Ye Zembil Melse is an environmental campaign dedicated to bringing about a plastic-free Ethiopia through advocating for legislation and raising public awareness.
Seble Samuel, Meron Tadesse and Haimanot Tefera launched the campaign in June of 2019. All three are involved in environmental work in some capacity and decided to join forces for Ye Zembil Melse.
“We started the campaign as individuals (me, Seble and Haimi) all environmentalists both in profession and passion, and were later joined by like-minded friends, environmental groups, and organizations,” explains Meron. “We observed the detrimental effects of plastic pollution on the environment and started imagining what it was like before plastic bags were introduced. And the first name that popped up was Zembil. Everyone used to do grocery shopping with zembil (woven baskets) which is beautiful and eco-friendly. And that’s why we named the campaign “Ye Zembil Melse”, bringing Zembil back.”
Ye Zemil Melse is a collaborative platform of three organizations – Global Shapers Addis Ababa Hub, Green Ethiopia, and Lem Ketema. The first campaign involved a petition demanding a ban on single-use plastic bags in Ethiopia and instead using traditional alternatives like zembils and cloth bags.
“We follow in the footsteps of environmental pioneers such as SOS Addis who have been campaigning for a complete ban on plastic bags for over a decade, and we support the proposal of the Environment, Forest and Climate Change Commission to ban all single-use plastic bags in Ethiopia,” they write in the petition to ban single-use plastic on change.org.
One of the clever ideas in their campaign to end this cycle of waste was to involve local celebrities, and public figures such as Zeritu Kebede, Betty G, Melaku Belay, Kenny Allen, Eleni G/Medhin, Kuku Sebsebe, and many others.
“We came up with the idea of working with public figures and influencers to put a spotlight on Zembil and make it trendy. [They] were all happy to be part of the campaign and we’re really grateful to all of them. Even though it looks as if all the focus is on Zembil, our main goal is to promote the use of sustainable and practical alternatives like tote bags and for people to make a conscious decision not to use plastic bags. It’s routine to be handed plastic bags when buying something and people need to think about the consequence of the plastic they’re going to use one time and discard.” explains Meron.
The campaign also involves events like the one held on Earth Day at Alliance Ethio-Française that featured many plastic-free and environment-friendly alternatives currently available in the city. Alternative Addis, an initiative that upcycles glass waste into jars and cups, MAFI MAFI, who produced Zelaki tote bags, Noble Cup, a reusable menstrual cup that’s more sustainable than other alternatives, AFRIKAL sustainable cloth bags by Hub of Africa, and local zembil vendors, were all present at the event. A tailor helped convert fabric into bags for the participants.
“Oftentimes we hear people saying alternatives are expensive and we wanted to show how easily we can make them from old materials with a simple visit to our neighborhood tailor or even do it ourselves,” says Meron.
While countries like Kenya and Rwanda have banned single-use plastic, Ethiopia has been moving in the opposite direction. The Environment, Forest and Climate Change Commission proposed a complete ban on plastic bags in Ethiopia but it was delayed due to the pandemic. The plastic industry is one of the biggest industries with the worst environmental practices. It is one of the fastest-growing industries in Ethiopia at this moment, with the nation importing large amounts of plastic raw material and many private companies increasingly involved in the manufacturing, packaging and trade of plastic products.
“Plastic doesn’t have a long history in the country and yet we’ve all clearly seen the devastating impact it brought within a very short time. It might seem that plastic became part of our daily life and we might think it’s going to be difficult without it. But, we believe if there is a will there is a way, we lived without it once and we can live without it again. Of course, such initiatives will be more effective when supported with policy and our intention is to mobilize the community to demand policy change with a bottom-up approach.”
This approach relies on behavioral changes through community outreach efforts. Meron is hoping awareness-raising campaigns on the adverse impacts of plastic waste at the individual level can lead to informed people demanding change at the policy level.
Legislation has been effective in stopping all single-use plastic in other countries and the Ethiopian government must weigh the economic gains against the adverse environmental impacts of certain industries.
Organizations with poor environmental practices like Nestle and Coca-Cola have set their sights on countries like Ethiopia as fertile ground as there are lax restrictions and governments are looking to increase foreign investment. Western nations often send plastic waste they can’t reuse or recycle to countries in the Global South, leading to large-scale ecological disasters whose impacts we will soon see.
“Making Ethiopia plastic-free means promoting policies for ecological sustainability and urban resilience, reviving our circular economies, and abandoning cultures of single-use, dispose-ability, and waste to build healthier communities and cities,” writes co-founder Seble in an op-ed for Ketema Journal.
Ye Zembil Melse is working to prevent negative social and ecological outcomes from the plastics crisis by campaigning for Ethiopia to be plastic-free. For this to become possible, the campaign requires the support of the public sector for significant progress to be made, and they’re looking forward to that.