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In this episode, I chat with entrepreneur Achenyo Idachaba-Obaro. Achenyo is the founder of MitiMeth. An award-winning social enterprise based in Nigeria with a mission of creating sustainable livelihoods through the creative economy. Working with local communities MitiMeth takes water hyacinth, an evasive destructive weed, and upcycles it into personal and interior accessories.

Achenyo was not always working in the creative economy she began her career as a computer scientist in corporate America and was in the corporate world for over 11 years. Reaching mid-career Achenyo felt the need to do something more impactful and this led her towards the green space where she began consulting after leaving her job.

In the US Achenyo worked in the energy sector for an oil and gas company partly due to Nigeria’s economy being heavily dependant on oil and hoped that by working for the company she could one day be transferred to Nigeria but this did not happen. So she decided to take the initiative.

Born in the US Achenyo grew up in both there and in Nigeria, her country of heritage, which has given her a bi-cultural experience. She made the decision to leave the US and move to Nigeria. This was so that she could have more impact. In preparing for the transition of moving from the US to Nigeria Achenyo speaks of the importance of managing expectations of moving to a new country particularly one where she had not worked professionally before, although she visited many times. The key to making the adjustment was not being too rigid and not looking back. In Nigeria, she continued her consulting work and it was while doing this that she came across the water hyacinth problem in Lagos. 

Before deciding to tackle the problem of this weed Achenyo spent some time studying water hyacinth and its impact on communities in the country. She acknowledges that local information about the weed was scarce, but she was fortunate to find information in the public domain. Water hyacinth is a global problem that affects over 50 countries across the globe and Achenyo was able to look into the impact it has around the world including in East Africa, and South-East Asia.

Perseverance paid off and Achenyo managed to find a locally produced document that helped give her an insight into the scale of the problem in Nigeria, and she soon realised just how widespread the infestation was. Achenyo realised that any solutions she could come up locally with could potentially be replicated in other parts of the world that had not yet been successful in addressing the effects of water hyacinth.

Achenyo was interested in things related to climate change, specifically looking at how we could recover waste and put it to beneficial use. The type of waste that would end up polluting not just the environment but the air as well. It was in the mindset of waste recovery for beneficial use that she came across the descriptive effects of water hyacinth and saw an opportunity to take this environmental menace and convert it into beneficial use by engaging those whose livelihoods have been hampered or affected by the infestation.

Achenyo realised that in working with marginalised communities whatever solution she was going to come up with had to be one they could grasp very easily and run with. She also recognised that the solutions could not be too expensive to implement. As such she looked at the different options for transforming the water hyacinth in a positive resource, namely converting it to biogas, another was livestock feed. But because these first two options would take a while to implement and would require resources like available land she eventually zeroed in on handicrafts as she felt it would give people the opportunity to express themselves. And this is how she crossed over into the creative economy.

Water hyacinth is one of the fastest-growing weeds in an eco-system. Once it reproduces it forms a very dense mat of foliage on the surface of the water and because it has a very thick root system it’s destructive effects include the roots getting tangled in the motors of boats, depriving the water of oxygen, which affects fish and other marine life, and goes even as far as hindering school children who rely on the waterways from getting to class, having to miss lessons until the weed drifts away.

Achenyo’s solution was to turn water hyacinth into a material that could be worked with. The water hyacinth is manually harvested by the local community, then dried to remove its water content, which turns it into a golden brown colour. The dry fibres are then woven into yarn or rope, which is then used to create products such as baskets, tableware, rugs, and other accessories. In deciding what products to create this is done by MitiMeth, researching the possibilities, and also co-creating with the company’s customers. New ideas are also brought into the communities MitiMeth works with. MitiMeth essentially provides distribution platforms for the community and match up the appropriate skills with the products to be created

The communities the company works with is based on a lot of collaborations and partnerships within the public-private sector to provide training. This involves running workshops, held within the communities to understand how things work. After this, another round of training takes place at MitiMeth’s production hub.

In 2014 Achenyo was awarded the Cartier Women’s Initiative finalist for sub-Saharan Africa. Winning the award took MitiMeth to another level in terms of visibility, credibility, and with that came speaking engagements. The award also came with a grant which Achenyo has used to enhance the product offering and enabled her to bring in a product designer to help them develop their collections.

Achenyo is also looking to do more in the area of sustainability from products to packaging as there is much more to be done. 98% of MitiMeth’s products sold in Nigeria and she would like to see her products available globally. For Achenyo participating in fairs helps her get a feel for what the market wants and what customers are actually interested in and is able to bring this feedback back to her team and look at ways in which they can develop products

Running her business is not without challenges and Achenyo’s advice to would-be entrepreneurs is the importance of understanding the problem you are trying to solve. And not letting a lack of access to capital stop you from developing or establishing your business. As she says “Yes money is important but if the formal channels are not fruitful there are other ways of raising capital such as looking to family and friends, and crowdfunding.”

Looking to the future Achenyo sees MitiMeth growing beyond Nigeria and is looking to form partnerships across the continent, as she sees the solutions they are developing locally being implemented continent-wide.

We talk about:

  • Going from a corporate computer science career to starting a business the creative industry
  • What drew her to consulting in the green space
  • Being born and raised in the US and making the decision to move to Nigeria her country of heritage to start her business
  • Why she chose to work with water hyacinth and looking at how local solutions could be applied globally
  • The process for harvesting and turning this weed into a material that she can work with
  • The impact transforming water hyacinth s had on the local communities Mitimeth works with
  • How she identified the communities she wanted to work with
  • How she decides on what products to create
  • How she generates brand awareness
  • Being a Cartier Women’s Initiative finalist and the impact this has had on her business and her as a leader
  • How she keeps challenging herself to grow and develop her business and craft

We are making this product in Nigeria, and we are making a product that has global appeal.

– Achenyo Idachaba-Obaro

Links and resources mentioned in this episode

United Nations Environment Programme 

The UN Global goals

Cartier Women’s Initiative

Vital Voices and Pond’s Fellowship

Where you can go to find out more about Achenyo and MitiMeth:

MitiMeth

@mitimeth.ng | Facebook

You can listen to the podcast on iTunes (iOS) and Stitcher (Android)

And before you go I have a favour to ask, if you could take a few minutes to do the three R’s that is: rate it, review it, and recommend it to anyone you feel would benefit. It will really make a difference and I would greatly appreciate it.

Thanks again.

Tapiwa Matsinde

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