Abdi Neda, waste collector
30-year-old Abdi is the head of a solid waste collectors' union in Yeka Sub-City, Addis Ababa. He oversees the work of seven groups of waste collectors (a total of 96 people) and is directly responsible for a further three groups. Twice a week, the groups go house-to-house and collect waste that is then separated into rubbish, compostable waste, and recycling.
"I joined the group in 2009 together with a friend of mine," says Abdi. "We were both homeless at the time. And the group was very small: there were only ten of us. We didn't have any equipment or training. We carried the waste on our backs. After a couple of years, we were able to save up and buy a cart. And that made us much stronger."
Without safe waste disposal, the spread of water-related diseases such as cholera, typhoid, and childhood diarrhoea in crowded settings like Yeka Sub-City is far more likely. That's why Amref Health Africa supports waste collection groups like Abdi's as part of the Water, Sanitation and Hygiene (WASH) project we have been running in Addis Ababa since 2015 in partnership with Comic Relief.
Driving change for the whole community
Thanks to Abdi's thoughtful leadership, the solid waste collectors' union has a good relationship with the community and the local authorities. "We are comfortable: we are accepted by the community; we are recognised by the government at Sub-City level. We have a good image," says Abdi. "I have planned a proper schedule for the waste management, and the community as well have that information. They know when to expect us. We give them business cards; we put the information on the door for some people; we use banners. There is a number they can call if they are unhappy with the service we provide."
As well as improving public health, the work done by Abdi and his union creates social benefits for the community. "Previously, this was a very dirty place," he says, indicating the area surrounding his office. A couple of years ago, the waste collectors cleared the area and transformed it into a park. "Before, there was public urination; people discarded everything. My group cleaned this area, made it green, to be a recreation place for youngsters." In 2017, the Sub-City gave the group an award in recognition of their success in transforming the land for the benefit of the whole community.
Believing is a good thing! Feeling that I’m a hard worker, that I can manage this . . . the confidence, the courage is the major thing to be successful. I have good communication skills. I have a good relationship with my work colleagues: I respect them, so that they can respect me.
Looking to the future
Where does Abdi see the group going next? "We are planning to become a private company in solid waste collection," he says. "We are planning to buy a compactor; if we buy a compactor, the number of human resources needed will be reduced, since the plastic will be crushed at the collection site. So, this part of the process will be managed by ten people or fewer. The other people will be reassigned for the production of recycled plastics, which will generate more income for the group."
Abdi hopes they will be able to use the savings each union member sets aside every month to buy the compactor and scale up production, achieving their goal within two or three years. Despite the support of the Sub-City, and the well-run business, Abdi anticipates some further challenges: "Having the land [for the machines] might be difficult," he says. "Even if the Sub-City supports us, management of the land is beyond their control. I feel that we might also face some challenges in having electric power. It will take us some time."
Pictured: One of the waste collection teams goes house-to-house with the truck they purchased
"My old life left a black spot"
The expansion and success of the solid waste collectors' union increases opportunity by providing work for residents of Yeka Sub-City. Abdi's story is a perfect example of this: his work has changed his life and shaped his positive attitude by improving his skills and experience. Abdi's successes have led him to create a rewarding life: "I have two boys: eight years and four years old," he says. "I'm renting a house, and my own house is under construction."
The members of the groups he manages speak highly of his drive and dedication. So where does his motivation come from?
"I was on the street. I don't want to repeat that life. That makes me be courageous. That life has left a black spot on my heart. That's why I always work hard to be successful instead of being left behind," says Abdi.
Abdi's work ethic and vision led the group to elect him as leader. "They knew I had passed through tough times: I was leading a hard life. And from that they knew that I was strong, to pass from that life and become successful. And on that basis, they elected me to be their leader."
* This interview took place in Amharic. It has been edited for length and clarity.
All images (c) Alexander Aweke for Amref Health Africa, 2019.
A member of Abdi's team and a single mother of two young boys, Melkae Tadesse says she's proud of the independence she's been able to achieve since joining the group.