I turn “waste into wealth” said Calvin Matovu, a young man I recently met while visiting Kampala, the capital city of Uganda.
It was a hot day and we had taken three-wheeled ‘tuk tuks’ to navigate our way into the urban slum of Bwaise. I was there to visit a pop up health clinic organized by Marie Stopes-Uganda and funded by the US government.
The pop up health clinic provides free counseling, information and services to a community that otherwise would have little to no access to essential sexual and reproductive healthcare.
On this day, a group of women were waiting for pre- and post-natal care, to get birth control and to learn more about cervical cancer prevention. We also saw men stopping by to pick up free condoms and learn about their proper use.
Calvin was there volunteering and serving as a trusted counselor with other young people in the community to address questions and concerns about their health, safe sex and the clinic’s birth control options. Nearly three-quarters of Uganda’s population is under the age of 30; and one in four girls is pregnant by her 18th birthday.
As I chatted with Calvin, he shared that he and his girlfriend use birth control because they both are busy with their careers and want to wait to have a baby. I also learned that through his entrepreneurial spirit and ingenuity, Calvin founded a social enterprise that recycles local garbage into high-efficiency, affordable, clean-burning briquettes – literally turning waste into wealth.
Calvin started out by organizing community clean-ups. He and his friends got rakes and brooms and went door-to-door offering free garbage collection and transferring it to the local dump.
On one of these days, he had a moment where he realized this wasn’t enough – he could do more by turning these efforts into an income-generating project. Through some basic internet research, he learned how to recycle the local waste into fuel and began the laborious process of molding bricks by hand.
Fast forward a few years and now the process is mechanized, and his organization YESO (Youth Empowerment and Support Organization) sells the briquettes to households and to schools.
The impact has already been multi-fold: it’s reducing dependence on harmful fuels, increasing community sanitation efforts and helping to decrease poverty in some of the poorest areas of Kampala. In Uganda, firewood and charcoal constitute 93 percent of the country’s consumed energy and have unstable prices which further strain the resources of families already living in poverty.
Because of the lower cost of the briquettes to households (particularly women-headed households) and to schools, both can spend precious funds on other urgent needs. YESO is now hoping to raise enough funds to purchase automated machines to meet their growing demand and scale their impact.
Calvin’s story brings to life the interconnectedness of progress on poverty, health, sustainability, and empowerment. For him, access to quality sexual and reproductive healthcare and information was so foundational to those efforts that he not only uses contraception with his girlfriend, he takes time out of his busy life to teach others about it, too.
Countries around the world are stepping up to meet these needs. In areas where they can’t, the US government helps to bridge the gap through US taxpayer dollars. The US is the largest aid provider to governments around the world on family planning and reproductive health services.
Family planning gives women and their partners the right to become parents if and when they want to be. This is significant in a country like Uganda where an estimated one in three women has an unmet need for family planning and where pregnancy is so risky it’s considered having one foot in the grave.
Family planning is also a powerful way to combat poverty as it allows women to avoid unintended pregnancy especially during adolescence, stay and finish school and pursue a job and earn an income.
Currently, 225 million women in developing countries simply want to avoid getting pregnant but face barriers accessing something that costs on average $25/per person per year to deliver. That’s unacceptable.
As government leaders, the private sector and civil society come together right now in Marrakech to take much-needed global action on climate change, let’s keep in mind the powerful actions that begin with individuals like Calvin. Brick-by-brick he is charting the way for a more sustainable future for the citizens of Uganda due in part to his access to sexual and reproductive healthcare. Imagine the possibilities if every person who wanted it had access to these basic health services.
Seema Jalan is the Executive Director of the Universal Access Project and Policy at the United Nations Foundation, a multi-stakeholder initiative of foundations and NGOs strengthening US leadership on sexual and reproductive health and rights globally.