Upcycling in Uganda: inside a company turning Africa’s waste into wealth

Faith Aweko grew up in the slums of Uganda’s capital, Kampala, surrounded by plastic waste and with little waste management. Floods were a common sight, thanks to  clogged drainages. But as the years went by, she turned this problem into an opportunity.

Alongside two other local women, Faith founded the organization Reform Africa, which focuses on a process called upcycling. Through this method, they transform wasted materials into products that are even more valuable than what they were before.

“We are transforming Africa’s waste into wealth. We’re repurposing it into affordable recycled products that can be used by the local people in their everyday life,” said Faith.

A school boy carrying one of the bags made from upcycling waste in the form of plastic bags in Kampala, Uganda.

Her organization is one of the few working in plastic upcycling, which is still a relatively small sector in the country. As a result, they still face limitations to collect and clean the raw materials for their products.

As part of their process, Reform Africa collects plastic waste from dumpsites, processes them and transforms it into products such as clothes pegs, bags, backpacks, shopping bags and school bags.

Upcycling process at Reform Africa in Kampala, Uganda.

Uganda certainly has a plastic waste problem: each day an estimated 600 tons of plastic waste are generated in the country, with less than 5% being recycled.

Kampala accounts for the biggest chunk of plastic waste. More than half of this waste is left littered in the city, uncollected and ends up in drainage channels, wetlands and swamps where it clogs the drainage systems.

Waste collected in a drainage channel in Kampala, Uganda after a heavy downpour. This is part of the waste collected by Reform Africa for upcycling purposes, as a way of cleaning the city and conserving the environment.

Organizations such as Reform Africa are now emerging in the country as a response to this problem, with the aim of reducing consumption of new plastics. However, they still face limitations and have mostly local impacts.

At a global level, plastic waste generates a big chunk of emissions, as it accounts for 6% of the global oil consumption, according to a report by the World Economic Forum. By 2050, plastics are on track to account for 20% of oil consumption.

Upcycled fashion

Upcycling emerged as a solution to the global plastic problem in the late 90s. This approach has expanded in recent years, with scientists even finding methods to produce nanotubes and other valuable materials from waste.

In the case of Reform Africa, they implemented this approach on fashion, an industry that generates an estimated 10% of global greenhouse gas emissions every year. 

In three years, the young women founded Initiative has moved from recycling 50kg of plastic bags per month to now over 300kg per month. They have also employed up to 50 women who work in the collection; sorting, washing and as tailors. 

The founders; Aweko Faith, Naluyima Shamim and Mema Rachel said they hoped to set up a recycling hub in the future, where the local people can come and learn about recycling and innovate unique solutions.

“The way waste is collected in Uganda is a challenge for work. Both organic and inorganic waste is all mixed together and this makes it difficult to sort out the plastics,” Faith added. 

Aweko explained, for example, that they have to use a lot of resources like water and disinfectant to wash the plastics after they are sorted from the organic waste.

Some of the women who work with Reform Africa wash the plastic bags before the upcycling process where they will be turned into school bags and other reusable fashion items.

Collecting the plastic itself is also difficult, as it’s often not collected in a single venue. Instead, the women have to look for waste littered all over the city. “The process of waste collection for the women we work with is tedious. People tend to dump almost anywhere,” she added. 

Some of the plastic waste collected by the team at Reform Africa for upcycling.

Aweko hopes that their products  can create awareness on plastic pollution and climate change in order to change the current narrative in the country, about climate change being a western world issue.  

“Uganda highly depends on agriculture, we are going to suffer the most when this hits us unprepared,” she says.