MitiMeth: The social enterprise turning an invasive weed into beautiful woven objects
Eichhornia crassipes, commonly known as water hyacinth, is just one of many water-based plant species in the Amazon Basin, its native habitat. Everywhere else, it’s an invasive weed that can damage ecosystems, increase water scarcity and destroy livelihoods. But what if there was a way to bring this destructive weed under control while creating jobs in some of Nigeria’s most impoverished areas?
That was exactly the question MitiMeth founder Achenyo Idachaba-Obaro found herself asking in 2009. Born in the USA to Nigerian parents, Idachaba-Obaro spent a lot of time in Nigeria before settling in the country in the late 2000s to set up an environmental consultancy. At the time, she was working on several projects with academics, looking at how to recover waste for beneficial use.
Water Hyacinth wasn’t part of the project, but while on a trip to Lagos, she noticed how much the weed was infesting the waterways she passed. She also saw how it was choking the engines of the fishing boats that many depend on for their livelihoods.
“That was the genesis of trying to figure out how water hyacinth could become a beneficial asset instead of an environmental menace, and how we could look at providing solutions to this infestation, and at the same time, create economic opportunities,” she says.
Critically, Idachaba-Obaro wanted the communities affected most by infestation to be a part of the solution and to be excited about participating in it. So, she set out to research what could be done with water hyacinth. She settled on weaved objects, in part because of her own love for aesthetic, locally made products and in part because it would allow community members to use their hands, their imaginations, and to exercise their creativity.
In order to immerse herself in the process, Idachaba-Obaro put herself through a weaving bootcamp with someone who worked with another natural fibre.
“Going through that training process was an excellent opportunity because I got to understand the fibre and what one could do with it,” she says.
By November 2011, MitiMeth was registered and started partnering with public and private institutions and NGOs to work with communities and train them in harvesting, processing, and weaving. From there, MitiMeth has grown from a one-person operation to a full-time staff of 15, with 150 home-based artisans across Nigeria involved in weaving products. It’s also gone from recording 6000 Naira in sales to paying 20-million Naira in wages to artisans over the past decade.
There have, of course, been challenges along the way. Alongside infrastructure and market linkage challenges, Idachaba-Obaro has had to do a lot of education work. This is true for both the artisans MitiMeth works with, who sometimes expect to start making money overnight and for consumers who don’t understand that the amount of work that goes into making the products determines their pricing.. She also points out that policymakers don’t always understand the creative economy and the positive impact it can have on rural economies.
“A lot of people think of the creative economy as just being about movies,” she says, “but there’s a lot more to it than that.”
Idachaba-Obaro is adamant, however, that the rewards far outweigh the challenges. Some of those rewards have been official, with MitiMeth winning several awards and Idachaba-Obaro invited to present at the renowned TED conference. But, she says, the biggest rewards have been building a creator economy and hearing from artisans that MitiMeth has helped them pay for a child's education, put food on the table, and pay medical bills.
“Those are some of the moments that are priceless,” she says.
According to Idachaba-Obaro, Google has been integral to much of the MitiMeth journey. In particular, she points to Google’s 2011 Get Nigerian Businesses Online initiative as being crucial to the company’s journey.
“That's how we got online, and got our domain, which we're still using today,” she says.
The website is crucial because it not only tells the MitiMeth story but also acts as an ecommerce storefront, where visitors can buy everything from accessories (such as handbags) to stationery and home decor, all woven from water hyacinth.
MitiMeth is also on GSuite, which Idachaba-Obaro says has been crucial for collaboration across the organisation’s distributed locations.
“Google is an integral part of our journey in terms of the adoption and the implementation of technology,” she says.
Ultimately, Idachaba-Obaro says, MitiMeth’s success has depended on a lot of moving parts coming together.
“We’re so thankful for family, friends, customers, and media partners,” she says. “We're all in this together, and each person has played a vital role in our journey thus far, and will do so moving forward too.”