“At first, elephants disturbed us and we felt like killing them such that we could compensate ourselves with ivory. But, of course, this was illegal. Most of our members are widows because their husbands were shot dead by rangers after being found hunting in the park,” Mwanje Birungi, a member of the group, shares.
Before, the group comprising about eight members, made paper and other handcrafts such as beads, baskets, and small bags, trays, table mats and photo frames from banana stems and other raw materials obtained from swamps and Queen Elizabeth National Park. As these raw materials became scarce, especially the banana stems following the rampant destruction by the elephants, the group had to think about an alternative.
In 2005, Worldwide Fund for Nature, an NGO, trained the now more than 35-member group on how to make paper out of elephants waste.
The paper is hard in nature. The group makes books, beads, shopping bags, necklaces, post cards, greeting cards and arm bands out of the paper. These products are especially popular with tourists. They are sold at Shs5,000 and above.
Proceeds from the sale of these products are distributed among the group members, where 25 per cent goes to the person who makes the product, 5 per cent to support orphans and widows whose family heads died in the park because of illegal hunting, 20 per cent is re-invested into the business, and 50 per cent is allocated to the saving and credit scheme. Members can get loans at 5 per cent interest per annum. They also earn through the annual dividends under the savings and credit scheme.
“A member can borrow from Shs600,000 to Shs800,000 and invest in agriculture-related businesses such as tomato or coffee growing. I am now able to pay fees for my children and acquire basic needs of the family,” Birungi, also the group treasurer, says.
The group has also ventured into other activities, including handcraft making, making energy-saving stoves, tree nursery beds, bee keeping, piggery and charcoal making. The women have also attracted partners such as the United Nations Development Programme, Uganda Community Tourism Association, Worldwide Fund for Nature, Uganda Wildlife Authority, who all support the group financially and technically in the fight against poverty.
Every business has its shortcomings and this group is no exception. The group faces a number of challenges, including lack of sophisticated equipment, unfriendly weather conditions, which delay the drying of the pulp and hence the whole process, among others.
Salma Namwanje, a member, says they need a mechanised drying system to help in the process during the rainy season. “We need a drying machine, which can at least help us make tones of paper on daily basis.”
For future sustainability, Kataara women are sourcing for modern technology, which can enable them produce better quality paper for institutional use, such as in schools and offices.
Collecting the dung. According to Moses Agaba, the coordinator of the group, Members of Kataara Women’s Group venture to the gardens where elephants could have passed the previous night to collect dung. Uganda Wildlife Authority has a Memorandum of Understanding with the group demarcating where they are allowed to collect the dung.
Cleaning and heating the dung. The dung is then put in water and heated for about four hours to dissolve it. The heated dung is washed to remove dark colours, before it is put into a crushing machine to have a soft material. Cleaning and boiling are important stages in the process. All non-fiber materials such as pebbles, dirt, mud and leaves are removed as much as possible at this point so that all that remains is actual fiber material. The boiling process occurs at 90-100 degrees celsius in order to ensure that the protein-based cells of any bacteria are destroyed by extreme heat.
Mixing. The next step is to thoroughly mix and blend the pulp fibers together with other seasonally available fiber pulp material such as recycled paper, for instance from newspapers, to make the paper stronger and well bonded.
Screening. This refers to the process of making the actual sheets of paper using a framed screen. The mixture is poured into a large sink or a basin filled with water, where a framed screen is already submerged. The papermaker catches the sinking pulp fibers with the framed screen and then manually spreads the fibers evenly across the entire surface of the screen.
Once the fibers are evenly spread and any small particles are removed by hand, the screen is lifted out of the basin, the water drips down through the screen and the screen is placed upright in the sunlight to dry naturally.
This takes about seven to eight hours, depending on the weather and the thickness of the sheet being made. Once dry, the newly formed sheet is then easily removed from the screen and given to the group tailors to make different products out of it.
The elephant dung
The dung. On average, an elephant will eat about 200-250kg of food a day and from this, it can produce about 70kgs of dung every day. The dung does not smell that bad… unless the elephant is ill.
Paper. Since elephants only digest about 45 per cent of their food, and the waste product is mostly fibre, elephant dung can fairly easily be made into paper. Amazingly, an elephant can generate enough dung to make 115 sheets of paper a day. Elephant dung paper does not smell at all.