Waste Pickers Alliance Uganda: the report


What is plain garbage for one person, is his life for the other. “Waste is the new gold” is a common slogan in the Netherlands. For many members of the Waste Pickers Alliance Uganda this hits the nail right on the head. The waste business is an industry that employs many people for whom there is no other place on the jobmarket. "Because of the stigma many HIV-infected people cannot get a job anywhere," says Ali Kigongo, founder of the Alliance. "They can often only work as a waste picker." Where a waste picker previously worked on his own and under appalling conditions trying to gather some useful waste before selling it for peanuts to a middleman, the Waste Pickers Alliance tries to fight for the Rights of the waste pickers. Unfortunately, certainly not everyone is in favour of this fight.

"In Uganda the waste business is monopolized," Kigongo says. "Since the waste collection was regulated in 2004, a monopoly has been created in which one or a number of major waste companies dominate the sector, andset prices and rules in cooperation with the government." These companies are not interested at all in the rights of the waste workers. Their only interest in this is to aquire labor as cheap as possible, and therefore a group of social lower scaled is simply exploited by the big money. The stigma of HIV / AIDS is used for this purpose.


Ali Kigongo himself and his partner Ronald Mukinaya also worked for one of these major waste companies. However, they realized that something had to change in the circumstances of the waste workers. In the beginning Kigongo gave anonymous strategic advice to a union for waste workers that Mukinya had founded. That both their efforts were not appreciated by their employers, soon became clear. Mukinya Was fired and when after a while Kigongo was unmasked by his employer as an adviser to the union, he could also leave. "I was always afraid to lose my job," Kigongo tells us. "But when it actually happened I decided to fully commit to the work for the rights of the waste workers." Together with a Danish businessman Kigongo founded Great Wastes, a company that offers a more sustainable way of competition for the big waste companies in Uganda. Under this organisation the Waste Pickers Alliance was also formed, a union that fights for the (labor) rights of Waste Pickers in Uganda.


The Alliance became very active, and soon had a big impact on its environment. Higher wages and better prices for the waste, scheduled working hours and rest were assured for the workers. Great Wastes also attracted external financiers to arranged materials for the workers: containers, tools, but also boots and gloves to protect them from their dirty working environment. The alliance did not hesitate to use even more radical means to achieve its goals. Kigongo proudly tells us about a successful strike of the Waste Workers organized by Mukinya. Soon the impact of the work of the Alliance became noticeable on a larger scale. A lot of media attention was given to the work of the alliance, at home and even abroad. The men enthousiasticly show us the newspaper articles that were published at the time. "Suddenly we had a voice as Waste workers" says Ali Bulega, representative of all Waste Workers of the Alliance.


However, the WPA's success was also noticed by the competition, and one was to say the least not cheerful with the work of the Alliance. A smear campaign was launched against Kigongo, where he was draged before court for various non-existing cases. Even fake articles about the Alliance were published in the newspapers to harm its reputation. The Alliance was unable to cope with the political violence of the giants in the industry. While the WPA was busy setting up a "collection center", a place where Waste Pickers could rest, could take a bath, could wash their plastics and sell it against a good price, the financial support from Denmark stopped. This, along with the continues stream of opposition from the competition, was a little too much for the Alliance. At one point there wasn't even money to pay for the most basic expenses like rent.


The work of the Alliance is currently on a low. Because the large waste companies no longer allow Great Wastes in the city to collect waste, Waste Pickers are condemned to work in the slums on the outskirts of Kampala. Mukinaya Takes us to one of these slums, where we witness the work of a waste worker with our own eyes. Especially in the slums conditions are tough, and many people litteraly live in their own waste. With limited resources, the workers try to fish the valuable waste from the huge garbage dump, where the rest of the mountain must perish or is burned.


The Alliance seems to be in a difficult situation, but still Kigongo and Mukinaya see enough solutions. The men have developed a good strategy with which they want to make the WPA fully independent and sustainable. An income-generating project needs to provide a stable, sustainable income which will form the base for the organization in the future. From there they can continue to fight for the rights of the waste-workers. All the WPA needs at this time is an initial investment to start the income-generating project. Kigongo tells us about the plan he has to launch the first clinic to treat H pylori in Kampala, an infectious disease common among waste workers. This disease is treated nowhere else in Ugande but the WPA has the necessary knowledge to start the treatment. The plan is very well thought through and has growth potential for a large East African treatment and research center for H-pylori and other infectious diseases. Kigongo assures us that the investment required is relatively low, which highlights the potential of this plan.


The Waste Pickers Alliance is an organization with a large amount of courage, that risks its existence under the great threat of the big money in the waste business to stand up for the rights of a weak social group of Ugandans. Although the fight at this moment seems to be lost, the Alliance has some interesting plans and ideas for the future. When we later discuss the project we conclude that In2Afrika should not only invest in projects that are already successful, but that the foundation should also support to projects that have difficulties, as long as they fit in the philosophy of our foundation. In the near future we will explore the possibilities for supporting the WPA with the required investment. Ali and Ronald persist despite all the setbacks, so we should to!