While this year has been challenging for most, we’re spotlighting non-profits and social enterprises that have worked hard to continue making an impact despite the added challenges that 2020 brought. If a story connects with you, please support the organization and founders in this series. Be part of our community of outstanding women by joining She Leads Africa today.
In a bid to deal with the abundance of invasive water hyacinth plants clogging up local waterways, Nigerian entrepreneur Achenyo Idachaba-Obaro founded Mitimeth, a startup not only improving environmental sustainability but also producing beautifully-handcrafted artisan products.
Where others saw a pest, Idachaba-Obaro saw an opportunity
Water hyacinth, she explains, is a species of aquatic plant with violet flowers. It looks attractive, but this invasive weed is actually horribly destructive to the communities along the rivers where it grows in thick mats. The plant keeps fishermen from reaching the fish and students and others from traveling on weed-choked waterways. It may look pretty, but it’s actually devastating to a whole way of life. Water hyacinth at first appears to be an utterly worthless invader, something that just needs to be ripped out and thrown away. But Idachaba had other ideas. Working with local communities, MitiMeth takes water hyacinth, an evasive destructive weed, and upcycles it into personal and interior accessories.
“We are making this product in Nigeria, and we are making a product that has global appeal.” — Achenyo Idachaba-Obaro
In the face of this global pandemic, Achenyo had to take immediate action by protecting the level of the impact of her organization. Achenyo shut down operations way before the local authorities imposed the lockdown. The next step was assuring her employees that she would do everything in her power to keep them employed, “we’ll make it through this together” she said. Immediately she could see the positive change it sparked within their attitudes as they knew they had one less thing to worry about, contrary to the tales they heard from their mates and neighbors who had been furloughed.
Not all hope was lost
The government in Nigeria went on to close state borders and introduce other aggressive responses to COVID-19 in the form of travel bans. This heavily interrupted the supply chain of Mitimeth.
On the environmental level, Mitimeth continued to make an impact as their artisans continued to harvest the water hyacinth for weaving. However, the products could not make their way to the main production hub. “If there’s one silver lining from the COVID-19 pandemic, it’s that it’s helped expose vulnerabilities in their supply chain” – Achenyo mentioned.
At present, there is less demand for their products since home decor and accessories are hardly seen as an essential service. “We see this problem trickling down the supply chain. So we find ourselves with a warehouse full of raw materials because we made a commitment to our artisans that we would take all their products”, Achenyo said.
Instead of seeing it as a setback, they took this time to do some much-needed R&D and they’re currently exploring the possibility of using the water hyacinth as a textile. “Since most people are sheltering in place, we have seen the consumers’ affinity towards wanting to make their outdoor spaces more appealing. And so we have been afforded the opportunity to expand our outdoor and garden collection”. 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 company provides training for communities the company works with through collaborations and partnerships within the public-private sector. This involves running workshops, held within the communities to understand how things work.
“Funding definitely has been a challenge this year for the organizations that we partner with. So we are seeing some reductions in the number of training we do. But I think the important thing is keeping the momentum going. And I’m glad that with one partner that we’re working with, in the next two weeks we’re going full steam ahead with the training despite the situation that we’re in right now.” Achenyo adds.
One of the challenges the organization faces is they’re unable to hold the training using online tools since the communities they work with are reside in network-deficient areas. “Perhaps in the future, there could be the provision of smartphones which can enable remote learning along with the training seminars for the artisans.”
Most of the funds Mitimeth gets are plowed back into the business, having more than 150 artisans and a commitment to procure their products, nocent goes to waste. They also have to take care of the operational costs of the business including shipping and wages.
Due to the drastic drop in sales, Achenyo had to ensure that they maintained sustainable financing by making good use of their cash reserves from previous years. “A big lesson this year taught us was it’s important to save for famine during the seasons of abundance.”
Hard work certainly pays off as Mitimeth was able to open a new branch in Lagos on the 21st of June. “It’s been tough, but we certainly don’t regret making that decision. So we still grow even during this time”, she said. Achenyo went on to invite other women on her journey.
“They can support what we’re doing, by purchasing our products, knowing that with each purchase, they’re actually supporting a fellow African woman or a fellow African youth, and it is going back into the economy, it’s going back to help people fulfill their obligations.”
There is a United Nations Environmental Programme Map, which illustrates where water hyacinth is prevalent in different parts of the world. If you look at the map of Africa, 44 countries have this infestation problem. Achenyo makes a call for action that if other women can replicate this business model and solution in several other countries, the impact would be amazing to those communities most affected by it.
If you would like to support Mitimeth, visit www.mitimeth.com