Turning Trash into Cash

Ethiopia, March 14, 2008

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  <span class="field-credit">
    Cathy Ratcliff/Mercy Corps Ethiopia  </span>
    Tafessu Jiru, 35, has gone from unemployment to a managerial position in an environmentally-friendly start-up business funded by Mercy Corps. Photo: Cathy Ratcliff/Mercy Corps Ethiopia
  <span class="field-credit">
    Cathy Ratcliff/Mercy Corps Ethiopia  </span>
    Members of a women's Saving and Credit Cooperative meet to discuss business plans. Photo: Cathy Ratcliff/Mercy Corps Ethiopia
  <span class="field-credit">
    Cathy Ratcliff/Mercy Corps Ethiopia  </span>
    The briquettes look and burn much like conventional charcoal, but give off less smoke and rely on household waste products rather than trees. Photo: Cathy Ratcliff/Mercy Corps Ethiopia

As a single mother with a 13-year-old son, Tafessu Jiru doesn't have a lot of kitchen scraps coming from her household. Most everything is put to prudent use.

But a little bit of garbage goes a long way in Akaki Kaliti, an impoverished neighborhood in Ethiopia's capital, Addis Ababa. When you add the scraps from Tafessu's kitchen to those from the kitchens of her friends, it turns into quite a pile.

A pile of money, that is.

With support from Mercy Corps and a local organization called Women in Self-Employment (WISE), Tafessu and some of her neighbors are finding a way to transform potato skins and fruit peels into fuel. They are one of five female-led Savings and Credit Cooperatives who are not only pulling their families out of poverty, but also helping save the environment by creating and selling alternative fuel briquettes.

Determination despite difficulty

Nothing has ever come easily for Tafessu, but she's struggled hard nonetheless to find a better life. After starting school at a late age and repeating two class levels during her education, she finally graduated from high school at the age of 24. Not long after that, she lost her first job at a local coffee-processing factory — leaving her to scramble for odd jobs to support her young son.

Now 35, she lives with her son, parents, two sisters and a nephew in a 324-square-foot room in a gritty part of Addis Ababa. The extended family scraped by on Tafessu's mother's pension until Tafessu learned about an international organization helping Ethiopian women set up their own businesses: Mercy Corps.

She received her first loan nine months ago and quickly turned that money into a successful business selling supplies to local beekeepers. Tafessu was able to bring in a modest profit to buoy her family, as well as pay her loan back ahead of schedule.

This burgeoning business acumen caught the attention of Mercy Corps and WISE, who were beginning a new program to not only raise the fortunes of poor Ethiopian families but also protect the country against accelerating climate change.

Innovation becomes opportunity

The idea of turning organic household waste into fuel briquettes for home cooking and heating had been explored for some time by the Ethiopian Government, in collaboration with international organizations. But the dream of coming up with a successful business model had not been realized. Scientifically these briquettes have been proven to burn just as well as wood charcoal with less smoke and, of course, no dependency on already-scarce wood supplies.

The only raw materials necessary to their manufacture are various organic waste products such as food scraps. The process itself is simple: the organic material is slowly burned over the course of a few days, then put through a mill to produce a fine dust. That dust is then mixed with clay and water in a special machine called an agglomerator, which produces the actual briquettes.

Mercy Corps identified this potential economic development opportunity in mid-2007 and, that December, launched a new program to help female entrepreneurs manufacture fuel briquettes and manage six small businesses. This program was capitalized by $50,000 from Mercy Corps' Phoenix Fund, which raises private seed money from socially conscious investors to begin innovative small projects in places where aid money is typically hard to come by.

With this funding, Tafessu and 29 other low-income women are receiving the training, equipment and support they need to start environmentally aware businesses that will provide an affordable, climate-friendly product to households in some of Addis Ababa's poorest neighbourhoods.

The long-term goal of the project is that the business activities of these 30 women will succeed and expand, leading to more job opportunities for citizens of Addis Ababa — a city with a self-reported unemployment rate around 40 percent. More immediately, the program is striving to provide participants with a sustainable income of about US $1,825 per year, which is a considerable improvement over the dollar a day that many people here earn.

Owing much to her own perseverance and vibrant personality, Tafessu has been named the manager for her small six-woman business. It won't be easy; these women will depend on each other for everything as their enterprise gets underway and goes through inevitable growing pains. But Mercy Corps staff members, as well as her own peers, believe Tafessu is up to the job.

"I hope that my work will give hope to other women and set an example of how they can improve their current situation," Tafessu says. "My dream is for our new business to be a huge success so that I can support my entire family and make my son proud of his mother."