Profile: “At home, I’m the only deaf person. When I’m here I can communicate.” Teki: pioneering dignity and livelihood for the deaf

(Left) Mimi Legesse. (Right) Teki family)

Etenesh Abera @EteneshAb

Addis Abeba, May 13/2020 – Zenit Yahyah, 16, is currently one of the staff members of Teki, “a social and environmental enterprise developed for and by the deaf community.” It’s an enterprise which prides itself for creating a “sustainable employment to empower deaf women while building a plastic bag free Ethiopia.”

And guess what?… Teki says, “It works.”

It is because it really does work that a young teenage like Zenit, who could have otherwise spent her lifetime trying to find a place to fit in, has become one of its members.

“Because of my deafness, I couldn’t call or ask people of Teki’s address after I read about them on Facebook. I communicated with my deaf friends about what kind of incredible things they were doing. That forced me to use Google Maps.’’ Zenit told Addis Standard. ‘’I feared they (Teki) may reject me while applying, but they accepted me immediately. I was so grateful.’’  Joining Teki was not just a mere opportunity to find a job, it was where she self-esteem and sense of belongingness. “I want to continue my education and wish for Teki to expand and have more deaf staff members.’’ 

Teki family at work

Haymanot Abebe, 32, is another deaf staff member of the Teki family. She told Addis Standard how lonely she felt when she was at her former workplace. “After I joined Teki everything changed for me. I built my self-confidence, communicated and got paid better. We are not just colleagues, we are a family,’’ Haymanot says. According to her, Teki made them feel proud of themselves and feel capable of doing anything.

“At home, I’m the only deaf person. When I’m here I can communicate.”

Reads one of Teki’s motto

When the dreams of a formerly orphaned woman come true

Coming from an orphanage, deaf and a mother of two, Mimi Leggese is one of the co-managers of Teki social enterprise. Mimi says her wishes since childhood were to help others, especially those with hearing impairment because in Ethiopia living as a deaf is very difficult.

Mimi Legesse

“When I was pregnant with my first child I started to make crochet bags and hats. After a while I taught some of my friends to do it as a business model which wasn’t successful,” Mimi told Addis Standard.  After the failed crochet business she was thinking of establishing a sustainable business idea. That was when she met Clement, a Swiss entrepreneur who lived around Alpha Special School for the Deaf and wanted to help the deaf community. Clement took the initiative with his friend Mussei to take Mimi’s wish one step further and turned it into a social enterprise which helps the deaf while taking care of the environment. ‘’At the time we started working on Teki we were only three individuals including myself. Currently we have 26 employees, 18 of them are deaf,” Mimi said. Now, she wants to expand Teki into “a large social enterprise focusing on deaf women’s empowerment and other marginalized communities.’’

Success through perseverance

The journey is not an easy one, nor did Mimi expected it to be. But Teki’s resilient business model means they have now “produced more than one million paper bags. Because we produce strong paper bags we seriously believe that we contribute a lot to the environment by avoiding plastic bags’’ Mimi says.

Creating a positive impact for and about deaf people is probably what cannot be quantified by numbers. Teki’s motto reads ‘we make paper bags, with social and environmental impact’ and its family live by its motto. Almost 90 per cent of Teki’s staff are women, and 70 per cent of them are deaf. In 2019, Teki was awarded ‘Pioneer of the year 2019’’ award by the American Chamber of Commerce at a ceremony held in Addis Abeba last December.

“When we started this business we had three customers, but now we have more than 50 customers who make use of our paper bags.” At times, Teki’s customers are diplomatic institutions that want to distribute their products to businesses. The Embassy of Switzerland in Addis Abeba is one such example. “With the help of the Swedish Embassy we distributed a lot of bags for women who own small businesses.”  

Challenges ahead

As a pioneer in the business model, Teki faces challenges from the unique ones to the common ones.  This starts from the place they manufacture the paper bags at. ‘’As you see, our office and manufacturing place is very small,” Mimi said. They were in discussions with the Addis Abeba city Administration to get land to expand their production “but we haven’t gotten an answer yet. We hope we will get a positive answer soon.’’

 The issues of pricing of the paper bags and peoples’ perception that they are expensive in comparison to plastic bags is another challenge. “It shouldn’t be compared in the first place. ‘Plastic bags are manufactured and imported easily and the impact of plastic bags on the environment is devastating; this should be understood.”  

Each paper bag at Teki is handmade and environmentally friendly. “We also oblige with the law and pay Value Added Tax (VAT), which Teki should have been exempted from because above 60 per cent its workforce are persons with disabilities,” Mimi believes.

Mimi with the rest of Teki family

During Addis Standard’s visit of the enterprise back in March, they had already stopped manufacturing printed paper bags for companies as a result of a machine breakdown to print company logos and names on. To import new machines, Teki were waiting for a foreign currency approval from banks. ‘’Currently we aren’t printing anything on the paper bags, some of our customers buy these paper bags that do not bear their logos so as not to go back to plastic bags, for which we are very grateful,” Mimi says, but not all are interested unless the bags carry company names and logos.

Now, like most businesses in Ethiopia, Teki is grappling with the effects of COVID-19; their staff members are no longer coming to the small office unless to distribute what is in the stock and the machine is not yet fixed. But that is not the only challenge Teki is bracing to overcome. Initially, they used 100 per cent local inputs for their products, but after a while they began struggling with the quality of local supplies and have resorted to import materials from abroad. That too is hard to sustain as Ethiopia braces for severe economic impact due to the Coronavirus.

But, for Teki family, no challenge is permanent. AS  

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