Acceptance speech by MSc Peter Okwoko, DANIDA ALUMNI PRIZE 2020

Peter Okwoko

Distinguished Colleagues and Friends

I am honoured to be standing here amongst you today, receiving the Danida Alumni Prize. I thank those that have joined in virtually to celebrate with us.  I’ll be honest and tell you when I heard about the Inception of the Danida Alumni Award in 2017, in the back of my mind I set a goal to be amongst the winners by the age of forty. Knowing that if I could hold on to a dream as momentous and impactful, my actions, even if they never amounted to actually winning, would still exemplify my beliefs and contribute to lasting community changes. So, I cannot begin to tell you how humbled and honoured I am to receive this prestigious prize, not quite ten years into my community development work. Attesting to the fact that our dreams and goals are all well within reach, and with the right support network, as exemplified by Danida Alumni Network,  anyone has the ability to significantly impact their community for the better. 

I would like to recount for you where my journey with Danida began. Five years ago, I was extremely lucky to be selected alongside three other Ugandans to pursue higher studies in Denmark under the Building Stronger Universities (BSU) program. Here, I would join 37 other bright and willful scholars enrolled in different programs. At Aalborg University I sought out a Masters of Science in Innovative Communication Technologies and Entrepreneurship. While in Denmark, I stayed in room 5 at Danida Fellowship Centre. Which is where I first interfaced with individuals from more than 20 different countries. Danida Fellowship Center felt like the entire world had been brought together in this one small place. A place that housed people of different religions, academic backgrounds, and socio-economic status, and yet we lived, learned and worked together in near perfect harmony. For the first time, I had real hope in a future, conflict-free, amicable world. I was given the immeasurable gift of experiencing in real time what humanity as a whole had the potential to be. This truly, once in a lifetime experience has shaped how I handle myself in my day to day work and everyday interactions. I will forever be grateful for my two year stay in room 5 at DFC.

I confidently tell my peers that I consider Denmark to be my second home. After my studies had ended, I had a chance to briefly return to Denmark in 2018. This time, I was there to attend a conference that brought together different entrepreneurs and scholars addressing different sustainable development goals. I was invited by Prof. Arne Remmen, who I first met during my initial studies. The People, Profits, Planet conference organized by Access to Innovation is so far the most resourceful conference I have ever attended. Besides different presentations by key players in sustainable development ventures, I was able to connect to a number of key individuals. At this conference, I met people like Johan from SolarSack, who I would later meet up with in Uganda and assist in the testing of their product.

At every opportunity, I have continued to collaborate with Danish scholars, students and entrepreneurs. As I know they are among the best and brightest. I have coordinated projects of about 15 Danish students in Uganda. It is my sincere hope that Just the way I felt at home while in Denmark, that I myself have made the students feel at home. 

Coming from a background where learning was largely instruction based, with a lot of by rote memorization, my first days at Aalborg University were a little tough to say the least. I wasn’t familiar with their problem based learning approach that was centred on a student's ability to breakdown problems and find solutions. It took me almost a month to fully understand this approach. However, after fully realizing how to implement what I had learned in the classroom towards everyday challenges, my outlook was changed entirely. I no longer become overwhelmed with the sheer scope of  larger, systemic problems, but focus my attitude and strengths towards the finer more minute aspects of the problem that I do indeed have the power to solve. This methodology allows for otherwise foundational and far-reaching problems to be modified by simplistic changes. 

Just as a systemic problem can lend itself towards its own solution, it is also in Denmark that I realized how vast amounts of waste can be transformed into resources. This was sparked by a day at Danida Fellowship Center when  a colleague told me I could collect used plastic bottles and cans for deposit at Netto, to then receive a refund. You could say this was the birth of Peter in the waste management sector. 

With such inspiration, I started Afrigreen Sustain in 2016. The essence was community education around waste management. With Afrigreen Sustain in place, I won two Danida Alumni Activity Grants. One was geared towards creation of eco-clubs in four primary schools in Gulu City, while the second was aimed at bringing together different stakeholders in the waste management sector in Gulu to devise technological solutions to the waste management challenges. During the later Danida funded activity, I was already working with Paige Balcom, a PhD student from UC Berkeley. Together we then investigated plastic waste management practices around Uganda. After thoroughly understanding the plastic waste problem from both the micro and macro levels, our answer to the many problems was the creation of Takataka Plastics. Takataka means waste in Swahili.

At Takataka Plastics we are constantly innovating solutions for waste challenges and fostering partnerships that enhance a circular economy. We reduce environmental and health hazards in places where waste is currently burned or littered. We are developing ground-breaking technology to safely process plastic waste in Uganda, into affordable construction materials and medical products. Our current product line includes wall tiles, coasters and face shields, produced in response to the Covid-19 pandemic. We've so far produced and distributed more than 10,000 face shields to 27 districts across Uganda. The production of these products invokes the most important change, a cultural shift through which people’s mindsets are altered from thinking about plastic waste as untouchable, dirty “rubbish” to a valued resource and commodity. Since the beginning of the year, we've reached more than 40,000 people with our message about plastic recycling. Takataka Plastics aims to clean up the environment, but our other main goal is to create jobs, especially for vulnerable youth. In our first 6 months, we hired 16 full-time staff, 8 of whom were former street connected youth.

I have also been highly involved in the conception and implementation of a community based organization, Hashtag Gulu, where our mission is to identify the root challenges children face while living and working on the streets, empowering them to understand their inherent value and embracing opportunities to succeed. Since its inception, we have positively impacted the lives of more than 100 street connected youths in Gulu by providing them rehabilitation,  vocational training and temporary shelter during the pandemic lockdown. Some of them have been hired by Takataka Plastics. Paige and I shared community driven ideals and decided to employ trauma survivors at Takataka Plastics to promote tangible healing through meaningful work and create a supportive workplace for these at-risk populations. Many people in Gulu have experienced levels of trauma due to the LRA war and IDP camps in northern Uganda, and children who live and work on the streets today are vulnerable to child trafficking and violence. One of the vital and often missing parts of healing and prevention is sustainable employment and a healing workplace, so we partner with established care organizations that provide early intervention, basic life skills, and counselling for those who have experienced trauma, exploitation, and human trafficking.

I am honoured to be the fourth recipient of this prize.  I accept the prize on behalf of the young social entrepreneurs, who amidst limited resources and other challenges are working towards bringing a change in their community. I accept this prize on behalf of my team at both Takataka Plastics and Hashtag Gulu. We are refining how members of the community look at plastic waste. We are creating value from plastic waste by transforming them into awesome products. By harnessing the power of Public-private partnerships, we are steadily moving to a point where we will be in position to recycle more than 9 tonnes of plastic waste in Gulu every month. To put this in perspective that is the approximate combined weight of an adult male African Bush Elephant and a black rhino.  Our goal at Takataka is to have a successful Gulu pilot, which we can then scale to open new recycling facilities in 5 cities across Uganda and later the entire continent of Africa. 

I recognize that the honour you have bestowed on me today, could have easily gone to any other of the Danida alumni across the world, as they are all  doing incredible work. I am beyond grateful and truly humbled that you chose to recognize me and the work that is being done in Uganda. I cannot wait to continue to live up to this prize, and my eyes have been set on even greater heights because of it. I firmly believe that as long as we work together we can all create great change in our communities. 

Once again, I thank you and happily accept the Danida Alumni Prize, 2020