Meet Nahili, one of our 2021 Unilever Heroes. Every year, in the Heroes Awards, Unilever recognise a handful of employees who have gone above and beyond their day job.

“Things can be really hard here,” says Nahili Bekele, who works as an admin assistant specialist in Unilever’s factory in Dukem, south of Addis Ababa. “I have always had a passion for the people in my community and my local area. I knew something had to be done.”

Having your shoes shined is part of the urban way of life in Ethiopia. “It’s just part of the culture,” Nahili explains. “People get up in the morning and rush out to work. And everywhere you go, there are shoe-shining stations so people can get their shoes shined before work.”

Many of the shoe-shiners are hardly more than children, who have moved into the city from rural areas. “They are working as shoe-shiners to support their families and siblings back home,” she adds. But up till now, many of their shoe-shine work stations have been very basic, forcing the shoe-shiner to lean over, leading to poor posture and back strain.

In May 2020, an idea was born. Nahili was walking in the factory compound with her line manager and they saw broken pallets lying around.

She realised that the wooden pallets used to transport raw materials and products could serve a further, socially valuable purpose. Why not use them for shoe-shining stations?

“We took the broken pallets that our factory would have disposed of and transformed them,” Nahili explains. The Dukem factory team, inspired by the concept of a ‘factory with purpose’, together with other local employees and members of the local authority, worked to construct the stations. The broken pallets were turned into portable seats and raised footrests for customers, making the work of shoe-shining at once more professional and more comfortable.

Once the shoe-shining stations were complete, the Dukem community and government officials were invited along to celebrate with staff from the Unilever site. The young shoe-shiners were given brushes and shoe polish as well as the stations.

The results of her socially enterprising idea have been impressive, and the opportunities generated have impacted over 3,500 people.

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