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Turning Uganda’s Waste into Lifesaving Equipment

Peter Okwoko, a Ugandan environmental and community activist, and a Berkeley Ph.D. student Paige Balcom are the cofounders of Takataka Plastics, a social enterprise in Gulu, Uganda. It recycles plastic waste into affordable construction materials and, in response to the COVID-19 crisis, face shields for medical centers. It took three days to develop samples to take to a local clinic for testing. After another three days, they’d adjusted the shape of the clear shield, which completely covers the face, widening it to get rid of the glare some wearers experienced. When handmade, the face shield costs 80 cents, but with orders coming in from local hospitals — there’s one public hospital and several private ones in Gulu — Balcom and Okwoko have ordered machinery capable of manufacturing 400 a day at a cost of just 25 cents each. Uganda generates 600 metric tons a day; up to 50% isn’t collected there, and in Gulu, it’s 80% — into affordable construction materials, primarily wall tiles. (Takataka means “waste” in Swahili). The organization, with a team of five full-time staffers, also employs and provides a healing workplace for local youth suffering from trauma, exploitation and human trafficking.