TACOMA — In Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, a small business is combating the overuse of plastic and empowering the local deaf community at the same time. Teki Paper Bags is a small, deaf-run business that produces handmade paper bags as an alternative to plastic. The company sells these bags to local businesses and fights to end the debilitating overuse of plastic bags in Ethiopia’s capital city. Co-founded by Mimi Legesse, it has become a safe haven for deaf Ethiopian women who have struggled to find work and escape poverty.
About the Organization
Legesse, a deaf Ethiopian woman herself, developed her talent for design while growing up in an orphanage and attending the Alpha Special School for the Deaf. Her first attempt at a business involved selling bags and hats that she had crocheted herself. Unfortunately, she was not able to crochet quickly enough to create a market for her products. She met Swiss entrepreneur Clement Piguet, a hearing person, when he visited her school in 2016. His vision of starting an organization to empower the deaf community came together when he saw the crocheted bags that she designed. They started Teki Paper Bags soon afterward.
The organization’s name, Teki, is an Amharic word that means “replacing.” It currently employs 26 people, including 18 deaf people and two full-time interpreters. Almost 90% of employees are women. Since the organization began four years ago, employees have produced more than a million paper bags by hand, using interpreters to sell products in sign language. As an added social initiative, Teki has donated 200,000 paper bags to local businesses owned by women. In 2019, the American Chamber of Commerce in Ethiopia recognized Teki Paper Bags’s success by awarding them the Pioneer of the Year Award.
Empowering Deaf Women
The organization has offered many deaf women the chance to build community and find stable employment. According to Addis Standard, an English-language Ethiopian magazine, a Teki employee described building her confidence and finding family among her deaf colleagues. Legesse has described one of the purposes of the organization as empowering deaf women. This empowerment is both social and financial: along with providing a source of community, Teki Paper Bags offers employees a competitive wage and covers any work-related transportation costs.
The company’s focus on the deaf community is particularly essential because deaf Ethiopian women often struggle to escape poverty and find employment. Many employers in Ethiopia do not hire deaf workers in order to avoid hiring interpreters. Because deaf Ethiopians are denied many professional opportunities, their deafness is often stigmatized. Teki Paper Bags seeks to oppose this stigma and proudly displays slogans such as “being deaf does not make us unable.” The organization has put deaf employees at the front of their production and sales teams.
The response from the business community has been overwhelmingly positive. The organization typically offers three tours of their office/production facility per day to prospective customers. With the help of interpreters, visitors engage with workers in sign language and leave having learned to spell their names. Piguet, the hearing co-founder of Teki Paper Bags, told the Guardian that many visitors are overcome with emotion and start to cry after meeting the employees. For hearing customers who had not yet encountered members of the deaf community, Teki employees’ impressive work ethic was in overwhelming contrast with their prior views about deaf people’s capabilities. Clearly, these tours have been successful since Teki Paper Bags now serves more than 50 customers.
But the organization’s focus on deaf empowerment has not detracted from its environmental cause. Teki Paper Bags exists to reduce Addis Ababa’s overreliance on plastic bags, which are given out freely and infrequently reused. Plastic bags have clogged the city’s rivers and waterways, causing floods during rainy seasons. Addis Ababa’s inadequate garbage disposal facilities are at least partly to blame since the city lacks adequate trash-sorting mechanisms.
For some Teki employees, the social and environmental causes are related. Legesse and her fellow workers have discovered that business leaders are more willing to pay the extra price for paper bags when they know that their money will be empowering the deaf community as well. This business model shows the strength of small businesses in advancing social and environmental efforts. When local organizations provide a community for underserved people, they have the potential to lift employees out of poverty and advance powerful initiatives.
– Sarah Brinsley