How admiration for army life drove a young man’s inventive mind
Samuel Mugarura, 24, a final year student of chemistry and botany attracted attention in 2016 when he unveiled teargas he says he made from a tiny store in his mother’s house using common items like onions, red pepper, and mangoes. Clearly that is not the whole story, and security agencies, academicians, and even President Yoweri Museveni got interested.
A year later, Mugarura says he has patented his invention and the government could be putting Shs700 million into pushing it beyond the prototype stage. If that happens, he says, it could push his product into commercialization. For now, as attention swells around him (he has 9000 followers on Facebook), one question keeps popping up again and again: Why, of all things, did he choose to invent teargas?
To answer, Mugarura takes you back to where he was born in Ntambaazi village, Kazo Subcounty, in Kiruhura District in western Uganda. This is President Museveni’s home district and, according to Mugarura, almost everyone is somehow involved in military stuff.
“Almost everyone in Kiruhura is a soldier and every growing boy there wants to associate with the military,” he says.
The son of Benon Arinaitwe, a farmer there, and Molly Kyohirwe, a businesswoman in Kajjansi, a surburb of Kampala along Entebbe Road, Mugarura says he developed a passion for military stuff from way back in primary at Kazo Parents School.
“My dream was to be a medical doctor but when I was offered to study a degree in Bsc Chemistry and Botany I decided to pursue my other childhood dream of working with the military,” he says. He is pursuing the Bsc degree course Makerere University in Kampala which he joined from Kajjansi Progressive secondary school in the Entebbe area.
“But teargas is just a starting point for the many inventions I will unveil which will shock the country,” he adds. He says he can make smoke bombs, which are explosives used to emit dense smoke to produce a camouflage smoke screen. He is also working on other products like fertilisers, pesticides, acaricides, herbicides, flares and fireworks. He also intends to pursue further studies based on his invention.
After acquiring the patent for his invention, Mugarura says he now has plans of going into large scale commercial production after the Ministry of Science and Technology, he says, set aside over Shs700 million for it in the next financial year.
“That’s only the beginning and the Shs700 million is for benchmarking with other companies making the same product and doing other studies. Commercial production requires US$74 million,” he says, adding that he is confident that by 2019 commercial production of his teargas will have started in Uganda.
“The market for our product is assured since Africa has only one teargas factory in South Africa based in Germany,” a hopeful Mugarura says.
Mugarura says his teargas is unique because it is made from readily available ingredients like sugar, salt, soda bicarbonate, food colour and others. He is, however, quick to add that though those ingredients are readily available, making his teargas “is not as simple as mixing sugar in a cup of tea or salt in a sauce”. He says it required him developing a 62-page formula.
“It took me sleepless nights to develop the formula, so it’s not that simple to make,” he says.
He also says he has done tests comparing his teargas and that used by security agencies in Uganda and found his is less toxic and with no side effects like skin or lung cancer or mutagenic effects (affecting genes) which would make it dangerous when inhaled by pregnant women, and is environment friendly with no dangerous chloroflocarbons (cfcs).
He says he has been joined by Prof. Raymond Nsereko; a product designer with the College of Engineering, Design, Art and Technology (CEDAT) of Makerere University and an engineering graduate; Emmanuel Elweru, to work on the external design of the teargas canister since his invention is concerned with the inside content. He says the biggest constraint to him developing his invention from paper to lab to commercialisation is money.
“To work on the teargas alone cost me over Shs3 million and doing a single explosion as a demo for the media cost Shs400, 000,”Mugarura says.
Although the government, through the Presidential Innovations Fund, in 2001 set aside billions of shillings for Makerere’s University’s College of Engineering, Art, Design and Technology (CEDAT) to support innovations, Mugarura’s products do not qualify.
Yet he still does not have a laboratory and working in his room in University Hall at Makerere University or the small store at his mother’s house is unsafe.
“Because of the effects of teargas, when I needed to do real tests I couldn’t do them in a populated place like Kajjansi and I had travel to my father’s farm in Kazo and do them there alone or with a few friends,” he says.
He says he started his project about three years ago and was buying the ingredients one buy one using pocket money he got from his parents. He says he might have given up if it was not for the encouragement of people like Cipla Quality Chemicals Industries founder and CEO, Emmanuel Katongole.