By Elshadai Negash
Its 10 a.m. on a busy Monday morning in Gambella and Lero Ongongo and members of the Tij Ber Youth Development Association are busy at work in their small outdoor workshop and café near the centre of Gambella city in the Gambella region of Western Ethiopia.
About four youngsters, led by 17-year old Bere Ojulu, are preparing tea and coffee for sale to customers who come to their workshop. Two are mixing cement, sand, and water to prepare a concrete mixture that will later be turned into a toilet to be fitted in one of the rural toilets on the outskirts of the city. Yet another group is scouring the villages trying to convince to stop openly defecating and buy one of their custom-fitted toilets.
“We don’t have enough hours in the day to work,” Ongongo says before he mounting the sand and cement paste onto a design mat and levelling the surface.
They are in the business of convincing urban and rural dwellers to use one of their manually-constructed toilet slabs. They generate income from the sales of these slabs that is helping pay college tuition fees for three of the members, keeping them off the streets, and playing a vital role in turning their nearby kebele (village) into an Open Defecation Free (ODF) zone where dwellers use toilets as opposed to passing faeces in open air. They also generate additional income by selling tea/coffee and snacks utilising the open space in front of their workshop.
Tij Ber’s project is part of an effort by UNICEF to tackle youth unemployment and lack of urban sanitation by converging social protection and Water, Sanitation, and Hygiene (WASH) programs. The youngsters, who started out by collecting and dumping garbage with limited income and virtually no support; were trained in slab production and provided a revolving loan to start their business.
At any given time of the day, the fifteen members of Tij Ber, which means ‘every work is perfect’ in Anuak, one of the main languages spoken in the Gambella region of Ethiopia as well as neighbouring South Sudan; are fully occupied in some type of work, a rare occurrence in a region of the country with less than 400,000 people, but with a markedly-high urban unemployment.
“It is very common to see youngsters who recently finished 10th grade loitering around the city doing nothing,” says UNICEF Ethiopia Child Protection Officer Okidi Ochang. “UNICEF wanted to strengthen youth through income generating activities. These kids had no support from parents and were already collecting garbage and the training in slab production was a good fit.”
However, things did not start off easily for the members. “We got ridiculed from other people when we collected garbage,” says Ongongo. “We had to cope with this. Our friends thought the work we were doing was very demeaning.”
One year on, the members earn stable income from the sale of their slabs, refreshments at their tea shop, while not abandoning their garbage-collecting business. They have saved up around ETB 41,000 (USD 2,200) and plan to outsource the business before returning back to continue their college studies.
“I want to study business in college,” says Ongongo in an unusual career choice for youngsters in this area. “I want to learn how to turn big business areas into successful, income-generating projects. I don’t want to sit in an office and expect salary or donation every month. I want to sustain myself and inspire other people.”
Making lives easier for the elderly
Through their toilet slabs, Ongongo and his friends are already making the lives of households easier in Gambella.
“Before these kids came to me, I used to walk 2km in the morning and afternoon getting my clothes wet to use a toilet somewhere in the forest,” says 60-year farmer Nyikro Otollo, who has been using the toilet slabs constructed by Tij Ber. “When we urinate or seat for toilet [in the open], we invite flies to come into our household. I remember that I got sick once and used all the money I had saved up selling corn for medical expenses.
Otollo, mother of four and grandmother of three, is only too grateful for the toilet slabs. “I am thankful for the toilet,” says about the slab which she received for free as a promotion to encourage the usage in the nearby village. “Other people in the village have come to ask about this after looking at mine. Now everyone in our village wants these toilet slabs.”
Ongongo, however, sees a bigger picture of their impact. “When we started out, people used to laugh at us, but now no one is laughing,” he says. “I am happy when youngsters come to us to talk about how they can setup a small business in their kebele. We are becoming examples for other youths to follow. That makes us very happy.”