Uganda

The Next Must-Have School Accessory?

Some Uganda schools can't afford chairs or desks for their students. A new startup has an innovative and affordable solution.

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The Next Must-Have School Accessory?

Patricia Lindrio, GPJ Uganda

Most students at Discovery Primary School in Kampala sit on the floor of their classroom because chairs and desks are far too few.

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KAMPALA, UGANDA — Zziwa Hakim stands against a wall in the back of his classroom at Discovery Primary School in Badongo, a middle-class neighborhood in Kampala, Uganda’s capital. When the lesson begins, the 11-year-old grabs his notebook, takes a seat on the concrete floor and struggles to find a comfortable position. The school lacks desks and chairs for its students.

“I like coming to school and meeting my friends, but I do not enjoy my classroom,” Zziwa says. “It is difficult to write properly and concentrate, because sitting on the floor for so long is uncomfortable. I get so tired.”

This is exactly the problem that Arnold Mugagga seeks to address. An architect by training, Mugagga took note of the lack of chairs and desks in many Ugandan schools and thought there must be a creative solution.

“When I visited a school in rural Uganda, the need for school furniture was evident,” Mugagga says. “In this school, the head prefect sat on a brick, and the rest sat on the floor. And I thought to myself, that is not an upgrade.”

So in 2016, Mugagga launched a startup called Zetu Africa, which designs and produces SeatPack, an affordable, lightweight school bag that transforms into a stool. The bag also stores a wooden writing board, on which students can do their work. To date, the company has produced 1,200 of the portable seats, which are currently being tested in schools around the country. Mugagga hopes to scale up production and manufacture 10,000 SeatPacks by March 2022. It’s an innovation that could improve the educational experience for thousands of students, he says.

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Patricia Lindrio, GPJ Uganda

Arnold Mugagga, the founder of Zetu Africa, holds one of his company’s ordinary backpacks, sales of which help fund the production of SeatPacks.

“Forty years on, we want to create mobile classrooms,” Mugagga adds. Once students are outfitted with SeatPacks, he says, they wouldn’t even need to sit in a school building at all — the portable seats make it possible to hold classes anywhere.

The lack of desks and chairs in classrooms is a serious problem in Uganda. Under the country’s education regulations, schools are required to provide appropriate facilities for students. But about 3 million students in primary schools — about one-third of all primary school students in the country — don’t have adequate sitting space at desks in classrooms, according to 2017 data from the Uganda Bureau of Statistics.

Discovery Primary School has just three desks in each of its 12 classrooms to serve a total student population of 322, says Najjuma Mary, the head teacher. Students currently take turns weekly using the desks. Najjuma says she can’t afford to buy more.

“I would definitely want a better learning environment for the students in this school,” she says. “But for now, chairs and desks are a luxury.”

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SeatPack presents itself as an affordable alternative. The bag costs $20 to make, Mugagga says, and his company, which is based in Makindye Division, a suburb of Kampala, is giving them to students for free. To help fund the project, his company also produces and sells ordinary backpacks.

In April, the SeatPack team was named one of the winners of the UNICEF Uganda Innovation Fund Challenge, a competition that supports new solutions to national and social policy challenges, and was awarded 77 million Ugandan shillings (about $21,000) in prize money. The company has secured about 250 million shillings (around $71,000) in total funding to date.

Still, realizing his vision has been challenging, Mugagga says, and he has been working to refine the SeatPack’s design and manufacturing process. Initially, he planned to construct the SeatPacks using aluminum. But the coronavirus pandemic forced the factory in China that was producing the seats to close. As a result, he’s switched from aluminum to bamboo, which is more sustainable and readily available in Uganda. For the fabric, he’s also switched from using synthetic leather to canvas.

“We have done seven versions of the SeatPack, and it is still a learning process,” Mugagga says.

He’s collecting feedback from the 1,200 students using SeatPack prototypes in their classrooms, and reworking the design accordingly. Female students, for example, asked if the SeatPack could include a pocket for sanitary pads, so he added one. All in all, he says, the response has been positive, and he’s looking forward to rolling out his portable seat on a national level once the design is perfected.

“It is exciting making all these additions,” he says.

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Patricia Lindrio, GPJ Uganda

The current version of the SeatPack uses bamboo for the stool legs and canvas for the seat. A writing board, made of wood, also is included.

The Ministry of Education and Sports looks forward to hearing more about the SeatPack, spokesperson Patrick Muyinda says.

“When the innovators are ready, they can write a tender to Ministry of Education,” Muyinda says. “We encourage and support such local innovations.”

Similar concepts have made an impact elsewhere. In 2011, the Tutudesk campaign in South Africa launched with the backing of human rights activist Desmond Tutu. To date, the campaign has provided durable plastic lap desks to more than 1.5 million students in South Africa. In 2012, a study showed that with the Tutudesk, children displayed higher confidence and greater concentration, and were able to write more easily and interact more with teachers.

Mugagga hopes that the SeatPack will have a similar impact. Already, students testing the prototypes have good things to say.

Natukunda Shanita is one of 45 students currently using SeatPacks at the Gombe Kayunga Primary School in Nansana, a town in Wakiso District, about 12 kilometers (7 miles) northwest of Kampala. The 12-year-old says she loves the SeatPack’s portability and the fact that it can be used outdoors easily — a particular convenience during the pandemic, with many classes held outside.

“I do not have to carry the heavy desk or sit on the ground,” she says.

Patricia Lindrio is a Global Press Journal reporter based in Kampala, Uganda. She specializes in health and migration reporting.