Remarkably, Margret Ndekera is not that hung up about her most well-known innovation, the paper bead. It is bee-keeping that she sounds most passionate about, what she introduces to me as her main activity of her company API-PRODEX, on Bukoto Street.
“We make everything a bee keeper requires, from hive tools, honey extractors, bee brushes, protective gear, hives,” she says motioning around her.
Her office is a shrine to beekeeping, dry honeycombs on one side, a lump of bees wax as a paper weight on her desk and a honey extractor in the corner half finished. She says some bees have taken residence in some parts of the building.
You wouldn’t know it though when you first walk into that gate. The compound is quiet, heavy machinery is what you encounter at the verandah, atop of it, a paper model of the Gadaffi mosque, so precise you cannot help but look again, gathering dust.
“Those are our woodworking machines. We just moved them from industrial area and are yet to install them. That model was made by a young man I mentor. He was meant to show it to Gadaffi but opportunities kept passing till Gadaffi passed on,” she explained.
It is here in this storeyed house that serves as office workshop and home that this trim, youthful looking, 56-year-old with a dark complexion and easy laugh says she invented the paper bead. “I was just bored upstairs and the children had gone to school, so I started rolling strips of paper. I was just playing,” she says a tad too casually.
Her penchant for making things with her hands dates back to when she was a little girl growing up in Mengo, as the firstborn daughter of a doctor and a nurse. “My mother had retired from nursing and had started a tailoring shop and I learnt how to sew dresses,” she says. But even before that, Ndekera says she was a creative child who was forever making small things with her hands.
When Ndekera finished her S6 at Tororo Girls in 1976 she only wanted one thing and that was to go to Kyambogo. Her father was less than pleased that his firstborn daughter was settling for anything less than medicine but after she stuck to her guns he capitulated.
Margret joined Kyambogo Uganda Polytechnic Kyambogo in 1977 for a laboratory science and technology course, securing her place in history as one of the pioneer women to take science technology in Kyambogo. “We were 18 women in the same class with 1,000 men,” she says with a chuckle. She recalls how she and the other girls were like tourist attractions when they went for woodwork or metal work classes. “Men would come running to the windows when we went for technology class to see if we could cut the wood like them. But of course we could, we had the same teachers, and sometimes we could even finish our work before the men,” she says.
What she still remembers as a challenge is mealtimes, when the ladies had to wade through a sea of men in the dining hall to get to their seat. “It was difficult if you came late,” she reminisces.
By 1979, Margret had finished her course and was poised to start a job at Nytil in the quality control department when she lost both her parents. “They were murdered at our home in Mengo. Around that time, several doctors were murdered,” she says solemnly then continues her narration.
“As first born I was now head of the family, I had to shelve my dreams and start finding a way to fend for my siblings so I put my dreams on hold.”
Ndekera never took up the Nytil job, instead she headed back home to her mother’s tailoring shop where she put her sewing skills to use.
Making lives better
It was not long before she got interested in improving the welfare of the small scale manufacturer. She later met with about 30 other small scale producers to form Uganda Small Scale Industry Association (USSIA). And that was another start for her, the journey towards the recognition of small scale industry, juacali if you like. This path saw her rise to the helm of the East African juacali movement.
“In 1994, we formed the East African Confederation of Informal Sector Organisation (Eaciso) and began the groundwork.
“That movement and collaboration between artisans in the first EAC member states is what brought us the craft exhibitions we have now got used to. “We founded the Christmas and Easter Bazaars,” she says. According to her, it is the tireless work of members Eaciso that popularised the consumption of homemade textiles like tie and dye fabric for instance. Her work has been driven by the urge to put the small scale producers, the artisans on the map. Not just the Ugandan map but the export market too.
“A lot of poor quality products are flooding the market from China while local artisans who produce very good products can hardly find market,” she says.
Ndekera’s story is dizzying, so much to keep up with, but she has the patience to share each detail. She started bee keeping in 1989, going for an eight month training in apiculture in South Africa and Zimbabwe. When she came back she had learnt that bee -keeping was an active occupation and was a lot different from the version she had been used to in Uganda of placing a hive on a tree and leaving it to nature.
“When I returned to Uganda, I dispatched the first large export consignment of honey from Uganda, seven tonnes exported to Britain in 1994. That was quite a feat considering large scale beekeeping in Uganda was in its early stages,” she says. At about the same time she worked with street children making the man on bike toy (that contraption of metal and fabric) for export.
Over the years, she has done several consultancies, one with Centenary Bank on a project which sought to make lending manuals for the unsecured in 1994. “I am not a banker but I learnt economics on the street,” she says her face breaking into a grin.
This adeptness in “streetconomics” afforded her several other consulting opportunities with a slew of NGOs. When she was recruited by International Trade Centre for an eight month consultancy on artisanal products supply potential, she marked another first. “I was the first African and first woman to get that job,” she said.
When the paper bead business started
The 90s were a busy time for Ndekera, and it is towards the end of that decade that she made the paper bead. At first I made earrings from the paper bead but progressed to necklaces. That paper bead funded my plane ticket to the World Expo in Lisbon Portugal, accommodation in a hotel for six months, and I would even send some money home to my children,” she narrates. As she demonstrates how to roll the bead she explains how she had to improvise for the first beads.
Colourless nail polish stood in for lacquer to give the beads a glossy finish. She also used only old magazines at first.
“There have been improvements along the way, nowadays some women use a needle to roll, and coloured lacquers are available now and they make a lot more products including beads,” says Ndekera. If she knew it was a big thing she was onto with the paper bead, she did not act like it then. Rather than keep cashing in herself she came back and taught some women who carried it on till it became what it is today.
“I demystified it,” she says modestly. For her that was just one idea executed and she had moved on to another innovation, the raffia and cloth tablemat, again another runaway success. “That one I saw in Asia and when I came back, I taught some women in Mukono who taught it to other people,” she says. According to her, the idea snowballed when the mats started being exported and it changed the lives of those who were making it.
Rather than lament that people are making money off her innovations, she feels a sense of fulfilment. For her it is a case of work done. “I have seen people become rich with my innovations. I am happy that my contribution has put Uganda on the map. I am happy that women have been able to turn around their fortunes,” she says. She also feels not everything is about making money. “Doing things with the sole goal of making money is the reason Africa has so many white elephants,” she says. Besides she never patented any of the innovations. Asked why, she says, “It is the same problem facing artisans and innovators in greater East Africa, no one to advise you on how to go about a patent. It did not occur to me when I was doing these things.”
She is bubbling with ideas of the projects that will see more “Made in Uganda” products on the shelves within and without the country and simultaneously uplift the small scale manufacturers. In the works is furniture finished with banana fibre. From the sample she brings, it is labour intensive work but undeniably a thing of beauty. The often discarded fibre is intricately woven over the wood and she assures us of durability saying the sample table is already six years old.
Also in the labs are tinctures of bee products that Ugandans are currently paying an arm and a leg for, propolis and aloes mixes for instance, as well as a solution that soothes bee stings. And the ideas keep coming. She talks of making locally foraged propolis into capsule to compete with the market of imported propolis.
She also believes glass beads could be the next big thing, given the international demand for jewellery and trinket material, the tonnes of broken and wasted glass around, the little equipment required and a large population of jobless people in the country. And she is already implementing one where artisans are making shoes with recycled tyre and old leather jackets.
She does not think she spreads herself too thin from beekeeping to craftwork, to innovations
“Facilitating craftsmen and artisans to market their products is my passion, but I have never given up on innovation which is what I keep doing, it is my life’s work,” she says. Beekeeping is what she learnt and learnt well.
Considering that two of her innovations have made people a tidy sum of money, Ndekera’s circumstances seem pretty modest. She says it is now that she wants to focus on a few projects and follow them to when they explode as opposed to when she would just pass on the baton.
“But I am satisfied with my life. I am a busy innovator, making things, useful things out of simple things,” she says her face the picture of perfect contentment.
When asked, she takes a long time to decide which has been her favourite innovation, or idea so far. Eventually she says “I have not found the best yet. I am still innovating,” she says. I say that’s the spirit of a winner, did I hear someone say aye?