If going on an adventure means you don’t know what you will find when you get there, then I went on a mini adventure this morning. I met a friend at Makerere University to visit the department researching energy and sustainable living to look at some innovative bricks they are making into fuel efficient stoves.

Many local buildings are made from roughly shaped, clay bricks fired in rudimentary kilns seen along the highways. When building with these bricks, huge quantities of mortar are needed to even them out. The firing of the kiln takes considerable quantities of firewood, which is becoming increasingly scarce. Cement blocks made on site are often made with the incorrect proportion of cement so lack strength and are also rough surfaced which requires thick plastering. To tackle some of these problems, Makerere University have developed a brick, pressed from murrum (local soil) and cement, with no firing but resulting in an even, smooth design which interlocks and requires very little mortar. The specified mixture of murrum (3 wheelbarrows full) plus a bag of cement are mixed together with required amount of water then scooped into the press, which is operated with a long lever, to create the block under pressure, which should ensure its integrity (providing sufficient cement is used). The blocks are then left to dry thoroughly before use.

The outer surfaces are smooth and so need minimal plastering. The presses are available for hire, so anyone who has a building project can hire them and make the required number of bricks. Or make a stock and sell them?

The same technology has been used to design bricks that lock together to form a stove.

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This could be the basis of producing cheap, more fuel efficient stoves, but I think the design could be refined to be even more fuel efficient.

The surprise of the morning came when we returned to the office and found a woman busy at a hot press and discovered she was making eco-friendly sanitary pads. Don’t stop reading gentlemen! Every woman knows the expense of sanitary pads and in much of Africa they can be beyond the household budget. It’s an issue which can keep girls from education. The government of Uganda has promised help to supply schools with sanitary pads, but it is costly exercise. Many initiatives have started training people to make re-usable pads, which is a great idea, but has the disadvantage of needing copious amounts of water to wash the pads for re-use. If you don’t have water on tap, which millions on this continent do not have, then this is a problem. Also, the advice is to dry the pads in sunshine to ensure they are dry and hygienic. Unfortunately, hanging these pads to dry may be somewhat embarrassing to many, particularly in a culture which does not discuss ‘women’s matters’. Imagine trying to dry pads in secret… particularly in the rainy season!

So, what is the solution? One idea is Maka Pads [meaning ‘household’ in local language and also appropriate to the university] developed by Makarere  and Dr Moses Kizza Musaazi. They have been supplying UNHCR, selling locally and are now exporting to Sierra Leone! where they hope to set up production. The absorbent part of the pad is made from dried papyrus, which grows copiously in swamps here, and shredded paper, combined and pressed into sheets. The sheets are cut into pad-sized sections.

We watched as a double line was sealed down the centre of the outer layers – a top mesh and an under waterproofing. Then two papyrus sections and another absorbent mesh layer are put between these layers and the edges and ends are sealed. Later they are cut in half, trimmed and have double sided adhesive applied to the back. Whilst not fully bio-degradable (the plastic backing should be replaced by a biodegradable version, if cost does not make this uneconomic). For institutions incinerators can be supplied to deal with the used products rather than throwing them into the pit latrines. Burning is not environmentally ideal, but provides a hygienic solution.

Schools are finding that when girls use imported sanitary pads, their pit latrines fill up very fast, not just from the quantity used, but by the fact the pads themselves continue to absorb liquids and therefore continue to swell, filling the pit and causing the school extra costs in having the pits emptied more frequently.

Maka pads are currently being made in a factory in Kampala and also in refugee camps where they provide employment and a product bought by UNHCR for use in the camps.

The pads are packaged in 10s, but also in 3s, which makes them more affordable for families living from hand to mouth. It also means that schools can give them out in small quantities as needed by the girls and parents can afford to give them pads to use in school while returning to more traditional methods (rags) at home. Product acceptance in the local market place has been a problem with a strong preference for imported products.

The next product in development is a disposable diaper (nappy) using the same absorbent core, but this is still a work in progress.

From bricks to babies this has been a domestic tale but of great potential and encouraging to see local design and technology being developed. The problem now is how to scale up production to reach a wider market and spread the benefits. Both products need marketing campaigns to promote them, plus manufacturers willing to supply the demand generated.

My adventure continued as I drove home through a violent thunderstorm with huge chunks of hail hitting my car and torrents of water flooding roads. Fortunately the windscreen survived and I made it home safely.

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