The Roma Agri-Business Training Centre students, Joseph Mokhele and Christina Tau, are making and selling waste paper products. They range from vases, garbage bins, fruit holders and baskets.
Thanks to their contact with the National University of Lesotho (NUL). Their innovative products sell like hotcakes in the market. Already, they have hired EIGHT people to multiply production!
When the duo heard that NUL was becoming a hub of ideas, they did not want to miss out. So they approached the mega-institution and were not disappointed. But, yet it all began in an unlikely place.
Once in time, the two innovation enthusiasts went to an exhibition in Maseru to showcase some of their paper brick products. Little did they know that the road to the exhibition, would lead them back to their neighboring school – NUL. “While we were at the expo, we saw some ladies who made amazing cladding tiles with waste paper,” they said. “The products looked like natural stone, yet they made with paper. When we inquired, they said they got help from the NUL. They even gave us contacts.”
Armed with this information, they couldn’t waste any more time. They approached the NUL Department of Chemistry and Chemical Technology. “We met one lecturer and asked him if he could help us develop a better way of making waste paper bricks used for making fire for cooking,” they related. “The lecturer liked the spirit but suggested that burning paper with all kinds of inks on it might not be a good idea. Rather, he revealed a form of paper weaving that left us fascinated!”
This kind of waste paper weaving is unknown in Lesotho. “We could never miss the chance,” said Christina Tau with a wide smile. “The following day, we were running around Roma, searching for waste paper and glue.” When they didn’t find free waste paper, they decided to buy old newspapers, both from Roma Book Centre and from Maseru market. “We even borrowed shoe glue from one of our dearest friends and she gave us.”
By this time, they didn’t know that enthusiasm and reality do not merge immediately. They had a concept, but the NUL lecturer left it for them to put it in place in their own way. In that way, they could have a feel of their own creativity. But their first attempt was an utter failure. And they learned a lesson. Even when the idea appears simple, implementing it is not! The devil is in the details.
One of the first hurdles was the most unexpected. They had to use the right kind of stick for rolling the papers. Yet all the sticks were breaking the paper all the time. Never the kind that accepts defeat. Their active minds were already teaming with other ideas. They scanned the entire Roma Valley searching for Chinese chop sticks, only to find none.
The most beautiful ideas are often the simplest. They learned this truth when, instead of Chinese chop sticks, they used a mere wire and – it worked, to their delight! But that was far from a literary happy ending. Many hurdles lurked on the road.
Although they started weaving, they soon realized that their rolled paper sticks were rather too thick and hard to manipulate. They went back to the NUL where they were tipped to lighten the amount of paper they used per stick and that too worked!
Even as they started making good products, there was one rather serious challenge. They were inhaling too much fumes from glue as they labored day and night. In fact the fumes made them drunk sometimes! “We used to work so hard that we hardly had time to eat. With empty stomachs, the glue effects were multiplied,” Mokhele revealed. The solution came when they found a more user friendly glue.
They also learned through trial and error, that when they work together on one product, they were more effective than when each one made his own product. There were tasks that needed teamwork. Also, they discovered that using two paper sticks at a go makes better and more stable products than using one at a time.
When the two talk about reception in the markets, their eyes light up! Each one of their teachers in the school at least has one paper basket. “For some reason, we seem to be so well known in Roma despite the fact that we hardly ever advertise, even NUL students buy a lot from us,” Mokhele said.
In fact, one day they got a shock of their lives when an older lady stopped them on the way and asked for a job. “We didn’t know what to say,” they said. But now they have just hired EIGHT employees to move volumes! A formidable achievement!
They go by the name Waste Paper Technologies. They are now making alliance with other NUL inspired companies which have come together in the form of Arts and Crafts Innovation Hub. They include C-Tech Property Management, Ras Crisps, Lechy Catering, 3Plet Architects and Reed Basketry. In their world, the sky is the limit.
This blog post was originally written by NUL Research and Innovations