A deaf women community in Ethiopia’s capital, Addis Ababa, is using sign language to fight plastic pollution as they create jobs from their paper bags enterprise.
I had a chat with Mimi Legesse, co-founder Teki Paper Bags based in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia.
What was the inspiration behind Teki?
It’s simple! We were looking for a solution to empower deaf women and create jobs.
Plastic pollution is a serious environmental problem in many countries. How serious is the plastic pollution problem in Ethiopia?
Here in Ethiopia, plastic bags are a huge problem. Every time we go shopping we receive so many plastic bags that make our country untidy. This is not the Ethiopia we want to leave to our children.
How is Teki contributing to the conservation of the environment?
A lot of people don’t have awareness about the impact plastic bags have in the environment. Our job is to convince them, and our secret is to use sign language only. When people speak, most people don’t listen, but when we sign to explain, it works!
As a deaf women led organization involved in profound ways of fighting plastic pollution what challenges do you face?
Our only challenge at Teki is the lack of support. Everybody loves our idea, but no one wants to help us to grow. So many deaf are excluded here in Ethiopia. We deserve to have work and be independent like everyone else. But for that, we need to be supported, and with support, we shall be able to create more meaningful jobs.
Have people embraced your environmentally friendly alternative bags, and do you feel they are ready for a change?
Yes, everyone loves our bags here and sometimes they order more than we can deliver because we do not have capacity to produce in bulk, and that’s a challenge. All our customers love us despite being deaf. When they visit us, we always teach them some Ethiopian sign language, which makes them become part of our family.
What is your message to those saying that the production of paper bags contributes to climate change because of the cutting of trees?
Our paper is partially recycled, and we make sure that our bags are strong and can be reused more than 5 times.
Yes, paper is made from trees, but it takes less time for a tree to grow than for a single plastic bag to degrade. We are also proud to take part the Green Legacy initiative here in Ethiopia to help our country plant more trees every year.
Has your business been affected by the covid-19 pandemic?
The Covid is a very big challenge for the deaf worldwide. Because of face masks, we can’t lip-read anymore. This makes our lives so difficult. Taking a minibus became harder, and asking prices in the shop is difficult. So at Teki, we decided to reduce our working hours so we can leave work before the roads get too busy. But now we have issues to produce enough bags, but what can we do? We have to protect our team from the virus.
What is your vision for Teki
When Ethiopia bans plastic bags, we could create more than 30,000 rewarding jobs from the bags we make. Persons living with a disabilities deserve to have a job opportunities and be independent, and the fight against plastic bags is our chance.
This interview was conducted in Ethiopian sign language and transcribed in English with support by the Teki Family.