The innovator from Rukangya

By: Christine W. Wanjala

Twine should be used to curious stares. He seems to attract them everywhere he goes. Here at the Monitor Publications reception where we meet, you can see how people give him a cursory glance first as they walk past, then a second questioning one comes. Why is a teenager in this day and age cradling a transistor radio? In fact why is anyone carrying around a radio, in the city?

It is anything but an ordinary radio, but you will only know the interesting features if he gives you a peek. You see, he made it, or assembled it at least, along with a couple of other things. “I am an innovator. It is what I like doing and what I want to do for the rest of my life,” says the soft-spoken 20-year-old as he fiddles with the knobs on his radio.

First innovation

He has a sweet innocence about him which makes his first innovation quite shocking – a gun he made when he was just 15. His motivation to make this lethal weapon was innocent though. “I wanted to make a gun here in Uganda and show that it can be done and later change the system of always importing guns for our armed forces,” he says.

He used some timber and old bicycle parts and spent hours scrapping off matchbox powder from dozens of matchsticks to use in the gun to catapult the bullet and make the pop sound when he shot.

He completed it in two weeks despite not having anything to refer to besides memory, from the guns he had seen in action movies shown at a nearby video hall and pictures of guns from newspaper and magazine cuttings. “I have never seen a gun up close, or held one,” he says. He tested it and says the bullet could travel up to two kilometres but he never got to improve it. “I was cautioned against using it for security reasons,” says the youngster. His mother also beseeched him to stop, “They will come and take you to prison,” she warned her son and he had to abandon that project.

A childhood dream of Twine’s inspired his next project, a radio station. “I always wished for the opportunity to present to people or to be a DJ,” he says somewhat shyly. To be able to pull this one off, he had to see how a radio station is set up in the first place. He says he sold one of his chickens for the fare to Rwenzori FM in Ibanda where his only request was to be allowed inside the studio. They let him in for five minutes and he says it is during those that he noted all he needed to know. “I saw how the microphones and computers were arranged and knew I could do it,” he says.

Back home Twine, hunted for old radio receivers and a microphone which he rigged up with what he would use as a computer, his imitation Nokia phone. He made an antenna made of wires from metal clothe hangers and with magnets to pick up signals. “I named the station Rukangya FM after our village,” he says. The station’s broadcasts were built around its two presenters’ schedule, our innovator who was then in Senior Three and his younger brother. It only worked during the holidays and even then, it aired only when the boys could get a break from helping out their mother in the garden. Twine says it had its share of listeners though, as it reached most of the sub-county.

That year, Twine entered his radio station in the secondary school science fair and sailed through the district and regional contests and made it to nationals which were held at the national museum in Kitante. “I emerged second that year,” he says, adding that he took back a trophy and some water bottles for his school. He had also collected a sheaf of certificates which he leafs through with no small amount of pride, and more zeal to innovate more. He also got a scholarship for two terms, a welcome reprieve for his farmer mother who was struggling to pay his school fees.

Rukangya FM shut down not long after he returned it to his home and left it under the care of his younger brother. “I was away at school and then it was becoming very expensive to keep running and I had to focus on school,” he explains. The two boys were using dry cells to power the station and 12 of them only lasted a week.

He went on to Senior Four but only studied for roughly half the year. He says it was an unfortunate bicycle accident that put him out of school. “I hurt my back and was in so much pain. I had to go home,” says the former student of St Andrews SS Rubindi in Mbarara.

His head teacher Andrew Barigye, however, called him in time for the S4 exams, and when results were released in 2012 Twine had managed a second grade. “I could have done better if I had not missed school for so long,” Twine says regretfully. He did not proceed to Senior Five along with others in his year and says his long widowed small-scale farmer mother Esther Gumisiriza was not able to raise the money. Looking at an indefinite break from education is what spurred him to start on his next project, the radio he cradles throughout our interview.

“I decided to develop something that I can release for Ugandans to use but also something that can help me raise school fees,” he shares.

It is solar-powered and also has a phone attached to it. It is also equipped with a camera that he happily uses to capture those who approach to investigate further. He made it in all of two weeks, again from discarded materials, a broken solar panel he fixed parts from old radios and his own phone, an imitation Nokia. “The network on the phone radio is very good and it never runs out of power. It uses solar and also stores some in the dry cells for use at night. One does not need to keep buying batteries,” he says.

In a way, his innovations seem more like adaptations, after all a solar powered radio is not that new, and neither is a radio station. Twine is well aware of this fact and defends what he has done so far. “I have many more ideas; I just made what I could easily source material for.” He says he has been planning to make a solar-powered bicycle for which there will be no need to cycle. He was moved to thinking about it by the experience of those living in rural areas like his village.

“They have to cover long distances, and while there are motorcycles now, fuel is quite a challenge,” he says. He assures me it will work when he gets around to doing it. “I already have the diagrams,” he shares, explaining that drawing and writing is how he documents the ideas which come to his head even when he is sleeping.

As much as he is yet to do that jaw-dropping project, Twine still manages to impress. It is telling that he is able to make things that work with very little exposure. He did not even have access to Google which is the “go to” for the backyard inventor of today. Although he has an email address, Twine has in fact had very little contact with a computer and he is still hoping to get a chance to own one. “I want to learn. I must also change something about it, maybe develop an application or a programme,” he says confidently.

The features in his innovations point to an active thinking behind the God-given aptitude, for instance the phone on the solar radio. He says he wanted to make an answer to the phones with radios so he made a radio with a phone. But he is motivated by more than a desire to take on challenges, saying his primary goal is to use his talent, and develop his skills enough to save Ugandans money while at the same time ensuring there is more made in Uganda.

“We import so many things that can be made here and I would like to be part of the people that take up the challenge to change this,” he says. His motto for now, “I will do what I can now, take any opportunity I get and see where this leads me.”

Those who have known the young innovator

Moses Gumisiriza refers to Twine as “that young boy” but this has nothing to do with his regard of what Twine does but more with him being many years older than him as the second born in the family. “Last year he said he was going to Kampala so he made the radio. But he started making things some time back. “He made his own radio station and also he fixed solar lighting at our mother’s house,” he says. Gumisiriza also says his younger brother had a small business where he repaired phones for his village mates sometimes for a small fee, sometimes for nothing.

The LC1 of Rukangya village Valentino Tumuhebwe’s was mildly shocked to hear the unmistakable sound of a gunshot one afternoon in 2010. Being the LCI he went to investigate and found 15-year-old Twine with the homemade gun. “He explained that he had made the gun and he was just trying it, and then showed me the other things he had made. I was quite impressed,” says Valentino.

Twine did not get off easy for making and testing the gun and Tumuhebwe says the area LC3 chairman was less than pleased. “But he later left him alone after learning he was a student getting carried away with a science fair project. He told him to stop that project,” reveals Tumuhebwe.

The village celebrity

What raised Twine’s profile in Rukangya, however, was the radio station which could be heard within a radius of 2km. “That was a good thing for our area,” says Tumuhebwe. Twine’s former high school headmaster Andrew Barigye thinks Twine has a natural ability. “As far as I can tell, nobody taught him any of the things he does, yet he has done some impressive things . He must have a special talent,” he says. It was while at St Andrews SS that Twine undertook the radio station project and according to Barigye he and a collegue even attempted to make a TV. A source at UCC where Twine says he went to try get some support says his case is still being investigated.

How he survives on his own in Kampala

Mid last year, Twine made a journey taken by countless others from various parts of the country each year, to Kampala to pursue his dreams. Unlike most people Twine had little in the way of a plan, or a job or even a place to stay. “I do not have relatives in Kampala,” he says.

His optimism and an idea about taking some of the money his mother had given him to put out an advertisement on radio for well-wishers willing to host him as he chases his dreams bore fruit. He has been hosted by well-wishers since May last year. Having free board and food is enough for him for now as he is able to approach various offices and organisations he hopes will be willing to sponsor his endeavours. “I walk to whatever place I want to get to. I even went to Uganda Communications Commission and they went to my home to confirm if it is true I had made the things I said I had,” he says.

All he wants is opportunity, to continue with his studies, to develop his skills, to produce more radios, to turn into working items the diagrams in his book. Even a computer. After losing a year at home he feels at this point even a technical school would do just fine. His game plan is actually something he told himself from the very first day he decided to tinker with metal and wood and make something.

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