Berkeley student Paige Balcom and the Ugandan environmental and community activist Peter Okwoko are co-founders of Takataka Plastics, a social company based in Gulu, Uganda. It recycles plastic waste into affordable building materials and, in response to the COVID-19 crisis, it has developed face screens for medical centers.
In 2016, Paige Balcom, a Berkeley University student, fell in love with Uganda. Arriving in Lukodi, a village located outside the town of Gulu, after winning a research grant, she worked with the farmers and a school for young mothers, and learned about aquaponics. A community, many of whom were victims of the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA), a Ugandan rebel group led by Joseph Kony, who, from 1987, conducted a violent campaign of almost 20 years against the Ugandan government, she had strong relations with. «I had learned a lot about Uganda’s culture, history and wealth, I felt the warmth of people, I heard what they had experienced and I was really emotional and I had a strong desire to help. »
However, Balcom’s greatest discovery was the great friendships she developed with the school’s teachers and students. One characteristic of the LRA was to abduct children and force them to work as child soldiers, carriers and “wives” or sex slaves for LRA fighters. Once her work was done, she returned to her country… before going back to Uganda, where in January she set up Takataka Plastics, a social company in Gulu that recycles part of the huge plastic waste in the country. « Uganda generates 600 metric tons a day; up to 50 per cent is not collected there, and in Gulu it’s 80 per cent. »
So when the Covid 19 pandemic broke out in the region, Takataka, which means “waste” in Swahili, a five-member team including its co-founder Peter Okwoko, a Ugandan environmental and community activist, immediately got to work, making face screens from recycled plastic for doctors in Gulu.
« Hospitals’ equipment is very poor. Most of them do not have visors for their staff,»said Balcom. « The main public hospital in Gulu has an oxygen bed, which is not even operational and there is practically no personal protection equipment. »
« Hospitals’ equipment is very poor. Most of them do not have visors for their staff,»said Balcom. « The main public hospital in Gulu has an oxygen bed, which is not even operational and there is practically no personal protection equipment, no N95 respirator; a bar of soap is supposed to be used to clean an entire room for a week. »
Okwoko and Balcom conducted a market study on the face screens and, together with one of Takataka Plastic’s two engineers, they handmade a prototype from recycled plastic. It took three days to develop samples to be taken to a local clinic for analysis. « The doctor asked the staff to wear the prototype for a day and give us feedback, » said Balcom. « They really liked it, and one of them said: « I even no longer want to take it off. »
400 masks made per day for only 25 cents each
After three days, they adjusted the shape of the transparent shield, which completely covers the face, widening it to get rid of the glare experienced by some people wearing masks. The handmade face mask costs 80 cents, but with orders from the local hospitals – there are one public and several private hospitals in Gulu – Balcom and Okwoko ordered equipment capable of making 400 masks a day for only 25 cents each.
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