Julius Twine: The innovator from Rukangya

The fascination he has for machines as well as his ability to pick things up fast has seen a young man assemble a gun, a radio and even create a radio station with just a radio and phone.

Wednesday January 29 2014

Above Julius Twine holds his innovation, a radio that has a phone attached and is equipped with a camera. Right, the radio is  solar powered.

Above Julius Twine holds his innovation, a radio that has a phone attached and is equipped with a camera. Right, the radio is solar powered. He made it from discarded materials and his own phone. PHOTOS BY Abubaker Lubowa. 

By Christine W. Wanjala

Twine should be used to curious stares. He seems to attract them everywhere he goes. Here at the Monitor Publications reception where we meet, you can see how people give him a cursory glance first as they walk past, then a second questioning one comes. Why is a teenager in this day and age cradling a transistor radio? In fact why is anyone carrying around a radio, in the city?

It is anything but an ordinary radio, but you will only know the interesting features if he gives you a peek. You see, he made it, or assembled it at least, along with a couple of other things. “I am an innovator. It is what I like doing and what I want to do for the rest of my life,” says the soft-spoken 20-year-old as he fiddles with the knobs on his radio.

First innovation
He has a sweet innocence about him which makes his first innovation quite shocking – a gun he made when he was just 15. His motivation to make this lethal weapon was innocent though. “I wanted to make a gun here in Uganda and show that it can be done and later change the system of always importing guns for our armed forces,” he says.
He used some timber and old bicycle parts and spent hours scrapping off matchbox powder from dozens of matchsticks to use in the gun to catapult the bullet and make the pop sound when he shot.

He completed it in two weeks despite not having anything to refer to besides memory, from the guns he had seen in action movies shown at a nearby video hall and pictures of guns from newspaper and magazine cuttings. “I have never seen a gun up close, or held one,” he says. He tested it and says the bullet could travel up to two kilometres but he never got to improve it. “I was cautioned against using it for security reasons,” says the youngster. His mother also beseeched him to stop, “They will come and take you to prison,” she warned her son and he had to abandon that project.

A childhood dream of Twine’s inspired his next project, a radio station. “I always wished for the opportunity to present to people or to be a DJ,” he says somewhat shyly. To be able to pull this one off, he had to see how a radio station is set up in the first place. He says he sold one of his chickens for the fare to Rwenzori FM in Ibanda where his only request was to be allowed inside the studio. They let him in for five minutes and he says it is during those that he noted all he needed to know. “I saw how the microphones and computers were arranged and knew I could do it,” he says.

Back home Twine, hunted for old radio receivers and a microphone which he rigged up with what he would use as a computer, his imitation Nokia phone. He made an antenna made of wires from metal clothe hangers and with magnets to pick up signals. “I named the station Rukangya FM after our village,” he says. The station’s broadcasts were built around its two presenters’ schedule, our innovator who was then in Senior Three and his younger brother. It only worked during the holidays and even then, it aired only when the boys could get a break from helping out their mother in the garden. Twine says it had its share of listeners though, as it reached most of the sub-county.

That year, Twine entered his radio station in the secondary school science fair and sailed through the district and regional contests and made it to nationals which were held at the national museum in Kitante. “I emerged second that year,” he says, adding that he took back a trophy and some water bottles for his school. He had also collected a sheaf of certificates which he leafs through with no small amount of pride, and more zeal to innovate more. He also got a scholarship for two terms, a welcome reprieve for his farmer mother who was struggling to pay his school fees.

Rukangya FM shut down not long after he returned it to his home and left it under the care of his younger brother. “I was away at school and then it was becoming very expensive to keep running and I had to focus on school,” he explains. The two boys were using dry cells to power the station and 12 of them only lasted a week.
He went on to Senior Four but only studied for roughly half the year. He says it was an unfortunate bicycle accident that put him out of school. “I hurt my back and was in so much pain. I had to go home,” says the former student of St Andrews SS Rubindi in Mbarara.

His head teacher Andrew Barigye, however, called him in time for the S4 exams, and when results were released in 2012 Twine had managed a second grade. “I could have done better if I had not missed school for so long,” Twine says regretfully. He did not proceed to Senior Five along with others in his year and says his long widowed small-scale farmer mother Esther Gumisiriza was not able to raise the money. Looking at an indefinite break from education is what spurred him to start on his next project, the radio he cradles throughout our interview.
“I decided to develop something that I can release for Ugandans to use but also something that can help me raise school fees,” he shares.

It is solar-powered and also has a phone attached to it. It is also equipped with a camera that he happily uses to capture those who approach to investigate further. He made it in all of two weeks, again from discarded materials, a broken solar panel he fixed parts from old radios and his own phone, an imitation Nokia. “The network on the phone radio is very good and it never runs out of power. It uses solar and also stores some in the dry cells for use at night. One does not need to keep buying batteries,” he says.

In a way, his innovations seem more like adaptations, after all a solar powered radio is not that new, and neither is a radio station. Twine is well aware of this fact and defends what he has done so far. “I have many more ideas; I just made what I could easily source material for.” He says he has been planning to make a solar-powered bicycle for which there will be no need to cycle. He was moved to thinking about it by the experience of those living in rural areas like his village.

“They have to cover long distances, and while there are motorcycles now, fuel is quite a challenge,” he says. He assures me it will work when he gets around to doing it. “I already have the diagrams,” he shares, explaining that drawing and writing is how he documents the ideas which come to his head even when he is sleeping. As much as he is yet to do that jaw-dropping project, Twine still manages to impress. It is telling that he is able to make things that work with very little exposure. He did not even have access to Google which is the “go to” for the backyard inventor of today. Although he has an email address, Twine has in fact had very little contact with a computer and he is still hoping to get a chance to own one. “I want to learn. I must also change something about it, maybe develop an application or a programme,” he says confidently.

The features in his innovations point to an active thinking behind the God-given aptitude, for instance the phone on the solar radio. He says he wanted to make an answer to the phones with radios so he made a radio with a phone. But he is motivated by more than a desire to take on challenges, saying his primary goal is to use his talent, and develop his skills enough to save Ugandans money while at the same time ensuring there is more made in Uganda.

“We import so many things that can be made here and I would like to be part of the people that take up the challenge to change this,” he says. His motto for now, “I will do what I can now, take any opportunity I get and see where this leads me.”

Those who have known the young innovator

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