How admiration for army life drove a young man’s inventive mind
Samuel Mugarura, 24, a final year student of chemistry and botany attracted attention in 2016 when he unveiled teargas he says he made from a tiny store in his mother’s house using common items like onions, red pepper, and mangoes. Clearly that is not the whole story, and security agencies, academicians, and even President Yoweri Museveni got interested.
A year later, Mugarura says he has patented his invention and the government could be putting Shs700 million into pushing it beyond the prototype stage. If that happens, he says, it could push his product into commercialization. For now, as attention swells around him (he has 9000 followers on Facebook), one question keeps popping up again and again: Why, of all things, did he choose to invent teargas?
To answer, Mugarura takes you back to where he was born in Ntambaazi village, Kazo Subcounty, in Kiruhura District in western Uganda. This is President Museveni’s home district and, according to Mugarura, almost everyone is somehow involved in military stuff.
“Almost everyone in Kiruhura is a soldier and every growing boy there wants to associate with the military,” he says.
The son of Benon Arinaitwe, a farmer there, and Molly Kyohirwe, a businesswoman in Kajjansi, a surburb of Kampala along Entebbe Road, Mugarura says he developed a passion for military stuff from way back in primary at Kazo Parents School.
“My dream was to be a medical doctor but when I was offered to study a degree in Bsc Chemistry and Botany I decided to pursue my other childhood dream of working with the military,” he says. He is pursuing the Bsc degree course Makerere University in Kampala which he joined from Kajjansi Progressive secondary school in the Entebbe area.
“But teargas is just a starting point for the many inventions I will unveil which will shock the country,” he adds. He says he can make smoke bombs, which are explosives used to emit dense smoke to produce a camouflage smoke screen. He is also working on other products like fertilisers, pesticides, acaricides, herbicides, flares and fireworks. He also intends to pursue further studies based on his invention.
After acquiring the patent for his invention, Mugarura says he now has plans of going into large scale commercial production after the Ministry of Science and Technology, he says, set aside over Shs700 million for it in the next financial year.
“That’s only the beginning and the Shs700 million is for benchmarking with other companies making the same product and doing other studies. Commercial production requires US$74 million,” he says, adding that he is confident that by 2019 commercial production of his teargas will have started in Uganda.
“The market for our product is assured since Africa has only one teargas factory in South Africa based in Germany,” a hopeful Mugarura says.
Mugarura says his teargas is unique because it is made from readily available ingredients like sugar, salt, soda bicarbonate, food colour and others. He is, however, quick to add that though those ingredients are readily available, making his teargas “is not as simple as mixing sugar in a cup of tea or salt in a sauce”. He says it required him developing a 62-page formula.
“It took me sleepless nights to develop the formula, so it’s not that simple to make,” he says.
He also says he has done tests comparing his teargas and that used by security agencies in Uganda and found his is less toxic and with no side effects like skin or lung cancer or mutagenic effects (affecting genes) which would make it dangerous when inhaled by pregnant women, and is environment friendly with no dangerous chloroflocarbons (cfcs).
He says he has been joined by Prof. Raymond Nsereko; a product designer with the College of Engineering, Design, Art and Technology (CEDAT) of Makerere University and an engineering graduate; Emmanuel Elweru, to work on the external design of the teargas canister since his invention is concerned with the inside content. He says the biggest constraint to him developing his invention from paper to lab to commercialisation is money.
“To work on the teargas alone cost me over Shs3 million and doing a single explosion as a demo for the media cost Shs400, 000,”Mugarura says.
Although the government, through the Presidential Innovations Fund, in 2001 set aside billions of shillings for Makerere’s University’s College of Engineering, Art, Design and Technology (CEDAT) to support innovations, Mugarura’s products do not qualify.
Yet he still does not have a laboratory and working in his room in University Hall at Makerere University or the small store at his mother’s house is unsafe.
“Because of the effects of teargas, when I needed to do real tests I couldn’t do them in a populated place like Kajjansi and I had travel to my father’s farm in Kazo and do them there alone or with a few friends,” he says.
He says he started his project about three years ago and was buying the ingredients one buy one using pocket money he got from his parents. He says he might have given up if it was not for the encouragement of people like Cipla Quality Chemicals Industries founder and CEO, Emmanuel Katongole.
Mugarura receives a certificate from a URSB official granting him intellectual property rights
Missing Kayihura and Museveni
After Mugarura unveiled his teargas to the press, he says the Inspector General of Police, Kale kayihura expressed interest to meet him but it has not happened and he is still waiting. Meanwhile, he says he got a phone call from President’s press secretary, Don Wanyama, to meet Museveni and travelled to Entebbe State House home of the president but the meeting also did not happen.
“We didn’t meet him but he directed the Minister for Science and Technology, Erioda Tumwesigye to handle my case,” Mugarura says as he shows off a picture on his laptop of him posing with Tumwesigye and other ministry officials.
Mugarura says the Ministry of Science and Technology, of all government institutions, has been supportive and helped him, through the Uganda Registration Services Bureau (URSB), to acquire a patent from the Zimbabwe-based African Regional Intellectual Property Organisation (ARIPO) on March 22, 2017. Mugarura says the Ministry paid the Shs600,000 required for the patent.
Collission with law, academia
But Mugarura’s challenges have not been restricted to money. He has also had to contend with prying security agencies, especially the police, ever since he started working on his inventions in 2014, just a year after he had been admitted to Makerere University.
“One time I had gone to visit a friend in another room in the hall when plain cloth policemen raided the room and arrested the four of us and took us to Makerere University police post where they accused me of having a bomb in my room,” Mugarura says. He says a check of his room found no bomb and his teargas project was still on paper.
Even though he was released with no charge after spending a night in the police cells, he says security continued to trail him perhaps suspecting him to be involved in subversive activities. Even when he unveiled his teargas to the press, the police said he faced arrest as he had two cases of assault and possession of drugs at Wandegeya Police. Even the then-spokesperson of Police, the late AIGP Felix Kaweesi went to the university and to Mugarura’s faculty and Academic Registrar’s office. He asked for Mugarura’s academic records and later warned him to stop experimenting with teargas.
“But I insisted it was not illegal and I would go on since I was putting in practice what I was studying in class,” he says.
Mugarura denies being a criminal and says the charges were trumped up and police has since dropped them due to lack of evidence. He says the harassment by security agents led him to unveil his invention prematurely to hopefully end suspicions.
“It seems some of my friends who knew of my project either became envious of me or were state informers who went and informed the Police of what I was doing,” Mugarura says.
He says police only found a police teargas canister and then-Kampala Metropolitan Police spokesman, Emilian Kayima, said they would decide whether to charge him or not after the government chemist analysed it to establish the contents. He has never been charged.
On the academic front, after unveiling his invention on September 25, 2016, the Makerere University Academic Registrar’s office released a statement saying Mugarura had results for only Year One and Year Two with seven retakes. A retake is where a student is required to re-sit a paper after failing to score the 50 percent pass mark. Mugarura says the office may have been pressured to release the statement and that he had three retakes and had simply not sat another four papers.
Lecturers at the university also piled pressure on him. The head of department of Plant Sciences, Microbiology and Technology under the College of Natural Sciences (CONAS) said Mugarura was not focused on his studies and a former head of the Chemistry department, Prof. Muhammad Ntale, said he was seeking cheap popularity.
“Theoretically, we know the compositions of bombs or teargas, but making them is beyond him,” Prof. Ntale told the media.
Dr. John Wasswa, the head of the Chemistry department under CONAS, dismissed him as a plant science (botany) major without skills to make teargas or smoke bombs.
Mugarura dismisses Wasswa’s argument saying he uses his botany knowledge to make his formula for the teargas.
“Among others, I use ingredients from red pepper, onions and mangos and to get all these you need knowledge of plant science to extract them,” Mugarura stresses and says he is surprised by the backlash he got from security operatives and academicians. He says it may have been a result of not understanding his intentions or sheer malice.
“We spend a lot of money on importing teargas. I don’t know why some people including my lecturers should be against my innovation,” he says. He says, however, though he has not met Kayihura or Museveni, the harassment he was getting from security agencies has since stopped.
Away from his tiny lab in his mother’s store, Mugarura remain a typical young man who supports the English premier league Manchester United with such a passion that his friends nicknamed him “Falcao” after one of the legendary footballers of the side. He uses the name on his Facebook page. But even this attracted the attention of the police claiming that since it is a Colombian name, it means he takes drugs.
“It has nothing to do with Colombians taking drugs,” he says, and hopes the police buy that.