Conservation Through Handwork:

Women-only Workshop Wants to End Plastic Brush Usage in Uganda

Written by: Rhonet Atwiine. Film & Photography by: Richard Mugambe and Kevin Kasoma.

About four years ago, a shoe shiner in Uganda’s capital Kampala challenged an Agricultural Engineering graduate on how to better what he termed as a struggling society.

He intimated that despite the presence of engineers like Enoch Muwanguzi, the country was far from making basic items like shoe brushes, which defines his daily life.

Muwanguzi, who believes the country has a good odd on agriculture was left “looking for answers”.

“I thought of making a unique, and eco-friendly basic Ugandan product,” says Muwanguzi who is now repurposing cow tail hair into brushes.

Enoch Muwanguzi pictured during the production of shoe brushes at his workshop outside Kampala. PHOTO by RICHARD MUGAMBE.

Cattle hold immense significance in various aspects of Uganda’s culture and commerce. Milk, meat, hides and skin are some of the country’s high-value earnings and food supply.  

However, in most slaughterhouses in Kampala, their value barely stretches beyond the beef and skin. Other parts are normally discarded at a giveaway price. The tail is just one of those. 

Muwanguzi has now opened a workshop away from the hustle and bustle of the city, which specializes in hand-making shoe brushes out of cow tail hair and wood.

Called UgaBrush, the workshop looks to extend value to livestock, create jobs, and preserve the ecosystem on which agriculture, Uganda’s largest employer survives.

“After careful consideration, I realized that cow tail hair was the ideal solution because it decomposes, unlike the plastic bristles,” he says, adding that the combination of cow tail hair as bristles and wood as handles was a perfect match.

A worker prepares Cow tail hair ahead of production at UgaBrush. Photo by RICHARD MUGAMBE.

Most of the shoe brushes available on the market are not only made out of plastic fibber but imported.

Besides the environmental hazard they possess, they are some of the basic products rising Uganda’s import-to-export ratio.

According to the Uganda Bureau of Statistics, the country’s exports of goods and services as a percentage of GDP currently stand at 15.05% and imports of goods and services as a percentage of GDP are at 19.72%.

These include basic commodities like shoe brushes, toothpicks, polythene bags, etc, which would be made locally. 

Uga Brush’s products are the first of their kind on the Ugandan market.

A worker hand-drills through a piece of wood for bristles during the brush-making process at UgaBrush. Photo by RICHARD MUGAMBE.

The transformation

At the facility, the transformation of cow tail hair into a shoe brush involves a meticulous and labor-intensive process that combines manual techniques with low-tech methods.

Each step is carefully executed by a skilled women-only artisan team who take pride in their craft.

“The first step involves drilling holes into a wooden handle, which serves as the foundation for the brush,” explains Nalukenge Hadijah, the production manager.

The team then combs the hair manually to straighten tail hair to straighten it, before snipping and trimming it to the perfect dimensions for the bristles.

“We rely on our eyes to measure the precise amount of hair required for each brush hole,” Hadijah elaborates.

At the final stage, the team then affixes the brand’s logo onto the brush, representing its unique identity.  

The brushes come in two sizes; medium and small which cost between 5,000 UGX and 10,000 UGX (1.34$ and 1.88$) respectively. They are then distributed to markets around the city.

“I wanted to donate my first product to the shiner, I never found him. I hope one day he will be able to use some of our products,” Muwanguzi explains

A worker shows-off an incomplete shoe brush made from cow tail bristles at UgaBrush. Photo by Richard Mugambe.

Why Women

All women at this production line have earned their position because of their expertise and craft. Their eye for detail has been key ensuring every product upholds their cherished brand’s reputation.

“I started with gents but along the way as an employer, I identified something in women. These women pay attention to small detail. They ensure that what they do looks nice compared to the gents who mostly mind about money.” he explains.

He adds that the mode of payment per brush made can compromise the quality of the final product. He explains, “Men prioritize quantity to earn more, whereas women emphasize the appearance of the brush.”

Women pictured during production at Uga Brush workshop outside Kampala. Photo by RICHARD MUGAMBE.

The future

In Uganda, most startups don’t live to their second birthday. The lack of sufficient support systems and resources hampers the growth and success of these small innovations, hindering their potential impact on economic development and societal progress.

“It is hard to compete with foreign investors before they are exempted from paying taxes. This affects us as local companies because the cost of production is high compared to that of your competitor.”

He also adds that the challenges are also societal as Ugandans do not believe in locally made products to be of quality therefore “they opt to buy for imported items.”

Despite the existing challenges, Enock envisions expanding his innovative venture by utilizing cow tail hair to create a range of diverse products. His future plans include manufacturing makeup brushes, toothbrushes, and painting brushes, aiming to eliminate the need for importing such items when they can be produced locally.

Enock confidently concludes, “In a few years’ time, I believe we can meet these demands and contribute to the growth of our local industry.”