From waste to paper

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Different problems that are affecting the environment have started to take center stage in recent years as the issue of climate change became an ever  pressing issue.  These challenges of the 21st century, although they still need effective solutions, have also opened up the gateway for creativity and innovation.
Tesfaye Mekonnen, 40, is the creative mind behind Tesfaye, Liya and Woinshet Eco-paper, a small enterprise that recycles and produces paper in an eco- friendly manner. Tesfaye says  his educational background has played a big  role deriving him  to create a job for himself and others.
“I studied Theology and Community Development in college. I believe that my schooling has helped me to recognize my potential. I used to believe that people were more passive and waited for opportunities to make something of themselves. That was a very wrong perception.”
I benefited a lot from studying Theology because it enabled me to see things from the creator’s perspective.  The community development study which explores  about natural and human resource, technology and development, helped me see things very clearly. It taught me about the massive resources we have in our environment and within ourselves, it is about  discovering  oneself  and understanding the resources around us and working with  them,” Tesfaye says. 
At the  workshop, Tesfaye and  his partners recycle  waste matter into paper and   they produce paper using raw materials such as banana skins,  recycled waste paper, teff straw, cotton, and even pineapple skin.
Tesfaye started the business  with very small finance.  “When I started, I had nothing, I started  by selling A4 sized paper.  After I became  enrolled in the small and medium enterprise scheme, things started picking up slowly,” he said. 
Something sparkled in Tesfaye when he was introduced to the concept of paper that is produced from banana leafs, after he met  a lady from Mozambique during a conference. “I asked her what was her occupation  and she told me that her organization produces paper from banana leafs and exports it to Europe. Until that time,  I have never heard of paper produced from  banana leaves.  Unfortunately, the lady had to leave on the same day we met so I was never able to find out much how the paper is made. I was really fascinated by the concept. I reached out to many people and asked  them to share me their knowledge regarding the matter but I didn’t  get replies,” he said.
Fortunately, another opportunity presented itself.  Tesfaye was given a chance to travel to Kampala, Uganda for a one week training. There, he  learned how to produce banana paper. Currently, he produces six different varieties of products like  postcards, photo albums, notebooks and bookmarks to name a few.
“Many people seek out our product for different uses such as wedding invitations.  We do different kinds of custom work. Most of our customers are foreigners living here.  Our products are 100 percent free from chemicals and are hand-made but, in most cases, the local  people still prefer  flashy Chinese-made paper products. But now I think people are becoming more aware of the environment and are coming around,” Tesfaye says.
The raw material from which we make  the paper is available in abundance, he says. “If you go to Mercato, for example, you can find a huge resource which turns into dump if it is not used for something. We collect those resources and currently we are able to crush 20 kgs of raw material per day.” In December last year, Tesfaye won an award in the form of a grant  worth USD 50,000 from the Ethiopian Climate Innovation Center (ECIC). With the  grant, he plans on to install  heavy duty machines soon and increase the production capacity of Eco-paper.
“In the future, we plan to produce  journal books and shopping bags. With an increased capacity and more product variety, we plan on penetrating the market even more, and we’ll  look into export opportunities,” he said.
So far, an investment of over 1 million birr has gone into the enterprise. “Besides the money invested, the countless hours and manual labor that went into these products puts a lot of value on it.  There were lots of challenges at the beginning, a lot of trial and errors. But being persistent pays off,” Tesfaye says. Currently, the enterprise has six employees and that will hopefully go up once the new machines are installed.
Tesfaye, Liya and Woinshet Eco-paper  products are sold in different areas mainly at the Sheraton Addis Hotel, Hilton Hotel as well as different souvenir shops located around the main post office.