Ordinarily, university students prefer to spend their free time on leisure activities. This is however not the case for six students.
Kevin Shema, Nadine Ndahiro, Arsene Gatera, Shema Irankunda, Thierry Henry, and Gentil Ndoba, all second-year students at African Leadership University have found a passion in transforming banana fibre into useful products.
From banana trunks they are currently producing paper bags, invitation and wedding cards and papers. Banana truck is the stem of a banana plant.
How they do it
The team collects banana trunk from farmers within Kigali, who plant bananas after the fruit has been harvested.
Considering that most farmers do not have much use of them banana trunks and are likely to dispose them, the students talk to farmers who give them for free instead.
The team in their early stage of making paper out of banana trunk. / Lydia Atieno
After collection, Shema who is also the brains behind the idea said they chop the banana trunks into small pieces, cook them manually, and then later blend to get final products.
All the activities happen at his home in Kigali, where he has set aside a small space for this particular work.
The students are working on partnering with six cooperatives mainly in Eastern province; whom they will be working with by providing the banana trunks in exchange of some money per stalk.
The team meets twice a week to evaluate and task everyone on what to do.
According to Shema, they started with RWF 20, ooo which they got from their stipend.
How they exhibit their work, he said they take advantage of exhibitions and conferences, also sell some of their products to visitors who visit their Campus.
How the idea surfaced
After joining the Campus, Shema says that he came up with the idea challenged by Hult prize, which required them as students to provide employment opportunity to more than 10,000 young people.
Hult prize is an annual, year-long competition that crowd-sources ideas from MBA and college students after challenging them to solve a pressing social issue around topics such as food security, water access, energy, and education.
This is when the twenty-one-year-old started pondering on what he can do to impact other young people.
“One day I visited a certain supermarket, after purchasing goods, they were packed in a well clean envelope which after reaching home, I unpacked the goods and disposed the bag,” he said.
According to him, the one-time use of the bags didn’t make much sense, he thought of doing something that will at least see such paper bags recycled into something else useful.
After some research, he found out that one could recycle the paper bags, however; the capital to do this was beyond his means at the moment as a student.
This is when he thought of an alternative which was making bags not from trees but from the banana trunks, that is easily available and accessible at no cost.
After carrying out some research, Shema found out that there is a company within, using same raw material to produce sanitary pads.
He then opted to use the material to make something else instead. He gathered his five friends and commenced making the products, working as a team.
“My colleagues were okay with idea because first, they were passionate about bringing a difference in the world of innovation and at the same time wanted to do something that will see them independent,” he said.
Early this year, the students got a chance to participate in Hult Prize regional competition in Dubai where they secured a spot by being second at the campus level.
The team was competing against 30 Universities with only two teams being from Africa.
Invitation cards made from banana trunks. / Lydia Atieno
Early this year, they took part in the Re-Invent Hackaton competition organized by the Garage48.
The team was given 48 hours to make any tangible thing whereby they produced a shopping bag, which saw them ranked third out of twelve teams.
Hackaton is a 48 hours long brainstorming marathon during which an idea is transformed into a working prototype. Participants gather together and pitch ideas on stage. After, competitors present their outcome on the stage, a winner is selected.
The team was given one-year free mentorship by Compound55, which is a social enterprise that harnesses the power of connecting people and communities for social impact, focusing on the use of information and communication technologies.
When it comes to setbacks, Shema said currently accessing machines to boost their productivity and efficiency has been hard.
“Investment and knowledge are huge challenges when it comes to young people who want to start their own enterprises,” added Shema.