Representation Matters: reflections on the youth innovation workshop (Uganda 2017)

During the month of January, I traveled to Uganda with a team of students for a class trip. As part of that course, the students partnered with a team of students from Makerere University for a youth innovation workshop hosted by a partnering social enterprise. As the trip leader for this project, I worked to facilitate collaborations between Ugandans (educators, innovators, entrepreneurs, parents, and community members) and American university students to co-develop our curriculum materials which emphasized hands-on project-based learning through the thematic vehicles of hands-on STEM, the design-thinking process, and entrepreneurs.

The idea of this workshop began in 2014, after I began my graduate journey and became increasingly interested in exploring how to facilitate the process of critical conscientization through educational workshops in the Global South. Conscientization is key process by which learners develop a critical awareness of their social reality based on the concrete experiences of their lives and critical to reflection and action, the latter being fundamental to the process of changing the social reality. In contrast to teaching with individual monologues, learning based on group dialogue is liberating for teacher and student alike. The work of Paulo Freire, Brazilian pedagogical theorist, and Gayatri Spivak, postcolonial theorist and feminist critic, very much helped to shape my thoughts around the liberating potential of educational experiences shaped within communities.

Specifically, hoping to diminish hierarchical approaches to instruction and lesson structures, over the years I joined with our students from all over the world searching for (and restructuring) existing open-source curriculum tools that we thought especially adept at facilitating learning exchanges between and amongst instructors, community members, volunteers, teachers, and returning participants.

Photo credit: Lauren Bustamante

These workshops are designed to engage in a transactional education approach. Thus it was critical that curriculum materials be something we explored with our community members, local partners, former participants, and other Ugandans. Together, we all worked to reimagine how to better create environments for mutual learning through contextualization and exchange. Due to the emphasis placed on creating an environment which prioritized the mutuality of learning between all actors, the decision was also made to prioritize form over content, whereas I was primarily interested in co-creating form over content. By form, I mean allowing for processes to generate content and getting people together in particular types of dynamics to generate the content needed in this or that moment. Exploring the themes of transactional education and respecting form, over the year’s my vision these for workshops has continuously been about making Freire’s theoretical work into a practical agenda within the context of global development.

Before traveling to Soroti, we visited the Raising Gabdho Foundation, a UNHCR-supported organization that researches and develops guidance on appropriate livelihoods for vulnerable people with a focus on the girl-child and refugee communities in Uganda. It works to help individuals recognize their skills, experience, and capacities so as to strengthen the self-reliance and resilience of these communities. It devises strategies for providing sustainable and safe livelihood recommendations oriented around local markets that build on vulnerable people’s existing skills.

(Photo credit: Raising Gabdho (Girls) Foundation)

Currently, the Foundation is spearheading a clean energy project aimed at reducing the vulnerability of displaced women and girl to harmful consequences associated with the collection and use of wood fuel including gender-based violence (GBV) and increased risk of respiratory illnesses. As a result, they have started a biomass fuel briquette-making and cookstove manufacturing business in Kampala. The team visited their cookstove and briquette making production site where we learned more about its production technologies it uses to produce char, its 5-pound honeycomb-style briquette (for industrial kitchens), and solar dryer structure (developed by a team of Ugandan innovators). The foundation was effective in providing employment to a lot of refugees based in Kampala. When visiting, we got to meet and speak more with people from many parts of Africa who worked on this project.

(Photo credit: Raising Gabdho (Girls) Foundation)

After our visit, three women leading that project joined us in Soroti to engage in the youth workshop. There, they served as project-mentors and discussed their work as innovators and entrepreneurs in Uganda. Specifically, they worked with a project team creating a non-electric charcoal fridge using the principle of evaporative cooling for farmers to prevent the spoilage of their produce before it reaches the market.

While in Uganda, our team had an opportunity to meet with many organizations and learn from many people. Specifically, we visited Centre for Research in Energy and Energy Conservation (CREEC), a center focusing on product providing engineering and testing services for rural electrification, energy for productive use, household energy and energy entrepreneurship with energy management. While there, we visited their lab and had the student engage in a mutual learning exchange with their university researchers.

Next, we visited the Little Light, a Kampala-based NGO which operates in the slums of Namuwongo and serves tens of thousands of people most of whom are displaced people and refugees from the northern Uganda, Congo, Burundi and Rwanda. We learned about the school’s educational mission and women empowerment work. Partnering with AVEDA, this NGO has been working with women from this community to create and sell Fair Trade artisanal jewelry all over the world.

Later, we spent a day with the Resilient Africa Network, a development lab consisting of a consortium of 18 African universities and led by Makerere University with George Washington University (shout out to my alma mater!), Stanford University and the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) as partners. The lab provides incubation, training, technical support, mentorship and seed capital to innovators working to develop, test and pilot sustainable innovations that are scalable and which can strengthen the resilience of communities throughout the African continent.

The lab hosted our group for a day of collaboration, discussion, and sharing between their innovators and the team visiting from Boston. In a session with 33 participants, their everyone exchanged stories about their projects and key insights into their experiences as innovators. During more in-depth group discussions, there was a lot of exchange amongst everyone where we engaged in conversations about innovation about challenges experienced, potential opportunities and synergies, and key insights. During this session, the U.S. students had our first in-person meeting with two students of Makerere University’s College of Engineering, Design, Art and Technology (CEDAT) and co-founders of a mobile app start-up. While in Kampala, some other key places we visited included the following: an NGO called Little Light, a local machine fabrication workshop, and the U.S. Embassy in Uganda/USAID.

Prior to the start of the workshop, student instruction team, staff, community volunteers, and team mentors got together to go through the proposed curriculum materials gathered from various open-source resources to decide on which lessons they wanted to develop for the workshop as well as coming up with new lessons plans. We used performative exercises, drawing from Augusto Boal’s Theatre of the Oppressed which provided tools for people to explore collective struggles, analyze their history and present circumstances, and then experiment with inventing a new future together through short skits and audience-intervention. Through our work together over the three-day preparatory period, our team learned a lot about our group’s shared goals for the workshop as well as outlining our priorities for each session and learning activity. What came out of our brainstorms and discussions was the following goals:

  1. to introduce new and exciting learning activities that employed the principles of peer-learning, encouraged and enabled their participation, regardless of one’s level of formal schooling;
  2. to trusting in the capacities of all group members when sharing ideas and engaging in dialogue;
  3. prioritizing the implementation of the community’s ideas and vision for the workshop by helping students to explore potential solutions that are local, sustainable, and innovative.

Over the next two weeks, during the actual running of the workshop, We would continue meeting with workshop teaching group after the completion of the workshop each day to reflect on what went well and to discuss how we planned to approach the following day.

From January 16–27, 2017, we began our annual workshop welcoming in a group of 76 young people, 35 of whom were girls and 41 of whom were boys. From that overall group, there were 11 team mentors, who were returning participants from prior sessions of the annual workshop held in Soroti, and 65 participants, new youth engaging in the workshop for the first time. (For more details on the curriculum plan and the daily schedule may be viewed in the student report online.) The workshop mostly targeted young people between the ages of 12–17 and after discussing challenges experienced in their communities, they brainstormed potential solutions to those challenges to choose a team project. An overview of the projects they decided to work on is included below.

Workshop Project Teams

Team 1 (White)

  • Challenge addressed: Creating a non-electric solution to reduce produce spoilage for local farmers and produce-sellers by keeping their agricultural produce fresh for longer periods of time
  • Project: Evaporative cooling non-electric charcoal refrigerator

Team 2 (Pink)

  • Social challenge addressed: Creating a local and home-based technology that is able to convert waste into clean cooking fuel and produces a nutrient-rich bio-slurry that can be used to fertilizer
  • Project: Mini-biodigester made out of local resources

Team 3 (Red)

  • Social challenge addressed: Creating new products from discarded aluminium products, like cans or old worn out pots
  • Project: Developing a furnace made out of local materials for aluminum smelting for metal casting

Team 4 (Orange)

  • Social challenge addressed: Creating a non-electric technology out of cheaper materials (i.e., clay and brick) for people to bake and cook more things at once in rural villages.
  • Project: a portable non-electric charcoal briquette oven for use in rural villages

Team 5 (Yellow)

  • Social challenge addressed: Reducing the impact of drought in Soroti through the planting of tree seedlings Creating a Hydroponic system made out of recycled water cooler jugs for tree seedlings
  • Project: a hydroponic system made out of local and recycled materials, like water cooler jugs, for use indoor use to reduce the loss of water to evaporation

Team 6 (Lime)

  • Social challenge addressed: Reducing the amount of drought-induced food scarcity in Soroti through the preservation of foods using renewable clean energy
  • Project: a solar dryer for food preservation using local resources

Team 7 (Green)

  • Social challenge addressed: Creating a non-electric technology out local resources that can reduce the impacts of malnourishment of key vitamins, like calcium and magnesium, in communities without access to electric refrigeration for dairy.
  • Project: a manual eggshell powder grinding machine for the local manufacturing of calcium supplements

Team 8 (Blue)

  • Social challenge addressed: Reducing waste and creating new streams of income through the upcycling of materials for the local production of new goods.
  • Project: sponge products made from recycled materials

Team 9 (Turquoise)

  • Social Challenge Addressed: Reducing the prevalence of malaria and in their community through the production of a low-cost malarial prophylactic using local resources.
  • Project: designing a technology out of local resources to dry and grind papaya leaves and seeds for products including an herbal tea and when combined with cassava flour, an oral supplement

Team 10 (Purple)

  • Social Challenge Addressed: Creating a low-cost battery-powered technology out of recycled local materials for manufacture and sell in the community.
  • Project: a locally-made and low-cost vacuum cleaner made out of recycled local materials.

Team 11 (Lavender) * This team was slightly younger than the rest of the participants and were ages 8–10. This group was created to engage more girls in the training as many older girls between the ages of 12–17 were not able to participate due to home responsibilities.

  • Social Challenge Addressed: Reducing the prevalence of malaria and in their community through the production of a low-cost mosquito repellent
  • Project: homemade citronella candles as a mosquito repellent

During our time in Soroti, we enjoyed spending time with many other Ugandan innovators and entrepreneurs both from Soroti and all over the country. Not only was this beneficial to our visiting group, but it was also fantastic having many of these Ugandan innovators engage in the workshop itself and with the participants. The young participants reflected on how the innovators were sharing more about their projects, their journeys through the innovation process, and their experiences helped to expand their concept their idea of who an innovator was and what they do.

Following the workshop, there was a community gathering and showcase where everybody from the workshop joined community members and innovators from other parts of Uganda to discuss the social challenges in their community that their project was created to address. During that dialogue, the teams talked about their experiences navigating the innovation process with their groups and from community members, including, parents, teachers, neighbors, and other young people, gained meaningful feedback, thoughtful insights, and suggestions on next steps after their initial prototypes.

Overall, the workshop team worked hard to create and recontextualize existing curriculum tools to enable youth to critically think about social challenges in their communities and reimagine potential solutions. We strived to promote the voices of these young people through the curriculum and our emphasis on facilitating the process of meaningful engagement through reflection and dialogical exchange, with respect to both the workshop team and young participants. We pushed the participants to practice utilizing their experiences and contextual knowledge to dynamically engage with challenges experienced in their lives and surrounding communities. Through this process, we wanted the participants to develop a sense of agency around their capabilities in bringing about positive changes in their communities, country and the world; and in doing so, going through a process conscientization that helped to facilitate their own transformations and experience of self-empowerment.

Most importantly, I am in so much gratitude to TEWDI for hosting this activity and our visiting team for the third year in a row, MIT, Makerere, and Harvard for enabling the engagement of its students and myself and so many other people from all over Uganda that came together to make this workshop happen. To be surrounded by such an awesome group was truly inspiring. I am thankful for the growth, love, challenges and opportunities that this work has continued to provide. In short, I cannot thank my village enough.