Zafree Papers - How a mere annoyance a girl felt was molded into a business venture!


It all began with a mere annoyance a girl felt looking at the waste mismanagement while visiting the vegetables and fruits market for the first time with her mom.

“If I had the finance earlier, the business would have failed because of my inexperience.”

It all began with a mere annoyance a girl felt looking at the waste mismanagement while visiting the vegetables and fruits market, Atikilt Tera, for the first time with her mom. She took on a waste management project which was a little too ambitious with the resources at her disposal. Then she went into plastic recycling moving on to paper recycling and finally fixating on pulp production. Zafree, coined to mean tree-free, was born out of this experimental cascade. Having established relationships in Mauritius, Nigeria, and Zambia, Zafree’s pursuit for a pan-African business model is materializing. 

Bethlehem Dejene, the co-founder, agreed to spare us the time and share her adventure in the making of this grand, tree-free paper pulp manufacturing company.

No, do not expect to magically come up with the biggest innovative idea of the century. Sit tight to hear from someone who molded an inspiration into a feasible business venture.

“It was just me when it all began,” said Bethlehem speaking of the lonely time the idea was in its infancy. After an exhausting period of figuring out things and going around looking for finance, she ended up joining an incubator, bluemoon, to get investments. Bethlehem couldn’t say enough of how crucial that move was. There, she shaped her idea, learned the ins and outs of starting a business, and met her co-founder, Bethlehem Fikre. Now a team of five working in Ethiopia and another five based in Mauritius, where the head-quarter resides, Zafree is stretching out.

Speaking of her team’s success, she credits shared vision, a sense of ownership, and open communication. ‘Getting the right people on board is the most challenging part,’ admitted Bethlehem. Once that is done, she asserts that a company will stride to great heights. Bethlehem couldn’t stress enough the importance of the right partnerships. Her company collaborated with another mechanical engineering startup to make the machinery. That helped cut costs and provide them with control over the design to fit their closed-looped system.

When asked about their short-term goals, Bethlehem said they are working towards making their pilot operation in Ethiopia successful and duplicating it in other African countries. Touching on existing and upcoming competitions, she stressed others are fulfilling not more than a few percent, leaving a massive market unsatiated. Speaking of the bigger dream, she prompted into an excited tone, “It is not just making tree-free paper pulp. It is revolutionizing how things are made.” She briefed us on how resource-intensive the industry is, consuming a large amount of energy and water then dispensing its waste mass. 

Bethlehem was sincere in sharing her challenges and how she overcame them. ‘I was not a technical person and have never been in business,’ she began on how inexperience was a huge barrier to her getting things right. She added that finance was never the problem, rather lacking the wit to find it was. Once the finance was available, the pandemic hit followed by political turmoil worsened by the soaring inflation. Having said that, Bethlehem asserted,

’No matter what is happening around you, it is your job to make your company work.’  

This eco-friendly manufacturing entrepreneur understands how time was a factor in creating more competition before they were able to launch. Had she known what she knows now, she said to have chosen to take time to learn the art of doing business. She is not intimidated by that either. She plans on moving fast, learning, and uncompromising the quality of her work to surpass the competition.

As someone who has been through the ebb and flow of startup life, Bethlehem advocates for supportive policies that create a pro-business environment. She wished she hadn't been through the unnecessary rough seas because of the corruption, lack of simplicity for doing business, and underdeveloped professionalism in Ethiopia. She said the reason that kept her going in all the hardships was the commitment others made believing in her and her idea.

Wrapping up our fascinating talk with Bethlehem, she told us what she considers to be the most significant success factors. Finance, getting product-market fit, and an effective team were at the top of her list.  

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