Melkae Tadesse, waste collector
"I'm a single mum," says Melkae. "I have two sons, aged 15 and 11, and I'm raising them alone: I'm the leader of the house, and I have to provide for them. This work [solid waste collection] has enabled me to do that."
34-year-old Melkae Tadesse started working as a solid waste collector in 2009. Twice a week she and her team go from house to house in Addis Ababa's Yeka Sub-City, filling their cart with bags of rubbish and recycling. Back at base, they sort through the contents. Compostable waste goes to government-run waste disposal sites. Plastic is extracted, crushed, and sold on to a recycling company. Group members take home the income generated - but they also put 20% in a savings scheme so the group can expand its work.
"I'm a single mum," says Melkae. "I have two sons, who are 15 and 11 years old, and I'm raising them alone: I'm the leader of the house, and I have to provide for them. This work has enabled me to do that."
Amref Health Africa supports waste collection groups like Melkae'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. "This is a great example of Amref Health Africa stepping in to support and strengthen existing initiatives that are firmly community-led," says Wossen Gezahegn, Amref Ethiopia's Project Manager.
Building skills for better health
"When I started this work, my sons were quite small," says Melkae. "At the time, the work was tough: we were collecting the waste on our backs, going from house to house. We had no gloves, no masks, and no protective gear. This had an effect on our health: I myself contracted typhoid."
In autumn 2017, Amref conducted training for 345 waste collectors (146 men and 199 women) on operational hygiene and safety, in collaboration with Yeka Sub-City authorities. After the training, participants were equipped with protective equipment including masks and gloves. "After the training, with the provision of the safety attire, and thanks to mentoring from our group leader, Abdi, my health has improved," says Melkae. "And more than that, I'm conscious about my health. I haven't contracted typhoid or any other disease since. I'm strong, and I can protect myself. I appreciate Abdi's leadership: he doesn't let us work unless we're wearing our gear!"
My sons are proud of me because I raised them without any support. Now they are at high school. The older one is in the tenth grade. He is going to take the national exam this year. He wants to go on to higher education and be successful at his job and support his mum.
I don't care what my sons do, as long as they are happy. I'm proud of myself because this job has allowed me to raise my family and build a home for them - and I've done it alone.
A cleaner environment benefits the whole community
The health benefits of the waste collectors' work extend beyond the group to the wider community.
"In the previous times, people in the community suffered from upper respiratory tract infections due to the smell of the rubbish," remembers Melkae. "There used to be a lot of waste around the open spaces. But now we have cleaned the area; we collect the waste from the roadside or the community centres as well as from the houses.
"I am not a health professional, but I can see that things have changed: you can smell that the air is good. That is a good step. The place is more attractive, and the instances of common colds and upper respiratory tract infections have reduced."
"I have had many opportunities since I joined this group"
"It took time to convince the community to sort their materials into different categories, but through the continuous efforts of the government as well as groups like ours, we've created awareness. Previously, people didn't understand the difference between compostable waste, recyclable waste, and other waste. Now they know how to separate their rubbish before we come and pick it up, and their attitude towards us has changed over time. The service we provide is recognised, and we are respected."
The group has already used their savings to buy three carts, increasing the amount of waste they are able to collect - and upping their profits in the process. Under Adbi's guidance, they are now saving up to buy a compactor, which will enable them to crush plastic at the collection site before selling it on to recycling companies. Further in the future, they'd like to invest in a machine to transform some of the crushed plastic into PVC.
"I have had many opportunities in my life since I joined this group: I became so productive and successful, and that makes me happy," says Melkae. "I've raised my children; I've constructed a house for my family. People in the community respect me: I wake up early in the morning, and I do a man's job. I don't mind whether people like me or not, but most people appreciate me for what I do."
* This interview took place in Amharic. It has been edited for length and clarity.
Images (c) Alexander Aweke for Amref Health Africa.
"My old life left a black spot on my heart"
Melkae credits team leader Abdi - as well as the training and safety attire she has received - with an improvement in her health.