How water hyacinth can be made economically viable —CEO, MitiMeth

MitiMeth is an Ibadan-based social enterprise which transforms natural fibres constituting environmental problems into beneficial products. The founder and Creative Director, Achenyo Idachaba speaks with DOYIN ADEOYE on how plants like water hyacinth, such as that which invaded the Kara River in Ojodu Berger recently, is being turned into valuable and sellable products, as well as how the company over time, has empowered communities in these riverine areas to acquire the skills to earn ultimate income.

How did you start upcycling natural fibres?

It started while I was doing a bit of environmental consulting, where I was specifically focused on waste recovery and utilisation. I had a specific interest in methane recovery and utilisation and I was looking at the Nigerian landscape, thinking of what opportunities we have to develop clean fuels from resources that we have existing around us.

And methane being a potent green house gas, has about 21 times the global warming potential of carbon dioxide. So the question was what are the sources of methane and how prevalent are they within the Nigerian environment? So I came to realise that it was very prevalent both in the gas sector, the agro sector, as well as from our municipal solid waste.

So in looking at the various sectors that result in methane emission to the atmosphere, I found that Nigeria was a very fertile ground for us to look at how we can recover methane and deplore it usefully. So it was while I was working on that that I came across water hyacinths. Then I thought of what the weed could be used for. I did a couple of researches and realised that the plant was also very rich in methane. Then I thought of other ways one could use it and that was when the idea of handicrafts came to my mind, because it is a very durable fibre.

So we thought of creating a win-win situation for the communities that are most affected by it and also for the environment so that they can have access to their waterways and their fishes can thrive, as long as their waters are not totally covered by water hyacinths. And in the end, they can derive some economic benefits from clearing the waterways and transforming the water hyacinths into products.


What was it like working with the weeds for the first time?

The first process for me was at the Oba Dam at the University of Ibadan (UI). I remember speaking with the person clearing the water hyacinths then, and although he said there was a professor that was also using it for fertilisers, I pleaded with him to keep for me as well and how I want it harvested. So that was the first point of actually working with the weed.

After drying it, I started trying to figure out how to weave it because I already had the idea of the patterns that I wanted, but unfortunately, I wasn’t a weaver as at then. So I carried the weeds and went to Sabo searching for someone who could teach me how to weave, and that was how I was able to acquire the skills. I needed to do that because I wanted to be in a position where I could demonstrate to people what exactly it is that I do. And once I learnt the basic skills, that became a platform for me to come up with the patterns and ideas that I had in mind.


Do you at any point process these natural fibres before using them?

We don’t process the plants. Although the way the plant is handled depends on what is being produced. However, there is no chemical transformation in any way in all we do and all our products are very natural and handcrafted.


So what do you make with these natural fibres?

We make different products: from lampshades to foot mats and the likes. For some products, we just mat the stems of the water hyacinths and for others, we use different procedures. The lamp base for instance has a more intricate design, where we weave the water hyacinths into ropes.

We also make stationeries: jotters, pens, key holders, baskets, dining wares, plate mats and tissue boxes, among others.


What part of the water hyacinths exactly is used in the production of these products?

We want a complete utilisation of the water hyacinths, so while most of our products are woven or matted from the stem of the plant, moving forward to achieve a zero waste scenario, we also utilise the leaves and the root system.

What we looked at are opportunities for products that can actually create the zero waste scenarios for us. In making jotters for instance, what we have discovered is that if we make handmade papers, we will be able to consume 100 per cent of the plant fibre. So the jotters are made from natural plants, particularly banana fibre. We started with water hyacinths, but later started trying other natural fibres. So the banana trunk is also useful in making papers.


How does the training process for the people in these communities work?

In achieving that, we look at corporations that are interested in socially investing in various communities so they could have income generating enterprises. So we partner with companies or entities that have that vision and we train individuals or community groups within the riverine areas to transform their resource into sellable products.


As one whose company is now recognised on a global level, what do you think hinders our local manufacturing sector?

The problem is that we are so focused on imported products in Nigeria. And also many people have the mentality that because you a making a product in Nigeria, it ought to be cheaper, which shouldn’t be. These products are handcrafted and very labour intensive.

Also, it takes a lot of capital to set up some of these businesses. While many may decide to get loans, the interest rates on these loans are astronomical and would even kill the business before it even started. So getting the capital is really important for many start-ups. However, fortunately for me, I started around the time when YouWin was launched and I applied and thankfully I was selected. Without knowing anybody, I was even given more than I expected. So that means someone actually read the business plan and saw that this had potential in terms of its impact in creating jobs and felt that I had underestimated what my needs were. And from there, I also got a couple of international awards like the Cartier Women’s Initiative Award.

Another challenge is market access. When all these people are trained, the way to keep them encouraged is to provide demand so that they can supply. So the issue still lies with how to create market for these products. We need to support our local economy. The artisan sector on a global scale is a $32 billion business. So if Nigeria can just capture a fraction of that market, then the rural population that will be producing these products will be really impacted. So the question is how much does Africa contribute to that amount? And how much does Nigeria contribute to that amount? How much handicraft are we exporting?