20 February 2013

Uganda: The Abandoned Straw That Built Kinawataka Homes

One morning, Joy Nalongo Nabirye woke up to the insults of her husband, the man she had relied on for almost everything.

She had no option, but to keep quiet, not because she could not hit back, but because he was her sole source of livelihood.

This, however, did not dampen her spirits. Instead, it opened her way to a whole new world of possibilities and opportunities to make her self-reliant.

Through a women's group initiated by Benedicta Nanyonga in Mbuya, Nabirye set out to learn how to make crafts.

"I never imagined I would also have peace in my home until I joined Nanyonga's group. I learnt how to make crafts using straws and today I am self-employed. I have a small poultry farm at home, which I plan to expand. I can buy for myself basic needs and provide necessities for my family when my husband does not," Nabirye says.

She says after learning the importance of saving from some of the sessions the group holds, she has managed to save some money, which she plans to use to buy more materials for her crafts.

A new project for women

Nanyonga was born in 1947 in Ngomanene, Gomba district. She went to school, qualified and got a job in Bank of Uganda as note examiner.

Because her job required long hours of sitting while verifying the money in the bank, she developed a back problem and her doctor advised her to stop working.

"With this mishap, I had to think of something to do for survival. I got an idea of constructing a public pitlatrine since Mbuya did not have one then," Nanyonga says.

It was not easy to convince the local leaders, so she mobilised other women to help her get a place to build the pit-latrine.

"When the authorities saw the number was big, they gave us space for the pit-latrine, which we built and operated. We shared the money.

Many women benefited, but their benefits were short-lived as their husbands would take away and drink the proceeds," Nanyonga explains.

Nanyonga acknowledged this problem and in 1998, she suggested that they use the money they earned to start another project.

At first, some women rejected the idea, but she convinced them. She bought materials, which they used to make mats and baskets. On realizing the progress, more women joined the group that was later named Kinawataka Women's Initiative.

Birth of the straw project

In 2001, during a cleaning exercise organised by Kampala Capital City, Nanyonga came across a heap of straws in a trench. Immediately an idea struck her.

"I packed them in a sack and took them home, washed them with detergent and made a small bag out of them. To my surprise, when I displayed it, a woman bought it at sh4,000, a price much higher than I used to get for the baskets.

I urged other group members to embrace the idea. Some laughed and called me mad, but this did not deter me from pursuing my dream.

They later joined me. We made more items out of the straws and earned more money than we used to get," Nanyonga says.

"When Nanyonga first brought straws, I thought she was crazy. She used to send boys to pick dirty straws which she would soak in soapy water for days, but I never believed anything profitable would come out of the idea.

"It took a while to convince us to come on board. We started flattening the straws with knives and made mats and bags. We realised it was cheaper as we did not have to spend money on materials," Margaret Nakibuule, a group member, explains.

Nakibuule now makes many items from straws. With the proceeds, she opened up a hardware shop, started a poultry farm and bought a piece of land in the village.

Nanyonga's group makes bags, mats, earrings, necklaces, dresses, shoes, hats, wallets, tablemats and many more items. The straw project has helped many women, men and orphans get income.

Five-year-old Margaret Nazziwa is a member of the group. She makes wallets to raise money for her school fees.

Nazziwa was picked from the slum when she was sick due to the poor conditions she and her mother lived in, but her life has since changed.

From the money they make, the group pays school fees and food for orphans, the poor and the less advantaged children, in addition to training the children in handicraft making. About 40 children have benefited from the arrangement.

Nanyonga has also introduced new projects. She teaches the members how to grow mushroom, make wine, juice and jam from pineapples, rear chicken and backyard gardening.

Starting a SACCO

In 2008, Nanyonga floated the idea of saving to the group. "I bought a book where the members registered, indicating how much they deposited every time we met. I also bought a metallic box, where we put the money, and kept the keys with the local council chairperson," Nanyonga explains.

So far, the group is made up of 120 women, seven men and 40 children, who all have accounts with us and everyday they each save sh500 and above.

The group has opened up a bank account with the signatories selected by the members themselves. "I joined Kinawataka Women's Initiative because I had no job.

I had a sewing machine, but at the end of the day I could not make enough money to provide for my family. When I approached Maama Nanyonga, she advised me to join.

"I am now able to support my family and I have begun a small business for my wife. I am planning to buy a piece of land and build a house with my savings," Godfrey Mugerwa, a member says.

In honour of her contribution to the development of women, Nanyonga has won several awards. In 2007, she got the Uganda Women's Entrepreneurs Award; 2008 Uganda Export Presidential Award, 2009 Uganda Private Sector award, 2010 Uganda Investment Authority, 2012 Uganda Women Entrepreneur, 2003 UN Habitat and 2005 Lake Victoria Environmental Award.

Lawrence Kiwanuka, the chairman LC3 Mbuya 1 parish, says Nanyonga is a godsend.

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