Keeping jobs, supporting livelihoods

UNICEF’s local procurement of COVID-19 supplies in Ethiopia helps to save jobs amid uncertainties in the labour market

By Demissew Bizuwerk
UNICEF Ethiopia/2020/Mulugeta Ayene
18 June 2020

When Kokeb Asaye was deported from Saudi Arabia four years ago, she was desperate to find a job and get her life back together again. After several attempts and searching through contacts, she managed to find a job as a hair washer in a salon.  

“I worked there [hair salon] for two and a half years first as a washer and then as a hairdresser,” she says. “But when the COVID- 19 pandemic hit Ethiopia, the salon was closed and I lost my job.” 

That was a difficult time for Kokeb who lives with her two sisters in a rented single room. But all hope was not lost. 

A little further away from where Kokeb lives was a small startup which was making hand sanitizers. The company was looking for more workers to help in filling, labelling and packing its products.  

“I heard that the company was hiring, and I immediately applied. I was lucky enough to find a job so soon,” she says. 


Kokeb Asaye
UNICEF Ethiopia/2020/Mulugeta Ayene
Kokeb Asaye makes sure the labels on the hand sanitizer bottles are done properly. She is currently working at a local start-up where hand sanitizers are manufactured. “I can now pay my share of rent and support my sister with other monthly expenditures.”

The company manufacturing hand sanitizers was the brainchild of Biruk Fekadu, a business he started with his wife as a hobby in their kitchen. They started off at first by producing personal care products such as shampoos and hair conditioners. Later, they expanded to include hand sanitizers as demand soared amid the coronavirus pandemic.  

“We were a small company and struggling to survive,” he says. “But when we got orders from UNICEF, we hired more people and our business started growing.” Most of his employees are women.  

Kokeb Asaye
UNICEF Ethiopia/2020/Mulugeta Ayene
Once the COVID-19 crisis is over Kokeb wishes to open her own cosmetics shop. “I want to run my own business. That is my dream and I know it will come true.”

Similarly, on the outskirts of Addis Ababa, a soap factory is running in full gear. The machine operator, Bekele Ketema, makes sure that the compacted noodles of soap are compressed and extruded into a continuous bar form by a plodder.  

Bekele dropped out of school in grade 8. When his older brother, whom he was living with, got married, he had to move out. He was forced to quit school and started working as a labourer in the soap factory.  

“After my brother got married, I had no choice but to move out and find ways to support myself,” he says, “I am now a machine operator and my job is important to me.” 

Bekele Ketema
Bekele Ketema, a machine operator at a soap factory, quality checks compacted noodles of soap that are compressed and extruded into a continuous bar form by a plodder.
With support from UK AID, UNICEF is procuring hygiene supplies, like hand sanitizers and soap, from local suppliers. In this time of uncertainty, UNICEF’s sourcing from local suppliers helping save jobs and support livelihoods.

The COVID pandemic has negatively affected the lives and livelihoods of millions of people across the world, including Ethiopia.  

The UN, as per an unpublished April 2020 assessment, estimates that between 1.6 million to 4 million jobs will be lost in Ethiopia as a result of COVID-19. As the average family size is five people, up to 20 million people could be affected. 

According to the International Labour Organization, in low and middle-income countries like Ethiopia, the worst-hit industries and services have a high proportion of low-wage workers in informal employment, with limited access to health services and state welfare safety nets. 

While the full impact of COVID- 19 on jobs is yet to be seen in Ethiopia, the pandemic is expected to affect the service industry, tourism and the sizeable self-employed populations. Loss of income especially for those engaged in the informal sector where women are over-represented, is more likely.  

The impact of the loss of income on Ethiopian families is grave and particularly so for children. The number of meals is reduced, ‘luxuries’ like protein-based foods are taken out, basics are foregone, assets like the television are sold off and even shelter for families is threatened as they cannot afford rentals. 

Kokeb and Bekele are lucky in this case. Their jobs are secured partly because of the surge in demand for soap and hand sanitizers.  

“I can now pay my share of rent and support my sister with other monthly expenditures,” says Kokeb. “It would have been difficult otherwise without a job.”   

UNICEF aims to procure 1.6 million bars of soap and more than 420,000 bottles of hand sanitizers from local suppliers. These will be distributed to health facilities, isolation and quarantine centres, and border entry points across Ethiopia.  

“Most of our hygiene supplies are locally manufactured,” says Kitka Goyol, head of the water, sanitation and hygiene programme at UNICEF Ethiopia. “In these times of great uncertainty, we believe that our sourcing from local suppliers is helping to stave off job losses and supporting livelihoods.”  

Kokeb wishes to run her own business once the COVID-19 crisis is over. She is yet to decide on what her business will be in, but she is thinking of opening a small cosmetics shop. Yet, for Bekele, his priority is to continue his education.