How Achenyo Idachaba turned a deadly plant into thriving business
If you call Achenyo Idachaba a wonder woman, you won’t be wrong. She weaves useful products from invasive aquatic weeds.
She was born in the US to Nigerian parents and spent her formative years between Nigeria and America, where she built a successful career as a computer scientist and business analyst.
In 2009, Achenyo Idachaba finally decided to take a leap of faith by moving to Ibadan to set up an environmental consulting business.
Through a process of trial and error, she altered her original business idea, and eventually founded her current company, MitiMeth, in 2011.
MitiMeth produces home and personal accessories made from invasive aquatic weeds that flourish in Nigeria’s waterways. Mitimeth focuses on transforming an environmental problem into a beneficial solution.
As a social enterprise that exclusively engages people at the bottom of the economic pyramid, Achenyo Idachaba cleans up the waterways for river-lying communities, while also empowering them economically.
Water hyacinths are beautiful to behold. They are vivid purple flowers that bloom gently on the surface of waters. Even though they add a touch of colour to the inland waterways, they are not as healthy as they are beautiful. They are an aquatic weed wreaking havoc in local communities and ruining water supplies.
Not only does this fast-growing water pest curtail access to waterways and cause problems for local fishermen, it also depletes nutrients from the water, which in turn reduces fish populations.
But where many see an invasive aquatic nuisance, Nigerian entrepreneur Achenyo Idachaba identified a business opportunity.
Achenyo Idachaba set up shop in Ibadan, a city in the south-west region of Nigeria, where she began harvesting the water hyacinth and transforming the waste product into intricately handcrafted everyday items.
What she does is take an environmental problem and turn it into a win-win solution for everyone involved. This is because Aquatic weeds such as the water hyacinth, which MitiMeth uses, pose a major challenge to local communities and have been a target of government initiatives to stem the damage they cause for some years.
Their extensive, knotted root systems tangle together, they almost weave themselves and clog waterways, which are a key transportation network to inland populations.
They also deplete nutritional resources in their surroundings, leading to a drop in the fish population, which impacts food supplies and livelihoods for riparian communities, who are reliant on fishing.
Achenyo Idachaba had the idea through a research she undertook, which showed that communities in south east Asia afflicted by the water hyacinth had harvested the weed and transformed it through weaving into marketable products. She thought to herself, this can be done here in Nigeria.
Visiting a community in the city of Ibadan, she befriended a couple of artisans who had experience in weaving doum palm and rattan. She worked with them to develop the company’s first products – a table tidy and a wastebasket: two fitting products to make from a tangled weed.
Since then, Achenyo Idachaba has used her computer skills in a different context – developing an online presence for the company with its web store, the online marketplace Etsy, as well as on the social networks.
‘To date, the majority of MitiMeth’s sales have come from domestic and international exhibitions where we showcase products,’ says Achenyo. The best-seller is a hand basket, which retails at approximately US$9 and can be purchased directly on MitiMeth’s site, where 20 products are currently available.
‘There are very few locally handmade products branded as eco-friendly, so MitiMeth has a first-mover advantage in building an indigenous, eco-friendly brand.’
So far, MitiMeth has trained people in seven different communities to harvest water hyacinth and weave it into usable products.
Looking ahead, it plans to train 80 communities within the next two years in the Niger Delta, the southwest and the northeast of Nigeria.
Achenyo Idachaba also hopes to set up handcraft cooperatives and distribution partnerships while subsidizing the costs of product development and training in communities.