Abel Hailegiorgis, a 2022 Mandela Washington Fellow alum from Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, was determined to use his technical background and graduate degree in engineering to serve his country. Abel looked to solve his community’s social and environmental problems through innovation and one day found a solution.
“I saw a young man lying on the ground in a muddy street in Addis Ababa,” Abel said. “I asked him what the problem was, and he told me he could not get mobility aid in this country.” After Abel heard this story, he sought to be a part of the solution by building affordable and accessible wheelchairs and other mobility devices. However, Abel noticed increasing droughts, landslides and other extreme weather events resulting from climate change. He knew that if he did not embark upon this effort in an environmentally sustainable manner, he would only be adding to the climate challenges his country faces.
Abel researched renewable and environmentally friendly resources and came across bamboo, a heavily concentrated resource in Ethiopia. “If you don’t use it, bamboo trees die, [but] when you cut bamboo, more comes out from the ground,” Abel said. When bamboo is cut from the root, it grows back, and when it’s properly harvested, it emits more oxygen compared to other trees and carbon dioxide is not released back into the air.
Marrying his interest in climate-friendly technology and his desire to improve the landscape of mobility in his country, Abel founded Bamboo Labs to make wheelchairs out of renewable bamboo. After many trials and prototype iterations, as well as training from a bicycle company in Germany, Abel was ready to sell his first wheelchairs.
He soon found it difficult to increase company profits by only selling wheelchairs. Abel was determined that his business would continue making a social impact, so he adapted his business model to include bicycles made from bamboo and used the bicycles’ profit to fund affordable wheelchairs.
Bamboo Labs also trains and employs persons with disabilities to work for the company, ensuring that it positively impacts not just its customers and the environment but also the broader disabled community in Ethiopia.
Abel hopes other young entrepreneurs follow in his footsteps in building sustainable, climate-resilient and socially impactful businesses. When asked for advice, Abel noted, “If others see a problem, they too can take it as an opportunity to learn and focus on their bigger vision, whether it be environmental or otherwise.” He has also found the YALI Mandela Washington Fellowship for Young African Leaders a great learning opportunity. As a fellow, Abel created new connections with American companies to expand his business. “When building a sustainable business, partnership is key,” Abel said.
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