A Mile High for Mother Nature

By Ivan Nuwagaba

Katanga slum was just a stone’s throw away from my university, in the heart of Kampala, between bustling streets and high-rise buildings. It’s home to many people striving for a better life, including many university students that come from less affluent backgrounds. My coursemate Josephine stayed there, and always told me about life in the slum—the bad water drainage and trenches she had to jump over on her way to school, how her neighbors always suffered from complicated illnesses without money for medical care, the high crime rate…

One morning after my semester exams, I decided to visit the slum to see it for myself. I saw numerous single mothers with about seven children or more, living in tiny congested shacks. Garbage was everywhere, roofs were, stagnant water accumulated, idle and unemployed youths who weren’t attending school, congestion and chaos everywhere. It seemed like no one knew where their next meal would come from. It was heartbreaking.

In university, my roommate and I had set up a small company called Green World Enterprise with the aim of protecting the environment. We wanted to produce briquettes from biodegradable garbage. Having seen the slum firsthand, I felt more motivated, I believed our idea could positively impact this community and change their livelihood.

Charcoal was the primary cooking used in the slum, but our briquettes were cheaper and more environmentally friendly, as they reduced carbon emissions. When I told Josephine about it, she got excited, and introduced us to a few families who were among the most struggling in this community. We decided they’d be an ideal starting target for our project. We began small by training Nabukenya’s family of seven and equipping them with the necessary skills to make briquettes. I explained the relevance and the positive impact it would have on the community, as well as how its potential as a source of income.

Word soon spread, and I gathered a few more motivated friends from my university residence hall., With the help of generous donors, we acquired the necessary equipment to set up a community-based briquette production unit and returned to the slum.

We trained a group of enthusiastic slum dwellers on the techniques and benefits of briquette making. They learned quickly, and even discovered that by adding a small amount of clay to the mixture, the briquettes would hold together better while burning, resulting in a longer lasting and cleaner source of fuel. Everybody was excited to witness the transformed of raw materials before their eyes and felt a sense of accomplishment. The transformation within the community was remarkable.

Word of the briquette project spread beyond Katanga Slum quickly, and demand grew. It offered an exciting opportunity for the empowered slum dwellers to earn money, but the impact of the initiative extended far beyond the economic benefits. The slum dwellers felt a renewed sense of pride and purpose.

As the project expanded, we received an e-mail inviting us to travel to Seattle on an all-expenses paid trip to the Global Social Entrepreneurship Competitions next February. This would be my first time on an airplane ever! My heart raced with excitement. This was the moment I had been waiting for, my chance to prove myself on the big stage.

I hardly slept the night before we travelled. My mum and sister escorted me to the airport. I was smiling from ear to ear, I felt as I was in a movie. When I first glimpsed the massive Airbus A340-500 that would take us to Seattle, shivers ran down my spine. I got a seat at the window next to the wing. The roar of the engines filled the cabin as the plane began to taxi down the runway, and before I knew it, we were flying.

Looking out the window, I was struck by the beauty of the world from above. The clouds looked like fluffy pillows, the cities below miniature models. I was in awe of this new perspective on life. The flight itself was smooth and uneventful. I was grateful for the chance to relax and reflect on the journey ahead.

After what seemed like an eternity, the plane started its descent towards Seattle Tacoma Airport. I gazed at the stunning view of the city below. The sun was just starting to set, a warm orange glow set over the buildings and the Puget Sound. I felt a sense of anticipation building inside me as the plane made its final approach towards the runway. The pilot’s voice crackled over the intercom, announcing that we were moments away from landing.

The airport was bustling with activity—planes taking off and landing, ground crews directing traffic, and passengers hurrying to their gates. It was a symphony of movement, and I felt like I was a part of something bigger than myself. The Dawson family—Christina, Mark and their daughter Anne—were waiting for me at the airport. They had been assigned to me by the University of Washington. They welcomed me warmly and drove me to their family house.

The next afternoon, Christina took me on a tour of Seattle, showing me Pike Place Market, the streets of Pioneer Square, the Space Needle and the waterfront, where we boarded a ferry to Bainbridge Island. I was over the moon to experience Seattle with Christiana by my side. Next morning, the entire family took me to see bubble gum wall and finally the Boeing Museum of flight. I had the opportunity to taste various food in Seattle, and I loved it, especially eating crab for the first time.

After two days, it was time to pitch our project to a panel of five judges. Teams from Bangladesh, Japan, South Korea, Rwanda and other universities from the USA, including the famous Massachusetts Institute of Technology were present. I remember solar projects, mushroom growing projects, refugee empowerment projects and many others—I’ve forgotten some, probably due to my nerves. In the end, I did well. We made it to the semifinals, along with three other teams out of the initial twenty. The semifinalist pitched to the potential investors, but unfortunately Green World Enterprises ended third. We did network extensively though, and gained knowledge that we used to further develop our project.

Being a semifinalist was an incredible achievement. It wasn’t just the accolade that made the experience so special, but the many passionate, driven people working tirelessly against climate change. I learned so much from them, and I returned home with a renewed sense of purpose. Perhaps the most important lesson I learned was the value of persistence. Making a difference in the world isn’t easy, and there will inevitably be setbacks and challenges along the way. But staying true to our values, and working together, we can create a better world for ourselves and for the future generations.

21 June, 2023