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Finnish design employing Ethiopians in need

Anna Suonheimo and Hanna Puharinen, both Masters of Science in Technology, had a desire to help poverty-stricken women and disabled people in Ethiopia by providing employment to them in Finnish design. They founded Sera Helsinki, which currently employs over 100 artisans in Addis Ababa.
Anna Suonheimo ja Hanna Puharinen_Sera Helsinki

Would you tell us about yourselves and your career paths?

Anna: I am a 37-year-old engineer (M.Sc Tech.) and the mother of a 10-year-old boy and 9-year-old girl. My roots are solidly in the North, as far north as the Arctic Circle. I ended up, however, in southern Finland to study communications technology as well as cognitive technology at Helsinki University of Technology in Otaniemi. My master’s thesis, which I completed at the Communications Laboratory, combined both fields. After my master’s, I continued workingin the laboratory in research and teaching for a while.

Soon, however, it was the time in my life for children and, following my then-husband and his diplomatic career, I wound up in Africa. I lived in Tanzania for two years and in Ethiopia for five. Those years turned my worldview around and made me think deeply about the meaningfulness of my own work. In Ethiopia, the misery seemed to be everywhere I looked and it felt hopeless. I was concerned about the plight of women and disabled people in particular and wanted to want to find some way to help even a small portion of the women with disabilities. That’s when my old school friend Hanna Puharinen and I set up Sera Helsinki and began to teach women how to produce woollen carpets. Sera is my main occupation. I manage our operation in Ethiopia while Hanna takes care of the Finnish end of it.

Hanna: I am a 36-year-old engineer (M.Sc Tech.), the wife of a wonderful man and mother to three fabulous boys, ages 4, 7 and 10. I began studies at Helsinki University of Technology in 2001 and graduated in 2007. Since then, I have been project director of a training company, which began as a start-up at the Cognitive Laboratory where I completed my studies. We provide live and online training courses for developing people’s interpersonal ‘soft skills’.

Based on Anna’s experiences in Ethiopia, we decided to start a business together and do our part to help and create jobs for vulnerable groups in the area. This was the origin of Sera Helsinki, which operates in Ethiopia. At the moment, Academy of Brain is my day job and Sera is my avocation and passion. The enjoyment I get out of both pursuits strongly ties in to the sense that I am able to perform a wide variety of tasks in matters I consider really and truly meaningful.

Tell us a bit more about Sera Helsinki and its activities.

Anna: Getting the operations going was quite a challenge since most of the women had no reading or writing ability, or knowledge of basic geometry, or even how to use a tape measure. First, there were eight women and for a year and a half I taught them daily how to draw triangles. In time, these women became our team trainers and now there are over 100 weavers working with us, many of whom are blind. We have combined Finnish design with ancient artisan traditions of Ethiopia.

We collaborate with the Abilis Foundation, which was founded by Kalle Könkkölä. Currently, our goal is to get disabled people involved in handling the entire production chain and to create 300 new jobs over the next two years. We are seeking people with disabilities to herd sheep and to card and spin the wool needed for the carpets.

Hanna: Our product range includes hand-knotted and woven woollen carpets. In addition, we have cotton towels and tote-bags bearing the WFTO Fair Trade mark. Anna Pirkola has just designed for us the new ‘SAARISTO’ carpet collection. Our carpets are sold in design shops, department stores and online stores in Finland, Sweden and Denmark.

Of course, it’s a crazy idea to manufacture design products with disabled people in a developing country, but that is exactly why it is so interesting and eye-opening every day. We have started to call ourselves ‘the crazy carpet ladies’.

How did you end up studying your chosen field?

Anna: I always enjoyed mathematical subjects in upper secondary school. There weren’t any engineers among my closest family and friends, so for me, beginning studies at Helsinki University of Technology was a leap into the unknown. I found a study opportunity that allowed me to combine my interest in people with my love for mathematical subjects, and that intrigued me.

Hanna: I remember starting to think about ways of putting my skills into practice early on in my studies. I wanted to learn things that had personal relevance for me, so I sought a summer job in a brain research laboratory, where I also did my master’s thesis. I was a communications technology major with a minor in cognitive technology. I’ve always been interested in the human being. I’m very curious about why we think, feel and experience things the way we do.

What is your best memory from your student years?

Anna: My best memories have to do with relationships. We were a tight-knit group of three girls, and used to work on math and coding assignments together. We joked a lot while we were trying to figure out difficult assignments.

Hanna: Definitely the evenings I spent with Anna, for instance, at her student flat in Kruununhaka, studying for exams, burning candles and eating ice-cream. Sometimes we didn’t have a clue about what we were supposed to be doing. Fortunately, we knew who to turn to for advice and tutoring, and then baked cinnamon buns for them in return.

What is the most valuable thing you learned at university, which has helped you in your professional life?

Anna: Even though girls were a minority at Helsinki University of Technology when I was a student, we didn’t have to prove our skills to anyone. Everyone was treated equally and it was taken as a given that anyone could learn anything regardless of their sex.

It wasn’t until I went to Africa that I realised I had been living in a bubble. I have always had the chance to choose whatever I wanted in life without my being a woman restricting me in any way. It was shocking to realise that the vast majority of the world’s women live in a completely different reality.

Hanna: Networking! Be who you are, do things out of passion, keep telling everyone your story, and soon the doors will open for you.

Tell us something surprising about yourself.

Anna: I have always loved dogs, and I always wanted to have one of my own when I was a child. In Ethiopia, my children and I used to rescue street dogs and find caring families for them. Now that we live in Finland, we have a Chihuahua called Addis. In the evenings, I often pretend to be Addis and tell lousy jokes in a squeaky voice until my children laugh themselves silly.

Hanna: I hadn’t studied for very long at the university when I was diagnosed with Crohn’s disease, which is an inflammatory bowel disease with no known cure. Three years ago, I went through a colostomy operation, which means I have a permanent opening on my abdomen and will have to wear a pouch on it for the rest of my life. It doesn’t prevent me from enjoying life, though. Even our trips to Ethiopia have gone perfectly with it. All of us have our challenges and ailments. I want to focus on the good in my life. That’s the attitude I want to promote.

What should everyone do or experience once in their lifetime?

Anna: Everyone should definitely travel to a developing country and face a world outside the western way of life. These cultures are rich in other ways: particularly the sense of community and caring for your family and friends is amazing.

Hanna: Travel to a developing country and get to know the local culture!