A drive to remember: ECOaction at work in the Covid-19 lockdown

By Reagan Kandole, Mia Perry, Vanessa Duclos, Raihana Ferdous and Deepa Pullanikkatil

The Covid 19 pandemic continues to expose the most vulnerable people in Uganda’s communities. As the country transitioned towards a total lockdown, banning public transport, strict regulations on the labor force and only essential services — monitored by the health and security sector — the progress and gains made by community initiatives like ECOaction have been threatened. ECOaction is a non profit organisation that creates income and livelihood opportunities for the most marginalised urban youth and women through innovations in waste management. ECOaction is located in Banda, an unplanned settlement of Kampala City, Uganda. The organisation works with the most vulnerable groups of plastic collectors, mainly elderly women and young adults, and provides them with alternative markets for recycled products. ECOaction also builds the capacity of its beneficiaries around waste management and environmental conservation. One of the main challenges in our community right now is that they are not able to sell any of the plastics they collect to the recycling companies during the lockdown, which means they have no money to pay for food to feed their families.

For most of the women we support, the main source of income is collecting plastics and if they cannot move around to collect and sell these bottles, then they are not able to feed their families. Even with the government’s attempts to distribute food to the most vulnerable, not everyone will be able to access that support and there is an urgent need for more basic supplies to be distributed. Otherwise, there is a risk that many people will die of starvation, malaria, stress and many other diseases”. Reagan Kandole, Executive Director of ECOaction.

The photo story below depicts the journey that ECOaction’s team took, despite public transport bans and distancing policies, to reach out to this community


Covid-19 and appreciating Public and Green Spaces

By Dr Deepa Pullanikkatil, Co-Director of Sustainable Futures in Africa (SFA) Network

The other day, my colleague Vanessa Duclos, the Research Manager of the SFA Network, shared with me a picture of her family cycling on Buchanan Street, which is one of the main shopping thoroughfares in Glasgow. The emptiness of the place (as it was during lockdown) in her photo struck me and I began dwelling on the importance of public and green spaces in the wake of COVID-19. From my stays in Glasgow, I remember Buchanan street as a bustling shopping center and public space filled with pedestrians and shoppers. Being a nature lover, my eyes would automatically go towards the manicured healthy ornamental trees in public spaces. I particularly enjoyed Sauchiehall Street in Glasgow and during one visit, it had snowed, and the area was looking so beautiful. On another visit, Christmas decorations filled the space and looked spectacular at night, tempting me to take long walks notwithstanding the cold. I purposely chose the route from Buchanan, through Sauchiehall street and then on to the very green Kelvingrove park during my daily walk to the University of Glasgow to appreciate the beautiful public and green spaces of the city.

While seated at my desk in Mbabane, Eswatini, next to a window overlooking our backyard, I realize that today is the 50th day of entirely staying and working from home. Looking through my window at the backyard, I feel grateful for this green space. Every day, to refresh myself, I take walks in the yard. I listen to the birds chirping, check on the few tomatoes and herbs growing, inhale the fresh air and watch the branches of trees sway and leaves flutter in the wind; then I return to my desk reinvigorated. This daily routine gives me a deep sense of peace and contentment, and the strength to cope with the isolation due to the COVID-19 crisis. I can testify that nature has healing power and we have a biological connection with nature.

During one of my trips to Glasgow, I talked about “Biophilia” with colleagues. Biophilia is the human desire to commune with nature (a term coined by the Harvard naturalist Dr. Edward O. Wilson). Biophilia explains why nature has a therapeutic effect on us as it is a genetically based human need to be close to nature. It explains why we feel so happy after a hike on a mountain or a walk in a forest or resting by the beach as the ocean waves splash nearby. “Biophilic Design” for cities can help plan the built environment so that we may experience the human benefits of biophilia. But, looking at city designs in some parts of the world, I fear that green and public spaces are getting smaller, due to increasing demand for land and a growing urban population. Yet, there is also a greater realization and awareness and trend to bring the outdoors in. Skylights, indoor plants, furniture and built environments that incorporate plants are becoming popular. I hope the Biophilic design movement continues to grow in influence on city designs, making our cities greener and giving every dweller the benefits that green spaces provide.

This morning, my daughter and I saw a Kingfisher bird in the yard, we stared at it through our window with smiles on our faces, I felt a deep appreciation of nature, a deep sense of “biophilia”. Yes, this green space in our backyard was making the isolation during COVID-19 endurable. Everybody needs this while physical distancing, as green spaces and nature contact could provide positive well-being effects and counteract stress. We have had a lot of online discussions in SFA on how the world could be post COVID-19 and rethinking the “new normal”. Post COVID-19, as the world continues to urbanize, let us not forget our public and green spaces. Let us appreciate these spaces more, preserve them, expand them and try to nurture them, because they do keep us sane during difficult times.


COVID-19 and being Nimble

By Dr Deepa Pullanikkatil, SFA Co-Director

I have just concluded an hour-long “Zoom” call with colleagues from the University of Glasgow. It was one of several digital meetings we have had these past weeks with members from the Sustainable Futures in Africa (SFA) network. The network has members from UK, Nigeria, Uganda, Malawi and Botswana. The majority of the meetings have been to discuss the way forward, after our symposium (which was to be held in Malawi in mid-March) was postponed due to COVID-19. Today’s call touched upon exploring possibilities of holding digital conferences in the future. We would miss the face to face connection, but there are advantages to digital conferences including the opportunity to open up participation to a larger group and eliminate carbon emissions from the flights needed to hold physical meetings. We realized that some countries may have bandwidth challenges, and poor connectivity issues, while some members may not have good digital devices if they are at home without access to work computers. One thing was clear: as a network, we have to change and change quickly in this transforming situation.

The word that stayed in my mind from the meeting was “nimble”. A nimble person is quick, light, agile in movement or action, clever, and adaptable. In today’s situation, individuals, organizations and countries have to be nimble and here I share some examples. Around the world, companies including information technology companies immediately made “work from home” the norm. Speed and agility were demonstrated by Unilever, which launched initiatives in the US, India, China, UK, Netherlands, Italy and other countries around the world, with teams manufacturing and distributing millions of bars of free soap. Companies active across West Africa are sharing information and coordinating their responses through the West Africa Private Sector Coronavirus Platform (WAPSCON19) which is focusing on the livelihoods and health of the wider community as well as keeping employees healthy and safe and businesses running. Singapore received a lot of praise at how nimble they were in their response to COVID-19 with quick action through testing, quarantining, information sharing, and the sanitization of public spaces.  They adopted financial measures such as bringing forth a supplementary solidarity budget to safeguard jobs during the social distancing period.  Similarly, China’s neighbour Vietnam, also received praise for responding to the outbreak early with a risk assessment in January and the proactive National Steering Committee for COVID-19 response and preparedness. There are some examples of how being nimble is proving to be an asset in these times to avoid massive losses.

While the world is mostly focusing (rightly so) on the health-care aspects and how to revive the economy, we, at SFA feel that there is need to give attention to the social impacts too. These may include getting appropriate and culturally relevant messages across to rural communities whose livelihoods depend on stepping out of their homes every day; documenting stories of how people are coping and discussing mental health issues; promoting small scale home based mask making and soap making to help with income generation while safe distancing etc. As a network, we are trying to respond to this pandemic in meaningful ways using our strengths. We issued a survey to understand what has worked with COVID-19 responses in our country hubs and beyond. We are exploring making digital conferencing a norm, and we are trying to use the opportunity of going digital to open up the network and allow greater participation. We are rethinking “normal”, abandoning rigidness and wholeheartedly, if on wobbly legs, embracing being “nimble”.


Translation into arts

By Vanessa Duclos and Reagan Kandole

Reagan Kandole, Executive Director of ECOaction, an NGO based in Kampala, Uganda, shares with us how the current worldwide crisis coverage inspired him to translate information into arts – channeling the doubts during the lockdown into creativity. If you want to get in touch with the artist, you can do so here.


Corona

By Tom Ketlogetswe, Thapong Visual Arts Centre, Botswana

 

Your strength is not in doubt
You are stronger than many imagined

Nations are perishing
Locals are hiding in fear

Your strength knows no boundaries
Your sweeping powers are unimaginable

Leaders across the globe shiver
Heroes are neither spared

The poor have no place to hide
The rich are contemplating hiding in cosy closets

You have unleashed your strength
Indeed you have surpassed your immediate predecessors

Copyright: Tom Ketlogetswe 2020


Photo essay - Clean Air Project Launch

By Reagan Kandole, Dalton Otim, Anthony Kadoma and Vanessa Duclos

The proliferation of plastics globally is now a major challenge, especially over the last two decades. Worldwide, we are producing over 300 million tons of plastic each year, 50% of which is for single use purposes. More than 8 million tons is dumped into the ocean yearly, becoming a big environmental issue and threat to our ecosystems and biodiversity. Kampala city, Uganda, generates 750 tons of waste a day of which half is collected and sent to the dumpsites. The other half, mainly plastics and polythene, is irresponsibly disposed and finding its way from our communities and streets, to drainage channels, to rivers, lakes, and wetlands.

This problem is even more prominent in the urban slum dwellings. School setting is one of the best platforms for promoting proper solid waste management through education, skills workshops, and fun activities outside classrooms, hence enhancing teamwork. By sensitizing the children, behavior changes can be fostered around proper waste management.

ECOaction, an SFA Network NGO partner, together with Kampala City Council Authority, AEIF Alumni 2019 and five primary schools in Kampala City (Namirembe Infants School; Bat Valley Primary School; Kawempe Muslim School;  St Ponsiano Kyamula School and Luzira Church of Uganda School) received funding from the Ugandan US Embassy to implement the “Clean Air Project” in 2020.

The following photo essay takes you through the launch event, which took place on March 6th 2020.


Pluriversal Literacies: Affect and Relationality in Vulnerable Times

By Vanessa Duclos, Research Manager, Sustainable Futures in Africa

Dr Mia Perry, SFA Co-Director, has just published (April 6th) a brilliant paper* entitled: “Pluriversal Literacies: Affect and Relationality in Vulnerable Times” in International Literacy Association – Reading Research Quarterly. This is a timely publication amid the current COVID19 crisis worldwide.

Abstract

Through a consideration of literacies in theory and international policy, this article pushes at the edges of existing frameworks of functional and sociocultural literacies. In critique of existing policy directives, the author explores an approach to literacy that engages in the affective and posthuman relationality of human and environment and in the plurality of literacies globally that are overshadowed in prevailing models of literacy education. The author was motivated by a commitment to literacy education responsive to a world that is unsustainable in its current practices, to a world that faces increasing fragmentation and vulnerability (socially and ecologically) while certain types of expertise, technologies, and global infrastructures continue to proliferate. As a mainstay of education and a tool of social change, literacies are inseparable from policy and practices of sustainability, equity, and development. Pluriversality is a concept emerging from decolonial theory that provides a counternarrative to contemporary Northern assumptions of the universal. Building on a history of ideas around pluriversality gives sociopolitical and ecological momentum to affect and relationality in literacy studies. The author challenges normative constructions of literacy education as Eurocentric and neocolonial, effectively supporting a pedagogy that normalizes certain practices and people and, by extension, sustains inequity and environmental degradation. Through interwoven research projects, the author highlights the contentious aspects of functional and sociocultural approaches to literacy and the possibilities of moving beyond them. In doing so, the author describes and demonstrates the practical and political implications of affect theory and relationality in literacies education in a plural anthropocenic world.

” It is a paper that I have been working on for over a year and our very own Dr Alex Okot is quoted, EcoAction is featured and the Sustainable Future in Africa Network acknowledged throughout for the immense influence this network has had on my work in literacies “ – Dr Mia Perry

 

* Mia Perry. 2020. Pluriversal Literacies: Affect and Relationality in Vulnerable Times. International Literacy Association – Reading Research Quarterly. 0(0). pp 1-17 | doi:10.1002/rrq.312


COVID-19 and Rethinking the Unsustainable “Normal”

By Dr Deepa Pullanikkatil, Co-Director, Sustainable Futures in Africa

Reconsidering Development Pathways: What is the “New Normal”?

“Sustainable Development”, that often overused term in development work, calls us to action to end poverty, protect the environment and ensure that all people enjoy peace and prosperity. However, our development pathways have been far from that ideal. With rising inequality, increasing carbon emissions, pollution, wildlife crime, and the exploitation of natural resources and environmental degradation, we have continued our immoral growth beyond the carrying capacity of our earth. COVID-19 may be a wake-up call to humanity to stop this self-destruction of our home planet, lest our actions eliminate us as a species.

Reflecting on the status of the world

With the majority of us under lockdown in our homes, this is a good time to pause and look at our lives, our countries’ priorities, global development and the meaning of sustainability. While we have advanced our knowledge about green economic models, good practices for reducing extreme poverty and the use of technologies to promote wellbeing, we still have 700 million people living on less than $1.90 a day. Our consumerism and continued emissions are compromising our chances of limiting global warming to 1.5°C, and our global health care inequalities have come to haunt us.

Should we go back to “normal”?

Many of us can’t wait to get back to the same “normal” that got us into this predicament. COVID-19 has revealed that this pathway of unsustainable consumption, growth, ecological degradation and inequality simply cannot continue. In an increasingly interconnected world, the pandemic has taught us that none of us is safe unless all of us are safe. Business-as-usual may not be the “normal” we want to return to.

Economic slowdown may not be all that bad

This is also a good time to reflect on what life looks like when we slow down economic growth. With air travel grinding to a halt and a large number of people working from home, we are seeing the prevalence of digital conferences and meetings taking off, making us wonder why working remotely and meeting locally wasn’t already a norm? With the lockdown, the burning of fossil fuels has dropped, causing air quality to improve significantly, triggering social media posts of beautiful clear skies and views of mountains kilometres away. With humans locked in, animals and birds are courageously stepping out and enjoying their newfound freedom. The earth is healing.

We can work together

All sectors are working hand in hand to tackle this pandemic: funds are flowing from various sources; the private sector which hitherto cared mostly about profits is stepping in and helping the health sector. Governments are realising that spending on key sectors such as health and education is more important. Scientists and doctors are collaborating for the greater good, development partners are giving NGOs flexibility to divert their funding to COVID response, and each of us is checking in on our friends and family. It took this pandemic to ignite our sense of community, to get us to make sacrifices, recognise our priorities, work for a common purpose and cherish solidarity. We now realise that we’re all in this together and we can work together.

Three lessons learnt

Three things have become clear since the emergence of COVID-19. First, we are an interconnected world and only if all of us are safe, will each once of us become safe. In that regard, the virus is an equaliser because it does not discriminate. Second, although the virus has impacted every country, regardless of wealth or power, it has also made us realise how unequal our society is. There will be many who will not be able to recover at all or recover as fast as some others. Our global interconnectivity should wake us up to our responsibility for ensuring that each and every country recovers from this shock (not just our own country). We can no longer afford to be selfish, we have to broaden our minds and assume a global identity.

Finally, the unsustainable “normal” that has caused so many challenges to the world is a social construction; that means, we can change it. We, as a society, have been able to come together and make drastic changes to our lives and economy to respond to COVID-19. This proves that it is possible to take action to create a changed future for the better. After the pandemic ends, we must not slip back to the old normal, but consciously strive towards a “new normal” that is more sustainable, climate-proof, equitable, compassionate and humane.

What is your idea of the “new normal”?

How would you envision this “new normal”? Drop your answers/comments below.


Waste management in small urban context - Malawi

By Dora Nyirenda, Research Administrator of the Malawi hub

On January 11th 2020, I had the privilege to visit the Mzuzu (Nsilo) dumpsite located in the Northern part of Malawi. This opportunity arose while making arrangements for the symposium/workshop that was initially planned to take place in Mzuzu, Malawi.

The dumpsite was a project of Mzuzu City Council in conjunction with Plan Malawi, implemented with funding from the European Union. The facility was to be finished and put into use in 2017, but unfortunately, the place started being used without being fully finished, which made it a place that was perfect for breeding flies due to the lack of waste management. This is especially problematic because the facility is close to people’s homes and a primary school and that flies can be a vector of many diseases and infections.

I visited the area where the dumpsite was when the people were protesting on the 10th January 2020. I asked one of the community members why they were protesting, and she said, ’The unfinished facility is breeding and harbouring a lot of flies. We cannot eat or prepare our foods in the open as the flies land in our food, which puts our health at risk.’  It was on that day that the angry and concerned community members set fire to the facility, which has been closed.

This marked the end of the people’s patience. Before the facility was set on fire, the community members were promised that chemicals would be applied frequently to kill the flies, but this was not happening. The dumpsite was close to a primary school, meaning that flies were landing in the school children’s food.

One of the community members said, ‘We were told that the facility would have machines inside that would be processing and grinding the waste, and that the end product would be manure, which would even benefit the community. But this has not been happening as the facility started being used before they finished constructing it.’ This raised the interesting question of whether the community gave a consent to the facility’s construction or if they were even asked for their views and concerns before the dumpsite project was implemented. This is an example of a problematic situation where planners did not consult properly the local communities and where the implementation of the initiatives did not lead to the expected outcomes. Unless environmental initiatives are context appropriate and involve local communities from inception, the impact can’t be guaranteed.

The Malawi hub is working on a project proposal to investigate the local challenges in implementing solid waste management in Mzuzu and to facilitate the identification of potential situated solutions.


Economic Activities: A Threat to Wetland Sustainability

By Otim Dalton

In Africa, wetlands are of great importance because they are a source of water and food necessary to the survival of microorganisms and humans alike. In their natural state, wetlands provide a range of eco-system services: they regulate water flow, store eroded materials and nutrients, and provide water, food and raw materials. Therefore, the sustainable management of swamps, marshes, floodplains and mangrove forest (which are all classified as wetlands) is of great value to the long-term welfare of many African societies.

Recently, particularly in Africa, wetlands have become a new agricultural frontier. In response, a number of agencies, both local and international, are trying to explore sustainable wetland management as a way of reducing rural poverty, improving food security and strengthening livelihood resilience in the face of climate change. However, farmers have also realized that wetlands depend on well-managed catchment areas, and measures have been identified to improve upland management. These include improving land use through soil and water conservation measures, inter-planting crops with agro-forestry trees, and maintaining areas of natural vegetation, all of which facilitate water infiltration. This water percolates through to the wetlands.

However, with the growing rural population, climate change and the degradation of upland fields due to prolonged farming, wetlands are under increasing pressure as farmers seek out fertile and moist farming sites. The increased flow of water from degraded uplands into the wetlands and the disturbance of natural vegetation by cultivation in the wetlands threatens erosion and damage to these valuable sites.

In Uganda, the National Environment Management Authority (NEMA) was formed in May 1995 under the National Environment Act. NEMA was established with the main intention of protecting the environment. But despite NEMA’s efforts, the wetlands are being reclaimed and degraded due to the economic needs of the people around them and those from other areas. According to the Daily Monitor of 30th August 2018, in Uganda, swamps that have been encroached on include Mpogo in MpPasaana, which lies between Kitauhuka and Kisiitia sub-counties, Karokarungi in Kisiita sub-county and Kabale swamp, which borders Kakumiro and the Hoima district. Other swamps affected are Olweny swamp and Okole swamp in Northern Uganda. In eastern Uganda, the districts affected include Kamuli, Jinja, Mutumba, Kaliro and Mayunge, where most people cultivate rice in the wetlands.

A green rice field (left) and a field that’s ready to harvest (right)

One of the key economic activities carried out in the wetlands is rice-growing, which has slowly brought about wetland reclamation. Rice yields very well in the wetlands since it requires plenty of water. Rice-growing gained prominence in the 1970s following the establishment of the Doho Rice Scheme and the Nakwasi and Lwoba irrigation schemes. These schemes were set up for commercial rice-growing and today, they are dominated by rural small-scale farmers living in areas adjacent to wetlands. Although the soils in the area have largely been described as sandy and are characterized by low organic content, the Doho Wetland is an important ecological flood plain for the River Manafwa, coming from the highlands of Bugisu, where fertile clay and volcanic soils are found.

The 2012 Uganda Bureau of Statistics Report indicated that the Busoga region of Eastern Uganda produces 70% of the nation’s rice, worth Ugx120 billion a year. This is a clear indicator that wetland rice-growing is a viable economic activity that contributes greatly to the GDP despite the devastating effect of wetland reclamations. However, environmental scientists have also noted that human activities like increasing population and urbanization are partly to blame for the alarming reclamation and degradation of wetlands and swamps even in other countries, not only in Uganda.

Through NEMA, the government must continue to educate Ugandans on the enormous importance of the wetlands, and their contribution to the environment and climate. The people should be encouraged to gradually shift from wetland rice-growing to upland rice-growing. Afforestation and good agronomic practices should be encouraged to help improve and maintain soil quality and fertility for continuous upland rice-growing. This action shouldn’t hinder the viable economic activity of rice-growing or impact its contribution to Uganda’s GDP, and it will serve the vital purpose of wetlands conservation and sustainability.