to occupy his time? He chuckled a bit but became irritated at my lugezi gezi, but I made it clear to him that I had an endless supply of it and would return to him after meeting his cousin properly.
img_20160121_170421.jpgHis cousin, Daniel Joe Semakadde, listened quietly to the exchange while behind him I noticed the garage held about fifty concrete pots in formation which hadn’t been there the last time I was.
He then took me round the garden to see his plant creations, his pottery and even
ironmongery! This was their grandparents’ home, and they now live there with a sectionimg_20160121_165903.jpg of the family.
Semakadde, a graduate of Food, Science and Technology, took to interior design as a child and made his first sale at the age of fourteen by putting together some dried twigs, colouring and arranging them in a pot. He still went through school dutifully, taking a difficult professional course, but during that time img_20160121_170446.jpgtaught himself how to make pots, weld metal, grow plants and design art pieces.
He has lived off that income very comfortably ever since.
As he spoke, his cousin was back at the television, and I could not understand how the fellow had let me leave the first time without trying to sell me any of the Jowy Creations. So I cut short the visit and called the young man out of the house for some more lugezi gezi.
To begin with, he had only Ushs15,000 to his name at that point, and confessed that he didn’t know enough about pottery and plants to earn any money from me doing it.
Long story cut short, we made arrangements for his cousin to train him for the remainder of his holiday, and I offered to ease the process by paying for his transport from the television set to the garden for the training course.
Today marks the end of Week One, and I am praying I don’t find him in front of a television. I also need someone to give me lessons in understanding how these two young fellows can grow up in the very same home and take such different paths in life – one to wealth and success through sweat and hard work, and the other likely heading to a despondent declaration of a lack of opportunities.

re-starting independence with the children and their toys


WHEN you spend a few days sequestered with hundreds of people talking repeatedly about innovation, technology and education you tend to develop ideas along those lines.
My head was full of them as we emerged from a summit called ‘Innovation Africa’ and prepared to embark on Independence week. Because there was a weekend punctuation between the two, I was reclaimed by the children and eventually found myself inside bookshops that insist on selling toys.
I can understand the business imperative that makes them stock both products, so I have sympathised with them for years in spite of the irritation – I think it is unfair to distract these young ones with toys when we try to immerse them into a world of literary appreciation in order to stimulate their imaginative powers.
But there I was, trying to herd attention away from playing to reading, when I noticed one plaything priced at five million shillings (actually, it was Ushs4,999,000).

My next venture should be making these!
My next venture should be making these!
I was a little panicked because one of the children was paying more attention to this item than I was comfortable with – and if my bankers and a few other stakeholders had spotted us at that point I would have had to hold difficult conversations.
As I firmly drew her focus away from the thing, my mind was on one of the key statements people kept making at Innovation Africa – “But can’t you guys make this here (Uganda or Africa)?”
On closer inspection, the Ushs5million plaything was a creation of painted plastic or fibreglass, with a few lights here, buttons, and a motor that made it move to and fro.
I know a guy in Kampala who once did a fibreglass fabrication for me, and estimated the total cost here to be less than one million shillings. The lights and wiring involved couldn’t cost more than a couple of hundred thousand, and neither would the paint.
So I figure that if I got an artist and a technician together I could reap handsomely from toys – and the shop attendant confirmed to me that people buy these things, imported from China, quite frequently.
I looked around a bit more at hundreds of other items – all imported – including a little children’s bookshelf painted in lively colours and priced about eight times higher than a locally made one sold in most carpentries in Kampala.
The price of that bookshelf was even confusing because of the cheapness of the materials used to manufacture it – especially compared to the hardwood ones we make locally that are priced so low.
There was also a set of toys made of wooden blocks, each painted with numbers and letters and going for just over one hundred thousand shillings.
Believe it or not, every carpentry workshop in this country generates enough waste (paint inclusive) to be converted into such toys saleable at sensibly profitable amounts to a very willing foreign-toy-purchasing public.
Plus, if we start this with toys then we are doing it at a point where the next generation interacts quite closely, and the true meaning of independence will sink in better in their minds.
What do we need in order to do this?
Independence – and an understanding of the theme of Independence Day Celebrations this year: “Striving towards a prosperous people and Country: the meaning of true Independence.”
Prosperity and Independence – the two go hand in hand, if we strive at them, apparently. Importing toys from China enriches only a few of us here in Uganda, namely those who import those toys – but MANUFACTURING those toys here in Uganda will enrich many, and it IS easy.
As we made our escape from the toy bookshop, my daughter asked me the confounding question, “What is Independence?”

education needs to be taken apart so we start innovation


A couple of months ago I began work on a project currently running at the Speke Resort Munyonyo – a summit called ‘Innovation Africa’.
This is NOT public relations for the event because, frankly, they don’t need it – they already have their participants in the rooms, the relevant transactions are being made left, right, centre, and I hope Uganda benefits from the event as other African countries have done previously.
Rwanda hosted last year’s summit and bagged a project assembling computers/laptops within their borders which will help supply their (and maybe ours, one day) ‘One Laptop Per Child’ project. The project came before the summit, but their hosting preparations helped.
What’s prompting me here are two things – my interaction in a small room with Education State Minister Sandy Stevens Tickodri-Togboa, Tickodri-Togboaand the nomenclature of education ministries across Africa.
Starting with Prof. Tickodri-Togboa, when he was appointed Minister we celebrated because we knew him to be technical and were aware of his involvement in the Kiira EV Project.
That project is not a white elephant, as some people scoffingly claimed when it was unveiled; whereas we do not produce steel and the other bits that make car manufacturing a short-term viability, the process of interrogating, researching and attempting this project helps boost local innovation.
Allowing and empowering students to think big enables them to aim high even though they might hit low – but if they aimed low then they would hit lower, so the better alternative is obvious.
Due to the Eid public holiday, Prof. Tickodri-Togboa found himself at the centre of the government Press Conference announcing this event and he read up on it quickly, and his blood got racing. In a meeting with a group of us shortly before the Conference he rallied gallantly about the importance of innovation in education, and our national skills development needs.
“As I was flying back last night from China I was thinking about how many toys we import from that continent into this country. Why are we not making our children here manufacture those toys? They are just bits of plastic and wiring that jump about and make noises…” he pondered, jet-lagged, rather irritated and frustrated.
I like it when a government official in a position of authority gets irritated and frustrated by something such as this – his boss is often to be found in this mood as well, which is why Prof. Tickodri-Togboa was appointed in the first place.
He told us, thereafter, how his own children spent so many hours taking apart toys and other pieces of equipment in their home that he was not surprised when they ended up studying advanced sciences in universities in South Africa and what not.
“I still haven’t cleaned up their bedrooms!”
Which made me think wistfully about some children in my neighbourhood who I found wheeling about toys fashioned from empty splash boxes and Safi bottles, with twigs for axles and chokolo (soda bottle tops) for wheels.
It made me sad to see that in 2015, when I had done the same back in the 1980s. But then it made me happy that they were as industrious today as we were back then. (Still, I hurried home and emptied a toybox on the verandah of their muzigo…but told them and their mother not to stop making toys of their own).
They were still pushing their makeshift toys at the start of this week, and I was pleased. And I thought about them that same night as I perused the list of African ministries of education, because that is where, perhaps, we should start our spurring of innovation on this continent.
When Prof. Tickodri-Togboa was appointed, the Ministry of Education and Sports was renamed Ministry of Education, Science, Technology and Sports.
Considering how well we do at Sports these days, that docket should be made substantive and separated from the Ministry of Education, Science and Technology, which itself needs renaming – and I hope we append ‘Innovation’ to it.
Not that names mean anything, unless one does some research into what these countries actually produce by way of innovation and skills, but here are the words other African countries use:
Skills (Botswana), Literacy (Burkina Faso), Scientific Research (Burundi, Cameroon & Congo Republic), Technological Innovation (Congo Republic) Vocational Education (DRC), Science & Technology (different from Education – Ethiopia), Science, Technology &  Research (Lesotho, South Africa, Tanzania), Science & Technology (Gambia, Kenya, Malawi, Mozambique & Sierra Leone), Technology, Communication & Innovation (Mauritius), Human Development (Mozambique), Higher Education, Training & Innovation (Namibia),  Higher Education & Research (Senegal), Higher Education, Scientific Research & ICT (Tunisia), Education, Science & Vocational Training (Zambia).
Over, now, to Professor Tickodri-Togboa, the people in charge of naming ministries, the teachers, and parents who should encourage their children to take stuff apart and learn to rebuild it.
Education needs to be taken apart so that we can do some innovation.