Mimi Legesse had to quit attending school for the deaf when she became pregnant with her first child. She started making crochet bags during that period, thinking that her former friends would be interested in purchasing one whenever she returned to finish high school.
“We tried to make a business out of it but then realized that it was not going to work because the production took a long time and crochet bags were rather difficult to make,” Mimi explained. After giving the issue some more thinking, they settled on using paper bags, according to her.
“Everybody likes paper bags; it’s 10 times better than plastic,” she said.
Mimi never had to worry about seeing rubbish or plastic as she walked the streets near her home as a child. Recently, though, she had noticed that no matter where she went, she would see trash, usually plastic bags.
It was clear to her that the status quo was untenable and that action was required.
In 2016, she established Teki Paper Bags to produce paper bags that might serve as safe, biodegradable alternatives to the more pernicious plastic bags, spearheading an effort to rid Ethiopia of single-use plastics.
Also, it’s a company run by a group of deaf women who are actively working to improve their own status in society.
Beginning with a modest staff, they eventually had to hire an additional 30 people in order to meet demand. They had to close for two months due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Mimi claims they successfully raised enough money through a crowdfunding effort at this time to keep everyone on the payroll.
When they returned to work, they found that sales had slowed and that they were having trouble moving enough bags before they decided to teach their customers Ethiopian sign language. Heineken and the Hyatt Regency were among the businesses that benefited from booking sign language sessions.
USAID Ethiopia has been supporting them since 2022 after a lengthy selection process, all with the goal of expanding their operations and providing more employment opportunities for disabled youth under the slogan “Fighting plastic bags with sign language.”
Paper bags of various sizes are now part of the services they offer to their customers. They now employ 59 people across three offices in Addis. They have also just arranged to open a fourth location within the Ethiopian Postal Service.
Mimi says the team should be especially proud of their accomplishments because they had to overcome not just the typical challenges faced by businesses but also those unique to the deaf community in Ethiopia faces in their day-to-day lives.
“Our disability is often invisible, and this changes a lot. When you are deaf, the problem isn’t accessibility; it is communication. The language barrier we face daily is difficult, and we have to find our own ways to be understood, which makes it hard sometimes,” Mimi explained.
The deaf community also suffers from an absence of employment options. She claims that when new positions become available, employers overlook the deaf because they assume “disability equals inability.”
Having a firm run by people who themselves have hearing impairments is a significant victory for Mimi, as is providing a platform for others with the condition to find employment or find motivation to pursue their own passion projects.
Mimi believes that the development of Teki will lead to employment opportunities for people with disabilities. Over time, they hope to persuade policymakers to set aside the entire paper bag industry as a way to provide employment opportunities for individuals with disabilities across the board, not only the deaf.
The movement to reduce the use of disposable plastic bags, according to her, will provide the opportunity for the creation of thousands of new, well-suited jobs.
“People are actually convinced when we sign alongside them and explain why plastic bags are harmful for our country, and this makes us proud and pleased,” she said.
With the help of the government, Mimi and her team hope to make Ethiopia completely free of plastic bags while simultaneously providing over 50,000 jobs to individuals with disabilities in the paper bag business.