We throw away vast amounts of stuff, even things with almost nothing wrong with them, and which could get a new lease on life after a simple repair. Many people have forgotten that they can repair things themselves, or they no longer know how to do it. Knowing how to make repairs is a skill quickly lost.

As part of its #ASKnet Capacity Building and Hub Development Program, r0g_agency for open culture promoted the first test run of an experimental, or ‘hybrid remote’ Community Repair Café in two refugee settlements in Northern Uganda that face this problem. On February 16th and with another round on March 23rd that will also include hub teams from South Sudan, the local Ugandan hubs, YEF — Youth Empowerment Foundation based in Adjumani, along with Platform Africa, based in the Rhino Camp refugee settlement led the hands-on local community Repair Café part. An online meeting room hosted remote participants from South Sudan, Germany, Kenya and Brazil conferring on repair and upcycling issues. In this first encounter, the Repair Cafés had more than 200 visitors and ‘clients’ online and offline.

What is a Repair Café?

First and foremost Repair Cafés are free meeting places, and they’re all about repairing things (together). In the area where a Repair Café is located, you’ll find tools and materials to help you make any repairs you need. No matter if it is about repairing clothes, furniture, electrical appliances, bicycles, crockery, toys, lamps, mobile devices and so on. You’ll also find expert volunteers with repair skills in all kinds of fields. Visitors bring their broken items from home. Together with the specialists, they start making their repairs. It’s an ongoing collaborative learning process. Valuable practical knowledge is getting both passed on and shared. If you have nothing to repair, you can enjoy a cup of tea or coffee. Or you can lend a hand with someone else’s repair job.

With this, things are being used for longer and don’t have to be thrown away. This reduces the volume of raw materials and energy needed to make new products. It also helps to cut CO2 emissions. There are over 1.500 Repair Cafés worldwide. In the case of the #ASKnet Repair Cafés digital formats for the sharing of experience and methodologies are also being developed, boosting media literacy and IT skills.

r0g_agency and #ASKnet program

r0g_agency is a Berlin-based non-profit dedicated to partnering with local grassroots organisations and governments to support open knowledge, open technology, and peacebuilding efforts regions undergoing a rapid and fundamental transformation. It supports sustainable and hybrid forms of cultural innovation and social enterprise, following an ‘open knowledge for open societies’ perspective. r0g_agency acts to practice the mechanisms of sustainable open source methodologies using appropriate and community-based technologies. It sees these as tools for empowering citizens, where exchange, collaborative production and access to available knowledge are of fundamental importance in creating free and open societies, focusing on enabling peace and fostering innovation, especially in the crisis and post-conflict regions.

Since 2016, when many Juba Open Knowledge and Innovation Hub (jHUB) members fled the city and country under renewed siege, scattering in numerous locations as refugees in northern Uganda or other South Sudan regions, #ASKnet — Access to Skills and Knowledge Program Network emerged as a small mesh network of nodes and local initiatives based on this initiating core community. #ASKnet became a capacity building and hub development program linking six community based youth-led innovation hubs in South Sudan, Uganda and Kenya. As part of its community development, the #ASKnet hubs aim to build a sustainable network of local trainers. It empowers individuals to address specific challenges their communities face and transform cultural patterns that fuel conflict and inequality. It provides youth access to skills and knowledge through Training of Trainers (ToT) workshops in themes including open-source hardware and software, entrepreneurship, media production, gender equality awareness, trauma healing and financial literacy.

A brief overview of Rhino Camp and Pagirinya Refugee Settlements and perspectives about the Repair Cafés

About 130 kilometres of unpaved (and unnamed) roads separate Pagirinya Refugee Settlement (near Adjumani) from Rhino Camp (near Arua), both located in northern Uganda.

The Rhino Camp Refugee Settlement dates back to 1980 and expanded in the wake of the South Sudanese conflict to host the sudden influx of refugees. As of January 2018, the settlement had 123,243 registered refugees, mostly South Sudanese, and continues to receive new arrivals since the date. Many challenges are posed by it’s growing population and lack of resources. Despite this, Rhino Camp is known for its numerous and sprouting community-led initiatives in different thematic areas.

Pagirinya Refugee Settlement is one of the newest of Uganda’s refugee camps and exists since June 2016. Pagirinya refugee settlement hosts more than 32,000 refugees displaced from South Sudan. The humanitarian response across all sectors has now stabilised and is beginning to shift beyond emergency operations.

Like Rhino Camp, Pagirinya faces challenging healthcare issues, demanding water, sanitation, housing, and farming access. Here, the lack of vocational training institutions has prevented both refugees and the host community from developing relevant skills to access employment opportunities or start their own businesses. This is exacerbated by the lack of capital accessible to start small scale businesses, further preventing income-generating activities for both communities. Repair Cafés in these communities target both these problems.

According to Gilbert Kenyi, an #ASKnet member living in Pagirinya, the Repair Café:

“helps to enhance the community’s young technicians skills. Furthermore, it lessens the throw-away culture while allowing my community to save money to support in other areas of domestic plannings.”

He is now aiming at bringing the Repair Café the sewing of clothes, bicycle and motorbike repair. And many more things rather than “phones, radios, solar and other electrical devices, so we can help support the vulnerable community of Pagirinya”.

For Dawa Edina Hillary, a South Sudanese refugee at Rhino Camp, the Repair Cafés inspire sustainability at the local level. It reduces waste, encourages hand-on learning and, more importantly, strengthens community bonds. For her, the event was like a “get together” for both the refugees and the host community. She continues:

But the most important thing is that it’s an outstanding achievement to me, personally. I became a leader in organising and running the whole Repair Café, and #ASKNet members gave me so much confidence I never had before.

Furthermore, Peter Amaza, also a South Sudanese refugee in Uganda and community leader in the Eden Zone of Rhino Refugee Camp, plan a future for Repairs Café in his community:

The service delivery was good. Since I arrived here in 2016, we had never had service delivery to support our community. But the time was not enough, as we had so many members of our community willing to repair their things while learning how to fix themselves. It was the first time it happened, and many people received these services and learned with them. But we need to reach more. We need support for a long term Repair Café here, with a permanent and security structure. And with workers to teach and deliver the service.

In both camps, the offline collaboration worked perfectly well, as community members brought devices to repair while interacting with technicians to learn skills. Technicians also collaborated amongst themselves, sharing the knowledge to handle fixing challenges. Dozens of electronic equipment were repaired.

The online collaboration happened asynchronously and in real-time on a virtual meeting room, a Telegram messaging public group, collaborative documentation on project planning and a reporting and setup issues FAQ. But collaborating online in real-time is a usual challenge, as the region’s lack of reliable network infrastructure is a barrier.

Event thought visitants from Germany and Brazil could interact on the virtual meeting room in real-time with people in Uganda, the interaction worked much better on the Telegram group, in a more asynchronously way, sharing images, videos and opinions from both camps, from Olinda and from Berlin. At some point and even for Telegram, the connection becomes a challenge, as Gilbert pointed out on the group itself:

Facing a lot of challenges. With the internet network… it’s cracking on and off… I am failing to do the documentation… Will try to do it before 8:00PM EAT. I am sure by that time network will be stable here.

Women involvement and funds challenges

A huge challenge was also pointed out by Edina: women’s participation was modest, around 20% of the visitors. Edina herself was an ICT instructor for a year, and it helped her know a lot more about the ladies she worked with. She states a problem quite common in the technology industry:

In my community, people still believe that the tech industry is too hard for ladies, so it should be taken by gentlemen only.

In her opinion, to foster women’s participation in the community, three things are fundamental: 1.) Delivering inspirational speeches focused on women; 2.) Having ladies-only meetings to discuss problems hindering ladies from standing out in the tech industry; 3.) Ladies should be trained in tech industry courses.

I believe after a series of inspirational speeches and meetings, women can turn up for the training in a significant number. In that way, we can change the ladies’ mindset regarding the tech industry. We can start with a course like Basic ICT skills, then other classes can follow.

She remembers that, back in 2019, she came up with an idea of carrying out Mobile ICT training for girls from 15 years and above, moving from one village to another to train them. It didn’t work out so far, but she is still trying to make her dream come true.

The lack of funds and harassed paperwork to get those funds is also a concern for Edina. She says that these issues sometimes slow down the whole process and can even disrupt more experts to take part in the projects and training.

Cafés in times of Covid-19

A vital concern during the events was related to Covid-19 safety issues. Even though Uganda is a country not hardly hit by the virus, it has today around 430 active cases and 313 deaths. Many of the public who took part in the event weren’t wearing masks or practising physical distancing.

Eden zone has no cases of Covid-19 in their community. Still, Mr Amaza believes the Repair Cafés are also essential to help to prevent the illness. In his opinion, with broken radios repaired, people can be able to learn from hearing and follow health authorities guidelines to avoid infection.

Also important is to repair phones. Suppose you have just one phone in the village, and people gather to use the same phone. In that case, it is challenging to follow covid-19 regulations, and it becomes hazardous.

The lack of knowledge regarding Covid-19 safety issues is an issue that a Repair Cafe can also target, according to Gilbert:

Technicians emphasised face masks’ need and discussed keywords sharing info about Covid-19 prevention.

It is essential to notice that around 50 people were prevented from taking part in the events due to community leaders’ restriction on avoiding possible virus spreading.

Crossing lands, overcoming oceans

The connection between members from #ASKNet and Casa Criatura (Brazil) is more than a post diaspora coincidence. Members from both institutions first met in late 2019, during the first edition of #DOTS in Nakuru, Kenya. The event was a collaboration between r0g_agency, the #ASKNet hubs and Global Innovation Gathering. The online Repair Café was an opportunity to reconnect and share knowledge with more members from both communities.

Casa Criatura co-founder Isac Filho believes in the strength of sharing knowledge on how to repair all the gadgets you have at home, including the home. With easy process and almost no cost, he considers it as fundamental for a more sustainable living.

The possible transformations achieved on the territories and their spaces with the Repair Cafés are crucial for Jéssica Lobo, a Casa Criatura member.

And you can promote these transformations with elementary tool kits, just like the #ASKotec they are using on the camps. The possibilities of a mobile lab like that, in any reality, is incredible.

Peter Amaza from the Rhino Camp also cheers the communication between brothers and sisters brought from other countries to the Eden Zone with people from other nations. He argues that “it is not good to be in total darkness, without communication. It is tough if you do not have a light, a radio, a phone, inside all the homes.” But, for him, international collaboration is central to the project:

It is vital to know that something like this is happening somewhere, and remember we are not alone. We are here, our condition is not good. We need our friends to know what is taking place here in our locality, and we need to understand what is taking place in other communities. Most of the population don’t perceive the real conditions we are facing, so it is good to know and understand what is happening. We are in real need of support, and we are excluded from the State we are in, something that ain´t no good. We don’t have any income. It is a difficult situation to live in, but the type of service delivered is suitable because we, at least, have not to stay in darkness. By not having lights, not having phones, by not having even the right on our houses. These basic things are not here, so the community can be useful and functional. Houses, phones, radios and even our rights. They have breakdowns. So, at least things have to be repaired by the collectivity we are in.

From here, we grow. 🌱