Valuing Everyone

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Stigmatization is high and inclusivity is low for persons with disabilities in many developing countries. While governments have put in some efforts to increase society’s inclusivity of persons with disabilities through capacity building, much more needs to be done. Abilis Foundation is a Finnish organization that works to promote issues faced by a marganilized group through economic empowerment. Capital spoke to Executive Director Marjo Heinonen and Programme Coordinator Hanna Kähkönen about the foundation’s work and their recent visit to Ethiopia.

Capital: Could you please tell us about your work at Abilis Foundation and persons with disabilities?

Marjo Heinonen: Abilis Foundation is a Finnish development aid actor. It funds projects planned and implemented by persons with disabilities to actively promote the disability rights and improve their living conditions in developing countries.
Active involvement and capacity building of persons with disabilities (PwDs) and their organizations (DPOs) create the foundation for the work of Abilis Foundation. Empowered persons with disabilities are in better position to contribute to development of society. Abilis was founded by persons with disabilities in Finland in 1998. Majority of the Board members are experts with disabilities, representing different professional backgrounds.

Hanna Kähkönen: I work as a Programme Coordinator for Abilis Foundation headquarters in Helsinki, Finland. My job is to take care of Abilis’ Country Programme in Ethiopia. Furthermore, I am in charge of the FinnPartnership Programme that Abilis implements in close collaboration with Sera Helsinki, a Finnish company that imports carpets made by Ethiopian people with disabilities to be sold in Finnish and other markets.
Abilis Foundation is a Finnish grant-maker organization that has worked in Ethiopia since 2007 together with a local partner organization Ethiopian Center for Disability and Development, ECDD. Throughout these years, Abilis has focused on providing grants to disabled people’s organizations to implement projects aiming at empowering poor persons with disabilities. Most of the supported projects have concentrated on income generation activities.


Basically, my work is to process project applications to be funded, and assess how the projects have been implemented by evaluating mid-term and final reports made by DPOs (organization of persons with disabilities). When it comes to the FinnPartnership Programme, I try to identify potential groups to be part of Sera’s carpet business, plan, organize and implement trainings for people with disabilities, and build a sustainable business chain from wool production through thread making to carpet weaving. Key element of my daily work is communication with ECDD, Sera Helsinki and Ennat Design Handicraft, that is Sera’s business partner in Ethiopia.
Abilis works in close collaboration with ECDD. ECDD facilitates DPOs at the local level and helps them to write grant applications and final reports for Abilis Foundation. They also evaluate and assess groups and their capacity to implement planned activities, and assess how groups have managed to implement their projects. Under the FinnPartneship Programme ECDD helps Abilis to identify groups, plan, organize and implement trainings and help to build a sustainable business chain in carpet business.
Abilis team visits Ethiopia twice a year to evaluate, how DPOs have spent Abilis money and how projects are going. Furthermore, Abilis meets local DPOs, ECDD and other stakeholders during these visits. Under the FinnPartnership Programme Abilis also identifies and trains groups for Sera’s carpet business.

Capital: We understand Abilis has projects in different countries. How does the foundation choose what kind of initiatives to support?

Heinonen: Abilis has a strategy that guides all priorities. Additionally there are guiding policies and principles that are based on 20 years of experience. All named focus countries are well known and the country programmes are prepared by the local experts on disability. Abilis appreciates the local people with disabilities, their initiatives and wishes, and supports projects that are planned, implemented and reported by them.

Capital: Tells us about the project in Ethiopia.

Heinonen: Abilis has been supporting Ethiopian Organizations of persons with disabilities over ten years. Majority of the projects have focused on income generation. Variety of income generation activities include animal husbandry, dairy products, injera and dry food production, leather and blacksmith workshops, metal and wood works, tailoring and carpet making as well as other handicraft activities.
In most of the projects, participants receive some vocational training that equip them with basic skills. Business training may lead to small entrepreneurship and self-employment. Through project funding persons with disabilities can find a way to generate income, cover costs of daily living and live a meaningful life among family members and communities.

Kähkönen: At the moment Abilis has several projects running in Ethiopia. We have for example projects related to dairy farming, vegetable and fruit farming, furniture making, leather material production, restaurant services, sanitation services, computer center and internet services, electronics services, and electric mitad and cooking stoves manufacturing and maintenance services. Length of one project varies typically from six months to one year.
Under two-year funded Finn Partnership Programme we have projects that are related to expanding carpet business. Now we are looking for projects, that focus on wool production, thread making, and carpet making. With Abilis funding, groups can for example buy sheep, spinning wheels, looms, and renovate space for carpet weaving.
Through the FinnPartnership Programme, Abilis wants to create 400 job opportunities for persons with disabilities. We are trying to employ 100 persons to wool production activities, 200 persons to thread making activities, and 100 persons to carpet weaving activities.
Sera has growing markets in Finland and other countries as well, so there is already nearly 70 carpets to be produced in couple of months. The urgent need at the moment is to find as many persons with disabilities to weave carpets as possible. There are only two DPOs weaving carpets for Sera at the moment.

Capital: Do you work/ hold discussions with the government to influence policy with regards to issues affecting persons with disabilities?

Heinonen: Collaboration with local authorities, even at the national level (Parliament), belong to the Abilis working practices. Abilis encourages local disability organizations to communicate with line ministries and authorities, and to work for improvements and benefits together with them. It is important that DPOs build their capacity in advocacy work. Through active dissemination activities people in society start to understand disability and equality. Support from the authorities is highly needed to change negative perceptions towards disability, discrimination and segregation of persons with disabilities.

Capital: Tell us about your recent visit to Ethiopia.

Heinonen: The Abilis team visited 12 projects in Addis, Jimma, Debre Birhan and Debre Zeit. Project visits are one part of the Abilis work, more precisely project management work. Abilis finds it important to meet grantee groups, observe activities and discuss with group members. The last visit gave the opportunity to meet interesting projects, active groups and experienced DPO leaders.
The visit gave us also an opportunity to be present when FENAPD (Federation of Ethiopian National Associations of Persons with Disabilities) inaugurated a garden after the founder and chairperson of Abilis Foundation, Dr Kalle Könkkölä. This event was unique and demonstrated the deep collaboration that exists between Ethiopian and Finnish DPOs, including Abilis.

Kähkönen: Abilis team visited Ethiopia on 29th of September – 7th of October. As a new employee it was my first trip to Ethiopia. Abilis visited at the ECDD several times, and visited many projects that the foundation has funded. For example, we were very pleased to see, how a group of deaf persons had got their business running. Abilis would like to see more projects like that in the future (see Q10 for further details).
Abilis was also invited to take a part of event ‘Inclusive Fashion Show’ organized by the US Embassy at the Hilton Hotel. I think the event was a good reminder to us all, that disability is not inability, and it was great to see PwDs modeling!

Capital: What would you say is the biggest challenge faced by persons with disabilities in Ethiopia?

Heinonen: Poverty, even extreme poverty, is the common reality that Ethiopian persons with disabilities must face in their everyday life. That is due to poor educational and vocational background followed by unemployment. Lack of social security systems and benefits create the poor living conditions and persons with disabilities are often burden to their families. This may lead to a situation where the entire family suffer from hunger and poverty, even discrimination by neighbors.

Kähkönen: Abilis finds that the biggest challenge faced by the persons with disabilities is that they are discriminated and poor. Through funding Abilis wants to empower these people to gain income, grow self-esteem and be respected members of society.
Capital: Has enough attention been given to issues of persons with disabilities by the Ethiopian government?

Heinonen: This is a question that should be asked from the Ethiopian DPOs.From the Abilis perspective, there are some good contributions that the government has been doing. For instance, local governments have provided DPOs with an office space and technical support in project implementations. This is very important and concrete support needed by local DPOs.

Kähkönen: Abilis finds it important that the government supports DPOs by providing them land and space, and technical support, for implementing planned activities.
Capital: What could Ethiopia learn from a country like Finland when it comes to addressing these issues?

Heinonen: The UN Convention on the rights of persons with disabilities (UNCRPD) is an international treaty that covers the human life. Ratification of this comprehensive and binding document would be essential to proceed with improvements/developments on disability. However, there is a risk to leave the treaty without implementation. It would be necessary to allocate enough resources to implement the content of the UNCRPD.
Finland put time and efforts to update/renew some national acts to be in line with the UNCRPD. Additionally, Finland has strengthened the disability inclusion in all actions inside of Finland and activities through development and humanitarian aid. The Finnish Embassy in Addis Ababa is one of the good examples with their efforts on this matter.

Kähkönen: This is a very delicate issue to comment, because even human rights have been a restricted topic to be discussed earlier in Ethiopia. But, I find it important to involve PwDs to decision-making affecting them. “Nothing about us without us”, Kalle Könkkölä used to say. That is extremely important issue to be aware of.
Finland’s Non-Discrimination Act got its legal force in the beginning of the year 2015, and Finland ratified UNCRPD only on the year 2016. Finland’s Non-discrimination Ombudsman monitors also the rights of PwDs in Finland, and tries to promote their situation in our society. We have also Municipal Council’s of Persons with Disabilities in Finland, that try to get PwDs voice to be heard at the municipal level of decision-making.

Capital: How does the Abilis Foundation run projects, in terms of finances? Does it finance an existing project?

Heinonen: Abilis provides project grants according to the funding criteria. A grant can be approved only after an application. Abilis manuals helps disability groups to plan a project in a participatory way and to write a project proposal. A group can have only one grant at the time. If another grant is needed after the first project, the group can apply for another grant. Abilis does not support on-going activities.

Kähkönen: Abilis money comes from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in Finland (MFA). This money is spent for funding projects in developing countries. Abilis has two kinds of project funding, small grants and regular grants. Small grants are up to 3 500 euros, and the length of these projects is about six months.
Regular grants are up to 10,000 euros, and the length of these projects is about one year. Small grants are meant mainly for grassroot DPOs who are having their first project and learning to run a project. But, small grants can also be used to other kind of small projects. Regular grants are meant for more experienced DPOs to fund their projects. Of course, the line between these grants is not always so clear, and we need to evaluate the situation project by project.
Like I mentioned in the beginning of this document, ECDD is our partner organization in Ethiopia. If a DPO wants to apply funding from Abilis, it should first contact to ECDD. ECDD’s facilitators help DPOs to write an application to Abilis and give also another kind of technical support.

Capital: What are some of the success stories you have witnessed in Ethiopia and other African countries with regards to the Foundation’s projects?

Heinonen: Abilis has funded more than 4500 projects – among them there are so many beautiful, successful cases! There are also many great projects in Ethiopia. One good project was visited now recently and it is the Deaf group manufacturing electric stoves.

Kähkönen: I have been working at Abilis only two months now, so I don’t really have the knowledge of all the success stories that there have been. But I think you can find out some great stories from our website.
But, one success story I know personally. This is the Deaf group we visited during our last Ethiopian visit. The group of five members with hearing impairment applied funding from Abilis this year to expand their on-going business. Their project was approved in June 2018, and is estimated to be finalized in December 2018. This is a fast track small grant project which means, that the approved grant is up to 3 500 euros, and the length of the project is only six months.
This is a typical income generating activity project, which goal is to create job opportunities for group of five members with hearing impairment. The group wants to expand their on-going business, but can’t use their potential fully due to the limitation of the capital for purchase like machinery, tools and raw materials. With Abilis support, the group can buy new machines and tools that will enhance production. They will also look for more customers and marketing channels. By the end of the project, group members will be independent and have a fair monthly income. The project also helps these people to contribute ones share for the development of nation.
The group members manufacture electric ‘mitad’ which is used to bake ‘injera’. Similarly, they manufacture electrical ‘mitad’ which has dual purposes that is for baking ‘injera’ as well as for baking loaf of bread. Stoves with different sizes are also being manufactured with good quality. Furthermore, the workshop provides maintenance services for electric stoves by renting and borrowing simple tools and machinery from other groups engaged in same activities.
When we visited the group this month, we were very pleased to see, how the group had spent Abilis money to their business expansion activities. We saw the procured machinery and the stoves they had manufactured. The stoves were both practical and very well designed. When we ask the group, how the business is running, they told us, that the business is profitable and they have also a marketing plan to finding customers (e.g. business cards, sign above their shop).
We find it very clever, that the group manufactures the stoves only after the customer has made his order, so there is no need to have a stock. When the customer orders the product, he pays half of the price, and the rest when he gets the product. Prepayment of the product is used to buy materials needed for the manufacturing. This is also a good way to run a business, and it shows long-term business planning skills starting from how to fund business activities, where to find customers and how to make business sustainable in the long run.