EcoAction is an NGO working to support marginalized women in Kampala - and at the same time highlighting one major issue that many people would rather ignore. RESET talked to their founder.
Many places in the global South don't enjoy the luxury of a well-functioning, state-managed waste management system. And Kampala, the capital of Uganda, is one of them. Only about 50 percent of the city's waste is collected and even less ends up being recycled, meaning that many communities - especially low-income shanty towns - are usually left to take care of their own waste. The NGO EcoAction works together with local garbage collectors to improve their status in society and try to raise awareness for the huge (both local and global) waste problem (particularly plastic) in the form of artistic projects. We met the founder of EcoAction, Reagan Kandole, in Banda - a community in Kampala - to talk about his project, the problem that he's tackling and also about the hidden potentials of plastic waste.
Reagan, what is EcoAction all about? What do you do and what are your goals?
EcoAction works with marginalized people in the city, especially women, mostly in slums in Kampala, to investigate different innovative ways of using of waste and how it can be used to create new opportunities for income, i.e. through innovative waste management. Our main goal is to create a waste-free environment by asking questions like: How can people change their mindset when it comes to waste? How can we use these synergies to improve the lives of marginalized people, who are pushed to the margins of society, and who earn their living as garbage and plastic collectors and at the same time clean up the environment? We want to make people think about these issues by carrying out practical, innovative and provocative projects - like setting up art installations in public made of garbage and plastic in order to stimulate discussion around the topic. But we also focus on the high levels of youth unemployment, as marginalized communities in the country increase in size and more young people come to the cities in search of work. And we don't just work in Kampala. We have already carried out projects in other parts of Uganda, in conflict regions such as northern Uganda and also in prisons.
What do your projects look like? What tools do you use?
It all depends. Normally we use art as a medium, like by creating murals. For these murals we try to integrate the community. But we also work together with plastic collectors. We really appreciate what they are doing, but we also show them what else they can do to increase the impact of their work. That means collecting the garbage, and also sorting, recycling and separating the organic from the inorganic waste. So there is an artistic part of the project, but there is also a practical part where we sort, recycle and make products out of the waste. We also organise discussions, workshops and street events where young people and other people from universities or abroad come together to discuss climate change and environmental issues.
What does the life of a plastic collector look like, can you give me some insight?
One of the women we work with is Joanne, a single mother of three children. Her children weren't going to school because Joanne couldn't pay her children's school fees. She got up early every morning and walked about 30 kilometres a day to collect plastic. Every day she managed to collect seven kilograms of plastic bottles - that's less than a dollar worth. What really impressed me about Joanne's work was the energy she put into collecting all this waste. So I thought, "Someone has to give Joanne a voice. Someone has to give her hope. Because Joanne was a woman who wasn't proud of what she was doing; who felt she couldn't be with people who weren't garbage collectors. And I'm an artist, I have an ability, I have the time, I can change Joanne's life and the lives of other Joannes elsewhere. We started with small things where we could offer support. We told Joanne about the concept of urban gardening. Joanne couldn't feed herself and her family enough on the one dollar a day she earned. She starting growing different kinds of vegetables on a small patch of land and after two months she was able to harvest things from the garden. She was able to feed her family using that, and also sell some of the other things she had grown. Together with the income from the plastic bottles she was able to send two of her children to school.
We also started supporting the garbage collectors by supplying them with protective clothing and uniforms. That was their idea. Rather than collecting garbage in their normal clothes, they now wear uniforms which means people recognize and respect them. They call themselves "EcoAction Garbage Collectors" now. That feels really good.
Now we've also begun making products from recycled materials and selling them both locally and internationally. We've bought some machines and are training the women to make different products. For each product sold, 75 percent of the selling price goes to the person who made it.
Waste, especially plastic, is a problem all over the world. What do you see as a possible solution?
We have to really take a look at the landfills and the garbage on the streets, internalize the issue and create a stronger awareness of it. The younger generation is the future! So if we can reach young people, go into schools and spread awareness, we could develop responsible citizens who care much more about the environment. We need behavioural changes, but we also need a government that pushes through policy changes. The government has to take these problems seriously. In Rwanda, for example, it's illegal to take plastic bags into the country. If a government makes a decision like that, then that is another important step in the right direction. But another thing is - waste already exists. We can't just wake up and say there will be no more plastic bottles. Because what about what is already out there? We need young people and innovators to really think about new options and innovations for how we can reduce and reuse the waste that we already have.
What does this internalization of the issue mean for you as an artist and also for EcoAction?
For me as an artist I also see it from a different perspective. I'm drawing attention to things that people don't want to talk about. How do I do that? By making art installations in public places, through murals and trying to create things that people see. For example, we just started making garbage cans out of plastic bottles and putting them everywhere in Kampala. Normally you don't see garbage cans in the city.
How do you deal with contradiction of helping people earn their money through waste, while at the same time trying to create a waste-free environment?
That's an interesting question. But what we are really looking at here is the waste that already exists. This is collected by the collectors, reused and used as a source of income. But what we also do is teach them certain skills, such as crafts, tailoring or urban gardening. If there are no plastic bags, you can still make paper bags, sell them and earn a living. So the whole idea is that we encourage collectors first and foremost in what they do. But we also show them what we need at the end of the day. That we cannot rely on plastics, and that they have to find alternatives for other people and for themselves.