By Gerald Tenywa
As Ugandans grapple with the problem of plastic bags that are choking the environment, Godfrey Atuheire thinks he has the answer.
He has started showcasing his expertise in a technological innovation which churns out various products, including paper bags from banana fibres.
Atuheire, who is a researcher at the Uganda Industrial Research Institute, has been to India and Japan in his quest to get a cure for one of Uganda’s most pressing environmental problems.
He has also worked with a team of experts led by Professor Charles Kwesiga.
“We have done research on local banana varieties and it has proved that they contain suitable fibres for making paper bags,” says Atuheire, adding that this breakthrough research has been accompanied by simple technology that can be operated by rural youth and women.
Atuheire says this is not only promising to replace the environmentally unfriendly bags, but also provide employment in the cottage industries across the country, where banana growing is popular.
Unlike the plastic bags, paper bags from banana fibres decompose the moment they are exposed to environmental conditions such as moisture.
“If people take up this technology, then cutting of trees to make paper bags will also be minimised,” says Atuheire. He adds that commercialisation of the technology is the hurdle standing in their way.
How fibres are extracted from banana stems
Atuheire says the process of making paper bags from banana fibres begins with rubbing the banana stem against wood.
After this, the fibres are boiled in water with ash for about one hour to remove impurities. This is followed with blending, and a wire mesh is used to drain away the water.
The last step is drying, and then product development takes place.
Atuheire says products such as paper, fabrics and carpets can be made out of banana fibres.
“The process for making fabrics and carpets is similar to the one of paper bags, except the fibres are boiled with ash for a much longer period,” he explains.
Makerere University research was stepping stone
Atuheire used his studies at Makerere University Faculty of Forestry and Nature Conservation as a stepping stone to his discovery. Six years ago, he undertook research for his undergraduate studies that led to recycling of waste paper.
“I got this idea and I was encouraged to pursue it further,” he said, adding that his supervisor professor, Abwoli Banana, helped him to develop his expertise.
After Makerere, Atuheire went to the Uganda Industrial Research Institute, where he got exposure to the more practical world of making paper.
“I have got great exposure when it comes to making paper of high quality,”
“I have got freedom to think and work to improve my skills.”
Atuheire has also been studying for his master’s degree at Makerere University and his research is based on finding out the suitability of local banana varieties for paper production.
“My research is not only academic, but it is also about business,” he says.
Uganda second producer of bananas in the world
“Uganda is the second largest producer of bananas in the world but we take the 70 position when it comes to doing business in banana products?” says Atuheire.
“After harvesting bananas, we abandon the rest of the materials, yet this could feed the cottage industries.”
This technology can help us make more business out of bananas and improve our livelihoods.
In addition to being a raw material for making paper bags, fabrics and carpets, banana fibers can also be harnessed to make pads, Atuheire says.
How easy is it to make paper?
Atuheire has authored a book entitled, “Handmade paper, a guide to its production and uses,” which he says will help to navigate intending users into the world of making paper.
He also says most of the equipment, particularly for small-scale paper making, goes for sh20m-sh30m.
He pointed out that large-scale processing requires automated machines and that the Uganda Industrial Research Institute facilitates such technology transfer and this goes for sh100m-sh200m.
“I would like to be remembered for being part of the team that will help replace plastic bags with paper bags,” Atuheire says.
“If the Government ban on plastic bags is enforced, this will help create a market for paper bags, promote rural enterprises and employ rural youth and women.”
Research could improve home-grown solutions
Dr. Paul Mugabi, a lecturer at Makerere University, says research and technology in Uganda should be an engine of growth.
“We have many students working on different research that could go beyond academic,” says Mugabi, who is also Atuheire’s supervisor for his post graduate research at Makerere.
“It is important to harness research in order to transform the country.”
Kwesiga, who is the head of the Uganda Industrial Research Institute, says: “What we need is more investment to advance this technology. We have the know-how and we have demonstrated its potential. What we need is more investment and marketing of the products.”
Atuheire has proved that Uganda is not only gifted by nature, but also technologies that could help people become richer without destroying the environment.
As Atuheire’s paper bags help people to get employment and mint money, they also help put plastic bags out of action.