Ethiopia’s Women Environmental Warriors

Two women entrepreneurs are empowering women and combating plastic in capital Addis Ababa against odds

ADDIS ABABA – Contributing to the conservation of the environment, two small business enterprises manned by women entrepreneurs in the two corners of the Ethiopian capital of Addis Ababa have launched a war on the use of plastic.

While one of them run by hearing-impaired women is rolling out handmade paper bags as an alternative to plastic, another one is collecting, crushing plastic bottles, and supplying them to a Chinese textile company.

Cofounded by hearing disabled Mimi Legesse, 32, business enterprise Teki Paper Bags has become a sanctuary for deaf women to earn living. Using sign language to communicate, a group of 125 hearing-impaired women is rolling out handmade paper bags to escape poverty and minimize the use of plastic in the city.

In the rugged, landlocked African country split by the Great Rift Valley, official estimates suggest that nearly 2 million deaf people live in Ethiopia.

Despite some change of attitude off late, they face marginalization due to their inability to communicate with society and because of beliefs that they are cursed by nature.

Legesse and her business partner have brought smiles to many deaf women, who can be seen using their magical hands to roll out bags.

“We brighten the challenging and depressing world of disability and stereotypes with smiles. We have been happy since the establishment of the enterprise in 2016 because we have proved that deaf people are capable of creating and running businesses,” Legesse told Anadolu Agency while using sign language.

She said the educated and young deaf people not getting jobs due to their disability is paining her.

“Many come here in search of jobs. But we are not able to hire them all. I feel sad,” she added. Her enterprise has employed 125 deaf women.

Speaking to Anadolu Agency, Swiss national Clement Piguet, who helped Legesse to set up the enterprise said it was aimed to create jobs for disabled women and transform public perception about the deaf.

Exemplary enterprise

“We created an exemplary enterprise that has generated confidence in the deaf women and let them focus on the big possibilities,’’ he added.

Zinet Yehaya, 19, said the job at the enterprise has boosted her self-esteem.

“I am happy because I am no more a burden on my family, and have utilized my capabilities,” she said while communicating through a sign language interpreter. The interpreter Meskerem Beyene, herself has two deaf sisters.

Legesse said that during the COVID-19 restrictions, they had to close the enterprise for three months. But she said that they paid salaries to employees.

Paper bags have helped to a large extent to minimize the use of plastic bags in the Ethiopian capital with an estimated population of 5 million.

Piguet laments that business and philanthropic establishment in the capital have not supported them.

He said the bigger problem was that voluntary groups do not extend help, because of the business nature of our enterprise. “And when we go to business people, they refuse to give us funds, saying it is a social impact project and cannot make profits,” he said.

Despite all the handicaps, the enterprise over the past five years has been able to produce and sell more than 1.3 million bags.

“Slowly the demand for paper bags is growing. But we are unable to meet the demands due to a lack of sufficient working capital and space. Nevertheless, the enterprise plans to replicate the business and export to neighboring countries,” said Legesse.

All women team crushing plastic

In another corner of the city, another woman Derebe Lemma and her co-women workers are working on two old machines crushing plastic bottles to meet the daily contractual contract of delivering 4,000 kilograms of crushed plastic bottles to a Chinese textile company.

“I have established this facility two years ago. In the beginning, some people discouraged me. They were unable to fathom that women can run the enterprise,” she said.

The facility has employed 72 women who collect and sort plastic bottles. She is now planning to expand the business by employing 300 more women.

“What is unique about my company is that our employees are married women from low-income families,” Lemma said.

One of her workers Hiwot Desalenge, 34, said that the income is helping her to pay house rent and school fees for her two children.

By Seleshi Tessema/AA