Teki Paper Bags is a small 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 hearing-impaired Ethiopian women who have struggled to find work and escape poverty.
Legesse, who lives with the physical impairment 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. This was when she met Swiss entrepreneur Clement Piguet when he visited her school in 2016. His vision of starting an organization to empower the community came together when he saw the crocheted bags that she designed. They started Teki Paper Bags soon afterward.
The organization’s currently employs 26 people, including 18 hearing-impaired 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.
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 this specific community is particularly essential because hearing-impaired Ethiopian women often struggle to escape poverty and find employment. Many employers in Ethiopia do not hire them in order to avoid hiring interpreters.
The response from the business community, however, 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 told the Guardian that many visitors are overcome with emotion and start to cry after meeting the employees. Clearly, these tours have been successful since Teki Paper Bags now serves more than 50 customers.
Focusing on the empowerment of the community has not detracted from Teki’s environmental aspirations. Teki Paper Bags aspires to reduce Addis Ababa’s overreliance on plastic bags which are given out freely and rarely reused. These bags have, in turn, clogged the city’s rivers and waterways, causing floods during the rainy season.
For some Teki employees, social and environmental causes are intrinsically intertwined. 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 contributing to a social cause as well. This business model shows the strength of small businesses in advancing social and environmental efforts. In all honesty, this bold and witty yet practical take that Teki Bags has on its mission is embodied in its slogan; ‘signs speak louder than words’.