It took years of employment in World Vision, Concern for the Girl Child and Lutheran World Federation in Central Uganda for Mr Sammex Mwanje to appreciate the impact of Civil Society Organisations on any community. As he evolved into a youthful social worker in the late 1980s, he learnt there were parts of society not nurtured by such organisations.
“This was training needy people to enable them address their daily challenges,” he says. In those years, he tried to air his concerns but he was never the decision maker. So, he thought if he got his hands on good money, his knowledge and skills would become his societies’.
His thirties and forties had gone by. When fifty hit, supporting men and women this way was the smartest thing he could do so he resigned from Concern for the Girl Child as a child protection officer. Money mattered so Mr Mwanje checked his bank balance in 2015.
Part of the money on that account was Shs14m and it was from National Social Security Fund (NSSF). He had provided documents proving he was unemployed and within a month of application for his withdrawal benefits, he woke up to a pleasant surprise.
By 2014, he owned an informal Community Based Organisation (CBO) and after investing Shs10m from his benefits, he could now change society.
“I went to the district to register it with my colleagues so we started as Community Skills Trainers’ Association (COSTA-Uganda). We have three major areas including capacity building, child protection and advocacy and all these interventions are related,” Mr Mwanje says.
For instance, in his experience, he came to the conclusion that if he helped school girls manage their menstrual hygiene properly, most would live to see their high school certificates, at least. For this, he turned his attention to trainings in Luweero and Mpigi.
This eventually led him to work with Mr Wilson Mutegeki in Ibanda-Kyanya town, Kasese district. Mr Mutegeki, a teacher, was shocked to find a letter of a girl asking a boy to buy her sanitary pads. He found out girls were skipping class whereas parents could not afford pads. The few that made it to school those days could hardly express themselves in class.
He soon got donors to provide pads but this would never be sustainable under his ministry. With COSTA-Uganda’s efforts, they bore the brand Queen Confidence.
“In a training, we learnt how to make reusable sanitary pads alongside involving school management to set up private washrooms, sensitising men and boys about menstruation since they are culturally distanced from it yet they are breadwinners,” Mr Mwanje explains.
Their main challenge was hand sewing pads. They would be difficult to use. So they went on to devise means to not just teach the girls to sew but to produce quality pads to be sold on the market.
Mr Mutegeki looked into AfriPads’s production to bring on board sewing machines and durable raw materials.
“The materials are locally available, safe and are comfortable because they are cotton-based. They are cost effective because a packet of three pads costs Shs9,000 and these last a year. The disposable ones cost Shs3,000 a pack,” Mr Mutegeki says.
The organisation is now training widows to earn an income. Almost four years later, Queen Confidence pads are sought after by charity organisations, schools and the community.
Targeted production is 3,000 packets annually. The demand is still low because of attitudes towards reusable pads, some teenagers are yet to afford and others are yet to learn of the pads in the Kasese market.
“Every year, we sell 300 packets of pads. In Buhira, we trained a group of ten, there is a group of 15 people in Kyanya and they are making impact,” Mr Mutegeki says.
This is the kind of social but commercial success Mr Mwanje envisioned. COSTA-Uganda is not a profit making organisation, he says. In fact, within six months of setting up, the Shs10m investment dried up and he dug into his pockets. There was no salary so they were years of depending on his wife’s support.
Making the social enterprise work
The 54-year-old social entrepreneur is finding ways to make the enterprise sustainable by partnering with local government, churches, schools and similar civil society organisations. But also, interventions are chosen on the basis that they require minimal or no funding.
“We are doing malaria control project with Rotary Wobulenzi by focusing on planting mosquito repellant plants. In child protection, we do parenting which does not need funding,” Mr Mwanje says.
“But I need to facilitate workers, buy materials so I partner with organisations that have the funding for instance in Kasese, Mountains of Hope had the funds and we had the skills so we implemented the project.”
He admits that if he had received his money earlier, say at 40, COSTA-Uganda would be bigger than it is today. Even then, he considers his benefits well invested.
“I feel good when I touch needy communities. I want this CBO to grow into a Non-Governmental Organisation so that it can work all over the country,” Mr Mwanje says.