Turning school bags into classroom furniture 

The production team; Lilliane Nakamya, Caroline Mirembe, Sarah Namisango and Daphine Nakalyantya at work at Zetu Africa in Makindye, a suburb of Kampala City. Photos / Edgar R Batte

What you need to know:

  • Under Zetu Africa, Arnold Mugagga has come up with a bag in which young learners can carry their school materials along with a fastened seat. The arrangement is set to benefit young learners in rural Uganda whereclasses are hardly furnished.

A classroom desk costs between Shs250, 000 to Shs300, 000 to make. With the Covid-19 pandemic, learners will be required to socially distance themselves from one another in order to avoid its spread.

That is in an ideal learning environment where learners have access to a classroom and desks to go with. In some rural and semi-rural areas in Uganda, learners sit on bare earth under trees or the scorching sun to be taught.

According to Build Africa, a global education and humanitarian organisation, about 95 million learners in Africa do not have a place to sit and write. According to the Ministry of Education, there are over 20,000 primary schools with a total enrolment of at least eight million learners. Before the outbreak of the pandemic, there were an estimated three million pupils without a place to sit and write. 

For the longest time, classrooms have been furnished with a wooden desks made. An innovator, Arnold Mugagga, has been through 11 phases of trying to perfect a solution, one where young learners do not need a desk but an alternative that’s friendlier to the environment, and effective too.

 Under his enterprise, Zetu Africa, he has come up with a bag in which young learners can carry their school materials along with a fastened sitting facility. He has made it available under a symbiotic arrangement where if you, as an adult buy a bag, you automatically get another free which benefits a child somewhere in Uganda.

What’s more, each of the bags, which goes for Shs200, 000, has a barcode that you can scan and be able to know or follow up and see the classroom where the other bag has been donated. 
The arrangement largely benefits young learners in rural Uganda where the furnishing of classes or mere availability of a place to sit, is a challenge they continue to grapple with.
The catch is the seat fastened to the bag. It is 700 grammes which is equal to 3.5 percent of the bodyweight of a six-year-old child. That way, the bag does not affect the spine of the young learner. 

Plus, the bags are made light to encourage light load for learners since some of them walk long distances to school. The bags are of two sizes and heights to cater to lower and upper primary school learners. 

They are made of canvas, making them waterproof. “When they get to class, they can remove the bamboo from the bag, open it, and have a seat. In the bag, is a writing board which they can place on their lap and write. 

It can also serve the purpose of a blackboard which is light so teachers can easily carry it around while in class and teaching and interacting with learners to further explain to them, even if they are under a tree and they don’t have a big classroom,” Mugagga explains.

In effect, what he has done is take what a desk does and put it inside a bag.  The bamboo used to make the ‘seatpack’, is grown, harvested, and made in Northern Uganda. Zetu Africa’s founder says that with bamboo, they are saving a number of trees that are felled in order to make a desk while also benefitting pupils that learn in a mobile classroom arrangement.

Mugagga demonstrates how the seatpack works

When the bamboo is harvested from Northern Uganda, it is trimmed, sealed, boiled with a preservative, sanded, and varnished for waterproofing and protection from biting insects.

The lifespan of bamboo is about seven to 11 years, so based on the way the children use it, the bamboo seat should be able to last them through seven years of primary school. 

The bag is closed using offcuts that are sourced locally. It is Zetu’s way of recycling waste cloth. At the moment, the project is making a batch of 400 bags to be distributed at the end of the year ahead of schools officially reopening. 

Zetu Africa has partnered with Unicef through Outbox, an innovation hub based in Kampala. Unicef is a United Nations agency responsible for providing humanitarian and developmental aid to children worldwide. 

“We are distributing these to Wakiso which is suburban. We will then take them to rural schools as well as the displaced. We are looking at how our furniture can be combined with few desks in a learning environment,” Mugagga further explains. 

He adds, “We are the only low-cost furniture that allows social distancing because it is very personal. The learners do not share and the furniture allows them to sit inside or outside.  
His dream is that by the end of 2022, 10, 000 children will have the bags, so the 400 bags are part of the first 1,000 out of 10, 000. 

The beneficiary school is required to buy a writing board for between Shs2, 000 and Shs5, 000 then get the whole set of the board, chair, and bag because the organization’s customer and some partner organisations have subsidised it. 

He would be happy to give the schoolroom boards free-of-charge too but he attaches a price as a way of creating a sense of attachment and equity, and responsibility among the schools.

To arrive at their current design, Zetu Africa has undertaken a journey that has seen them morph and improve the combined idea of providing light bags and sitting facilities for learners. 

The first bags the enterprise made in 2017, were from aluminum which they imported from China. When Covid-19 broke out, the manufacturer in China closed shop and the Ugandan business entity also made a loss with the bags they had made. 

“But again, we couldn’t stop. We started experimenting with bamboo which is locally available. The use of bamboo has been a learning journey. The initial stool legs we made were of hollow bamboo which couldn’t hold as much weight as we wanted. The learners would not confidently use the seats so we needed to improve the design,” Mugagga narrates. 

“Our nature of the operation is continuous improvement. That is our mindset, so we are currently running our eleventh design in our effort to perfect this work.” 
Mugagga initially walked a loner’s journey, working on his own but has assembled a team of eleven, on full-time basis, split into units of production, digital marketing, accounts, finance, legal, and design development. 
Depending on the workload at hand, he will call in more people, sometimes as many as 64. There are different bags on display at Zetu Africa on Mobutu Road in Makindye.

Mugagga reveals that the most popular of them is one code-named ‘The change maker’, one from their first series of designs. It is made of strong canvas and an inner-city bag that can carry a laptop, its charger, notepad or book. 
It has two strap options; backpack or side-dress. It also has a safety pocket at its back, with a zipper. 

At the premises, four women; Lilian Nakamya, Caroline Mirembe, Sarah Namisango, and Daphine Nakalyantya, peddle on sewing machines as they make bags.

At Zetu Africa, challenges are not overcome. They are responded to, and like the Swahili word zetu alludes, in togetherness, members of the social enterprise are on a journey to improve access to furnished primary school classrooms and literacy.

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