Unlearning in Uganda

Last week, I (Rachel at ThoughtBox) took a little trip to Uganda. Being separated across the shores of Lake Victoria, Uganda is just a stone’s throw from Tanzania in relative terms, and fairly easy to get to. Having been in contact with an innovative education project called SINA (nestled up in the mountains of Mpigi, a few hours’ drive from the capital Kampala) I decided to pay them a visit whilst still living out here in East Africa.


SINA (Social Innovation Academy) is a unique learning environment empowering youth to become job creators by nurturing innovative project ideas into social enterprises. The Social Innovation Academy (SINA) is turning around life stories of suffering into positive catalysts of social change.

The goal of SINA is to bring Ugandan youth from marginalised backgrounds to the point where they can be self-sustainable by starting and leading their own projects in the form of social businesses (with positive impact on the environment and positive impact on society).

Education is given through coaching, mentoring and training, with students learning to take responsibility, unlearning limiting beliefs and receiving assistance with start-up businesses and social entrepreneurship. The education project is transcending the country’s rigid educational model through a unique “free-sponsible” educational approach: there is no governance in the school, no rules and ultimately no restrictions.

Where did the need for SINA come from?

Watch this video to learn more about the thinking behind the school:

Free-sponsible Education

One of the first things that struck me upon arrival at SINA was the lack of hierarchy and management. There are no rules, there are no people “in charge” as it were; instead the academy is run through a series of learning groups. each group taking responsibility for a different area of the school. The academy consists of scholars and facilitators (the equivalent of students and teachers) however the scholars run the academy together with the facilitators in autonomous task and responsibility groups. They can make independent decisions in their areas, a concept which empowers the scholars from the beginning to take on responsibilities and grow with them constantly. The goal is that a scholar will successfully lead a social enterprise when they leave the academy, and for that to happen, he or she needs to be able to make important decisions, structure time and set priorities. SINA lets the scholars run its academy to allow empowerment to be learned from within. 

The five learning groups are:

1.  Sustainability
2. A-Team
3. Communications
4. Foundation
5. Community Learning

Group meetings to discuss some of the week's issues.

Group meetings to discuss some of the week's issues.

Each group meets twice a week to discuss some of the core matters arising (e.g. budget for the week’s food, accommodation issues, waste problems, social unrest etc.) and they try to end each meeting with a resolution of what they can do. If they are unable to solve these problems alone, they are then carried over to the weekly “Hub” meeting, wherein a representative from each of the five groups meets together with a facilitator to try to make plans to tackle any unresolved issues. I sat in on several of these meetings during my visit and was interested to observe a range of approaches to running a meeting and to conflict resolution.

An introduction to unlearning and innovation

Students are encouraged to “unlearn” the methodologies of rote and reaction from their formal schooling, unleashing their full potential through intrinsic motivation rather than punishments and rewards. They work through a series of learning stages, choosing themselves when they are ready to graduate to the next stage. 


The seven learning stages that all scholars move through are:

1. Orientation
2. Confusion
3. Skill Development
4. Imagine
5. Concentration
6. Linking
7. Graduation

The model of learning has been crafted using a range of educational ideas, including NVC (Non-Violent Communication),  Self-Organisation, Active Listening, Design Thinking, Ideation Workshops, Conflict Transformation and Team Building (learn more here). After the introduction stage, students spend time in “confusion”.

Scholar Julie wearing one of her designs.

Scholar Julie wearing one of her designs.

I talked with one of the scholars, Julie (co-founder of fashion start-up Smart-Up), about this stage and she explained, “It is a period where you spend time trying to forget the habits from school, trying to understand that you can be the master of your own fate and you don’t have to follow everybody else”. 

Speaking with the scholars during my stay, it seems that “Confusion” is the most challenging stage for most of the community. It is a time wherein they have to get used to being in a school with no rules, structure, discipline or order and have to learn that they are the boss of themselves. As Julie said “if I want to spend all day every day sleeping, I can do. But I soon realised that it was only me that was going to make my life a success, and so I soon learned to motivate myself and find my inner ambitions.”

During stage 3 (Skill Development), students are introduced to a range of skilled projects happening within the community. SINA focuses on community, empowerment and sustainability, modelling the concept of upcycling within the village itself. All of the learning spaces are built out of old plastic bottles filled with soil and turned into “bottle-bricks”.

The constructions of the classrooms form part of the project-based learning approach and training curriculum, with facilitators and scholars working together in the academy to create their learning spaces. Through this, a sense of ownership and motivation is created and scholars are empowered to think beyond the conventional and to come up with their own creative solutions to some of Uganda’s challenges.

The bottle huts - with a selection of sustainable roof options.

The bottle huts - with a selection of sustainable roof options.

It took just one month to build this - using 18,000 waste plastic bottles!

It took just one month to build this - using 18,000 waste plastic bottles!

Bottles are carefully placed into the walls to create unique designs.

Bottles are carefully placed into the walls to create unique designs.

Watch this short video to find out more about the building, design and development process: 

The bottle construction runs as a social business for some of the scholars (as does the interlocking brick business – an innovative design using a third of the resources and manual labour as it cuts out the need for cement and burning of bricks).

Another social business that has become a success is Sengozi - an innovative Ugandan company founded in November 2014 producing the world’s first Terrazzo and Epoxy Floorings out of plastic bags and egg shells. The organisation uses plastic waste from the local area and the wasted egg shells from a nearby poultry factory to turn into durable and long-lasting flooring and tiles for houses.

One of the scholars introduced the rather feisty resident cockerel to me, a refugee of another sort as he was found inside one of the waste shells one day, and was thus raised and nurtured by the SINA community to become the strong, wise cockerel he is today!

As well as the three core business models, there are a range of income generating skills that the students can choose to learn during their stay. These include:

1. Craft making

2. Book making

3. Agriculture

4. Sweater knitting

5. Chakula Bora (a canteen)

6. SINA Village (an accommodation area for tourists and visitors)

A stay in SINA Village

During my visit to SINA I stayed up at the academy, sleeping in SINA village. This is a short walk from the main learning area and has been constructed as a traditional East African village, with five basic mud huts containing a bed and mosquito net... and that's about it.

The accommodation has been deliberately built to be basic, to give visiting tourists or friends a chance to experience living in an old-style traditional East African village made from natural materials available on the surrounding mountainside.

Sleeping in the hut was a beautiful, peaceful experience and a really interesting return to simplicity. The bio-gas

toilet and bucket shower also allow tourists to explore sustainability within the village itself, whilst the nearby smallholding grows much of the food served at the academy and enhances the sense of sustainable living within the village and wider community.

The Scholars

Part of the focus of SINA is to offer marginalised youth an opportunity to support their own futures. As such, many of the scholars have been recruited from one of the largest refugee camps in Uganda, Kyangwali refugee settlement located in Hoima District South West Uganda and home to over 20,000 refugees.

During my time at SINA, four new scholars arrived from the camp (coming from Sudan, Congo and Burundi) and I spent time with Beatrice, a Congolese refugee and aspiring artist.

Beatrice left her home five years ago and had been living in the camp with her surviving family. During that time she harnessed her passion for art, working on a series of political cartoons to start putting together a portfolio. With a clear talent for drawing combined with a strong voice advocating for change, Beatrice told me how she hopes one day to use her work to inspire movements across the world.

I also met with Julie and Derrick, founders of Smart-Up, a clothing and accessories business and Edgar, a phenomenally talented painter whose business idea is to turn treasured photographs of memories into pieces of art. His business is called Walyendo Edgar and he has reached the Graduation stage of the SINA learning process and is already selling his artwork across the region and in Europe:

SINA start-ups

Having now run for almost two years, SINA has seen several of its scholars graduate and start up their own businesses. One of the biggest success stories is Ruth Nabembezi, the founder of 'Ask Without Shame', a mobile app providing emergency sex education and advice.

Speaking about sex in Uganda is considered a taboo, and many youth have little or no access to vital information they need about their own sexual health. Ruth grew up in an orphanage because both of her parents died of HIV. Her sister also contracted the illness but when she fell sick, she was taken to a witch doctor because the neighbours in the village thought she was being possessed, rather than sick. Sadly she also passed away. Ruth knew that if she had been diagnosed and treated by medical experts, she could still be alive. As a reaction to her own tragedies, she founded the startup Ask Without Shame to provide a much needed free and confidential service to her fellow Ugandans. 

Finding inspiration from personal history, tragedy and experience is part of what drives many of the scholars within their start-up ideas and I was fortunate to meet with an incredible number of inspired and inspiring youth who are working to promote positive change in their communities.


I had been interested in SINA for a while and was keen to visit to be able to learn more about their unique educational model. The concept of unlearning and finding knowledge from within is a core focus for ThoughtBox and I was keen to link up with the SINA community to share ideas and to learn more. There were many positive things happening within the community, but there were also many challenges which an organic learning community such as this is perhaps bound to have.

Because no-one is in charge, there were times when certain elements which could have been addressed were not being thought about - such as providing visitors with information about where to wash, eat, find water and how to find their way in the dark to the village...information that would have been rather useful to myself but were discovered in the end - much active learning was had (and a fair few tumbles in the dark!)

I also felt that the learning groups, although positive in their self-sustained model, were sometimes passing the problem from one group to another, with no-one perhaps taking charge and choosing to face the issue. Another element that really struck me about the place was a lack of communal space for all of the scholars and facilitators to come together - students ate in their rooms or scattered around the mountainside, and apart from a morning meeting which many didn't come to, there were no occasions (or opportunities) for the community to come together which I felt was a shame in such an isolated area. However, as is the nature of organic learning models, these are all elements that over time will be explored and adapted and learned from within.

All in all, it was a random, remarkable and inspiring visit and I look forward to following the progress of the scholars as they move through their learning journeys.

For more information on SINA visit their website: www.socialinnovationacademy.org

2017Rachel Musson