Bags that morph into furniture inspire learners

With the SeatPack, a schoolbag that performs the duties of a desk by turning into a bamboo chair with a writing pad, learners say they are now more comfortable while attending lessons.

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  • With the SeatPack, a schoolbag that performs the duties of a desk by turning into a bamboo chair with a writing pad, learners say they are now more comfortable while attending lessons.

The Primary Seven pupils at Abiki Primary School in Arua District can’t stop singing the SeatPack’s praises. The SeatPack is a schoolbag that performs the duties of a desk by turning into a bamboo chair with a writing pad. It was developed by Zetu Africa for poor rural African primary schools that lack furniture.

Zetu Africa is a Kampala-based company that started in 2019 as a design-based social enterprise, turning school bags into bamboo mobile classroom furniture (SeatPacks) to improve access to furnished primary school classrooms and literacy.

The award-winning SeatPack performs the functional duties of wooden classroom desks/lockers, which the majority of schools in Uganda cannot afford.

Pupils of Ochiba Primary School in Arua City use their SeatPacks in a class in April. 

The SeatPack is a sustainable and eco-friendly product that is personalised, light-weight, mobile ensemble made of checked material, soft canvas and bamboo. The canvas is waterproof. The bag’s transformation into a writing pad allows pupils to write on their laps.

“I like this bag because it keeps my books, mathematical set and other items very well,” Kevin Amony, 18, says, adding, “It also has everything that I need like the seat and slate. It is not very heavy. It is better than the previous bags that I carried to school.”

Christopher Ayikobua, 18, says: “I had never owned a school bag and my parents were proud and happy when they heard that I was to be one of the beneficiaries of these bags. The bag helps me carry all I need to use at school safely.”

On her part, 16-year-old Maria Gorreti notes: “This is the first school bag that I have owned in my school life. I feel good that my school was chosen among the many in our area that lack enough school furniture. The bags also help us to carry packed food and drinking water.”

The SeatPack programme started with Primary Seven pupils at Abiki Primary School. As a precautionary measure, the pupils only carry the bag home and leave the stool in the head teacher’s office. The bags are a property of the school, meaning after completing their Primary Leaving Examinations (PLE), the pupils will hand over the bags to the school administration.

Starting out

The SeatPack was designed by Arnold Leon Mugagga, the co-founder and team leader at Zetu Africa. He did this with support from Felix Okoboi, Fred Ijjyo with Friends of Bamboo and various key partners, including Total Uganda, JICA-Uganda, United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) and United Nations International Children’s Emergency Fund (Unicef), among others.

Mugagga says he was inspired to start this design-based social enterprise in 2016. It all started after Mugagga watched a news story on a local television station with his two friends. It was about a school which is a two-hour drive from Uganda’s capital (Kampala). All students learnt in classrooms while seated on the floor, save for the head prefect, who sat on a brick.

Mugagga quit his day job as an architecture associate in January 2017. He then embarked on a solution-seeking journey. Mugagga and Laura Althaus co-founded Zetu Africa in 2019. Zetu is a Swahili word for ‘Ours’ (Our Journey = Your Story).

Mugagga says after a three-year period and more than a dozen failed attempts to prove a viable solution, along came the SeatPack.

According to Mugagga, the long period schools remained closed during the Covid-19 pandemic lockdowns and resulting travel restrictions was a blessing in disguise. The period enabled them to switch from aluminium that they were to import from China to locally grown bamboo for making the chairs. He says this switch to bamboo reduced “the unit cost per SeatPack from Shs110,000 to Shs65,000.”

Mugagga says the SeatPack bamboo is grown in Moyo District in northern Uganda with “our partner (Friends of Bamboo) and treated.” The final processing (smoothening and varnishing) of the bamboo is done at the Uganda Research Institute in Kampala. The bags are designed and sewed at the Zetu Africa workshop in Makindye, Kampala.

“This way, children learn in decent conditions with sitting and writing surfaces that are an extension of their schoolbag,” Mugagga says, adding, “We can conserve tree cover over the long term [by employing a locally made, cheaper, mobile furniture alternative that eliminates the need for tree-based wooden desks].”

Problem-solving option

According to Mugagga, the SeatPack was built for school children between ages five and 13, whose classrooms have no furniture, whether due to no funding or post-conflict or post-disaster situations.

Mugagga says the SeatPack was developed to solve the problem of lack of access to furniture in primary school classrooms and prevent tree-cutting. “…This way, we improve access to education, create local income with 100 percent local production, and conserve tree cover (every six SeatPacks - with bamboo chairs, keep 1 tree standing and not cut-down to make desks).”

Mugagga tells Sunday Monitor that they use “offcuts to make the writing boards, which are also blackboard surfaces.” The writing boards, he adds, have an eight-year lifespan.

Samuel Okuyo, the head teacher of Abiki Primary School, says the bags have motivated the pupils to attend school every day.

“The ones that missed out on receiving these bags were disappointed, but the ones who received them were very happy. The general impact of these bags is that they have helped to reduce learner absenteeism,” he says, adding, “So, these bags have really helped us as teachers because we teach learners and not empty classrooms.”

Brian Enzama, 17, says, “I can use the seat and writing pad anywhere in the classroom or compound of this school. Before we received these bags, we would sit on stones … under a big tree … On a rainy day we would end up taking shelter in other classrooms hence disrupting the lessons there.”

Okuyo says “the stones were really breaking their bottoms.” The stools now enable them “to sit comfortably and be more attentive in class.” He also adds that social distancing can now be observed.

“Now, you can arrange the pupils to sit under a tree or any other room and teach them effectively,” Okuyo adds.

Plugging deficits

Most of the government-aided schools in Uganda are facing the challenge of poor or lack of infrastructure. Basic school needs like classrooms, scholastic materials and desks are also in scant supply. This leads to congestion due to the overwhelming number of learners.

Back at Abiki Primary School, deficits are plain to see. It was started as a community school by the Catholic Church in 1970. The government took over in 1976. Located in Ajia Sub-county, 16 kilometres from Arua City off the Arua-Kampala Road, the school aims to address its several deficits.

“We are still suffering from lack of classroom space and our wish is that this can be solved,” Ayikobua laments.

“We also lack enough desks. We shall be happy if this is addressed,” Enzama chips in.

According to Okuyo, the lack of furniture has created congestion in classrooms. For example, you find five to six pupils sharing one desk.

“This means pupils can’t write well. There is a lack of social distancing, the movement of the teacher in the classroom becomes difficult, and learner concentration reduces,” he reveals, adding, “We need more classroom space to decongest our overcrowded classrooms. We currently have 1,209 pupils learning from three classroom blocks with eight classrooms … A classroom is supposed to accommodate 55 pupils, but we are now congesting over 100 pupils per classroom.”

Okuyo further reveals that the school has “two-seater and three-seater desks, but we don’t maintain the recommended pupil-desk ratio of 1:2 or 1:3.” He says five to even six pupils “share one desk.”

Dire outlook

According to the Tutudesk campaign, there are more than 95 million children in Africa who do not have access to a classroom desks when attending school. The late South African human rights activist, Archbishop Emeritus Desmond Tutu, founded the Tutudesk campaign in 2012, with the objective of providing 20 million African children with Tutudesks by the end of 2025.

According to Build Africa, a global education and humanitarian organisation, “when classrooms don’t have enough desks, children are either forced to sit five on a bench meant for two students, or sit on the floor.” It adds that “this can be extremely uncomfortable, and distracts them from their learning.”

According to a report produced by the Ministry of Education and Sports titled Education Abstract 2017, of the 8,840,589 pupils in primary school, 66 percent have adequate sitting and writing space. 

Region wise, Karamoja has the lowest number of pupils with adequate sitting and writing space (41 percent) while Kigezi and Buganda have the highest (77 percent). Analysis by ownership indicates that adequacy of space for sitting and writing was higher in private schools (74 percent) compared to the government schools (66 percent).

The pupils’ learning processes are invariably affected by the quality and quantity of physical and material infrastructure, as well as the school environment.

The girl child

The girls’ SeatPack was specially designed with an additional pocket to keep sanitary pads for menstrual period management issues.

“The importance of the girls’ SeatPack is that you can’t compare the needs of girls to those of the boys. There are certain things that a girl needs that a boy will not use,” Lillian Anderu, the deputy head teacher of Abiki Primary School, says, adding, “For example, sanitary pads are one of the things for use by girls.”

She proceeds to note: “At times when the girls are in their menstrual periods they need to carry smear oils to use after bathing. Since our school does not provide these oils, they have to carry them from home.”

A recent study by the Rockefeller Foundation in Uganda proved that many girls missed school during their menstruation periods due to lack of affordable protection materials on an average of four days a month. This works to 12 days in a term (10 percent) out of the 90 days of a term.

This means a girl who cannot afford sanitary pads will miss 36 days of school in a year. Lack of protection means girls fear stigmatisation due to staining themselves while at school. Some girls use unhealthy materials such as banana fibres, grass, leaves, old newspapers, and old pieces of cloth.

Research in the region has documented that lack of sanitary pads, a clean, girls-only latrine and water for washing hands drives a significant number of girls away from school. Unicef, for example, estimates that one in 10 school-age African girls either skips school during menstruation or drops out entirely because of lack of sanitation.

Impact

Asked if they have observed any impact of the SeatPacks in the communities where they have been distributed, Mugagga replies in the affirmative, saying: “We have witnessed a positive recognition by the communities that things can be done differently, better and 100 percent locally. We have witnessed confidence in female attendance because of the dedicated menstrual pocket in their bag in some schools.”  

He adds: “We have also noticed more use of the outdoors as learning spaces by teachers because of the SeatPack mobile nature. We noticed confidence from parents on child safety if another Covid-19 wave breaks out because of the distancing possibility with SeatPacks at school.”

Drani Ronald Bileah, the Arua District senior education officer, says he was impressed with the SeatPacks when they were introduced in his district.

“These bags are going to solve the problem of rigidity in our classrooms and particularly the shortage of desks, especially in primary schools. So, these bags came in handy because they are flexible and easy to organise classes for group work and classes,” he says.

He further notes: “If the SeatPacks were adopted in our education system, they would address the issue of inadequacy of furniture particularly the desks. When the schools were reopened after the Covid-19 lockdowns, we found 150 pupils in one lower primary school stream and some were sitting on the floor. So, this innovation can address the challenge of overcrowding.”

Cost effective

Drani Ronald Bileah, the Arua District senior education officer, says the SeatPacks will be cost effective in terms of affordability.

“With a SeatPack costing Shs65,000, this is affordable. Pupils in lower primary can practice writing with chalk on the slates, especially where they lack exercise books or the exercise books get torn. The slates can be used for best practices, assessing the competences of learners, for feedback and self and peer assessment and improvement.”

He adds: “A traditional wooden desk costs Shs260,000 and with this amount, you could procure four SeatPacks, which serve more purposes than just sitting.”

Arnold Leon Mugagga, the co-founder and team leader at Zetu Africa, says the SeatPack has a number of advantages. It costs one tenth of a wooden classroom desk. It weighs 600 grammes for a six-year-old girl to carry over a long distance every day. It is made from sustainable material usage for climate action. It is weather proof for durable use. It is designed to discourage heavy loading for spine protection. It encourages healthy posture with upright sitting. It is mobile for locally made mobile classrooms, including displaced school children.

Mugagga says they have not yet sought direct support from the government, wary of bureaucratic red tape.

On his part, Mr Dennis Mugimba—the Education and Sports ministry spokesman—said: “I cannot comment on an innovation that I haven’t seen.”

The SeatPack team won the Unicef Uganda Innovation Fund Challenge competition and was awarded about $21,000 (Shs79m) in prize money. It won the NINJA Business Competition in Africa in 2020 organised by the JICA-Uganda. Mugagga emerged winner out of the 50,000 applicants in the 2018 Total Uganda Startupper Challenge.

In 2020, Zetu Africa launched Zetu Bags— a high-quality line of every day backpacks (laptop and travel bags), bamboo foldable camping chairs, custom commercial bags for companies and campaigns and hammock bathtubs. For every Zetu bag purchase made, Zetu Africa dedicates 10 percent to a SeatPack for primary schools that do not have furniture.

Mugagga says SeatPacks have been received by more than 500 school children across Uganda, and another 8,500 children will receive SeatPacks by the end of this year across East Africa.

“…We are keen to partner with private and civil society organisations to rapidly increase these numbers and employ more local youth artisans during the process,” he reveals.

Regarding the future plans for this social enterprise, Mugagga says: “Our goal is to improve learning by furnishing 10 million school children in Sub-Saharan Africa sustainably with SeatPacks, eliminating the need for 1.6 million trees to furnish 200,000 classrooms, and employ more than 500,000 local artisans in the production process by 2030.”


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