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Achenyo Idachaba Obaro: On building an award-winning home decor business out of water hyacinth

By transforming water hyacinth into objects of art, Obaro's award-winning social enterprise has trained over 700 local artisans and has 12 product categories, two office locations, and six retail channel partners.

Chairs made from seaweed. (Photo Credits : Mitimeth)

By Gbemisola Esho, bird Story Agency

In the middle of the hustle and bustle of Lagos, a city of over 20 million people, is the vast Lagos lagoon that hugs the expanse of the Atlantic Ocean.

On this water, the invasive water hyacinth weed has turned into a lush and endless greenery akin to a soccer pitch. But this beguiling beauty threatens the livelihood of the fisherfolk and other city residents.

The seaweed was first discovered in the Badagry area in 1984 and has, over time, increased and blocked waterways and threatened aquatic life. It is a menace that has altered the ecosystem, impeded fishing and transportation, and disrupted hydroelectric power generation.

But while many city residents see waste and inconvenience–and even manage– one of them, Achenyo Idachaba Obaro, a computer scientist-turned-social entrepreneur, saw an opportunity.

"What was a menace to us was actually an opportunity to make money, create jobs and beautify homes. The water hyacinth came to us as lemons, and I am now making lemonade out of it," she said.

Obaro got to work to transform her idea into novel products by partnering with local weavers working with twine. She taught them to change the water hyacinth into beautiful handwoven products including baskets and bags– and later ventured to lifestyle products, furniture, coasters and chairs made from natural local fibres.

To market the products, she created a firm, MitiMeth.

Certificate handed to participant by GM of Lagos State Waterways Authority Damilola Emmanuel. (Photo Credits : Lagos State Waterways Authority)

"I started MitiMeth out of a strong conviction to make a difference in the area of sustainable development and wanting to create impact at the grassroots by focusing on local homegrown solutions to environmental challenges," she said.

Mitimeth started its journey from Kogi State rural area before expanding to Ibadan in Oyo State, where she worked with the local artisans to produce table tidiers and storage baskets.

"My objective is cleaning our waterways, beautifying homes and creating sustainable income for so many as well as impacting the environment," she added.

Her success has been phenomenal. She has established and trained a community of more than 700 artisans, with 150 actively engaged in the supply chain. She also has two office locations, one flagship store, 12 product categories, six retail channel partners, three award grantors, five strategic partners and several media partners.

The enterprise's sole mission is "to improve the environment and empower communities through craft skills training by teaching women and youth in our communities to weave, imparting life-long skills to help them 'fish for life' versus feeding them for a day".

"Prior to Mitimeth coming on the scene in these communities, water hyacinth was a scourge obstructing not just waterways movement but also obstructing lowland riverbed farmers from accessing their farms. The creation of the maker space has created opportunities for people to harvest water hyacinth sustainably and also opportunities to weave these renewable materials earning income from these activities," Obaro said.

This initiative has been lauded by the Lagos State Waterways Authority (LASWA), one of MitiMeth's partners. LASWA was established to develop and regulate activities on the Lagos Inland Waterways.

According to the LASWA general manager, Oluwadamilola Emmanuel, the recycling initiative in partnership with MitiMeth has not only created income for the communities but made them solution providers for the environmental challenges of the waterweed.

"The water recycling initiative partnership with Mitimeth, which started in 2016, has provided an alternative way for communities to address the environmental problems caused by water hyacinth," he said.

"It also generates income as a waste-to-wealth initiative from the harvesting, processing and making of hand-crafted items with the invasive aquatic weeds."

To build capacity, Abaro, in partnership with LASWA, organises workshops to educate the youth on entrepreneurial skills, especially using water hyacinths to create employment opportunities.

The training is done close to the water weed harvesting and drying points. The participants are selected from the three senatorial zones and the 15 Local Government Areas (LGA) accessible by water.

A participant weaving dried seaweed in a training oganised by Lagos State Waterways Authority . (Photo Credits : Lagos State Waterways Authority)

The training workshops give participants funding and educate them on entrepreneurship skills.

"Most of the artisans trained are women and youth. This is because they are most receptive to learning and utilising the skills so we ended up focusing on them and in the process addressing both SDG 5 and SDG8 about 150+ maker communities are made of women," said Obaro.

One of those whose life has been transformed is Mabel Engwauba, based in Ida Kogi State.

"I dey happy, because even as I dey small here my work dey do something for where i dey (The environment is affected because of the work I do), God bless Aunty Achenyo Abaro wei see me teach me," she said.

However, like most outfits, funding is a big challenge, especially the decreased support from the government agency partnered with MitiMeth. The other challenge is low returns from the exported products owing to competition, quality and pricing.

"Handmade crafts have premium quality but sadly low cost even when exported to the Western countries… this has been the order of the day where buyers look for high quantity buy want to pay less," said Obaro.

But despite the challenges, Obaro is keen to tap into several opportunities across Nigeria and the region to take her products made from fibre and seaweed to higher levels.

Beyond lifestyle and soft furnishing, Mitimeth is keen to venture into fashion. It has already reached out to textile manufacturers to supply yarn from water hyacinth, jute selvedges, banana fibre, cotton and other locally sourced suitable natural fibres.

Obaro says they were encouraged to venture into fashion after two fashion brands–Yili footwear and Redbuttonng–showcased hyacinth and banana fibre products at the Lagos Fashion Week 2021.

Obaro, a grantee of the Tony Elumelu Foundation, is optimistic about the future, saying she got more recognition after winning the Standard Chartered Bank competition for women entrepreneurs.

"I am only keen to not empower more women but to carve a niche for MitiMeth products in Nigeria, regionally and globally by being innovative, unique, competitive and above all environmentally friendly," she concluded.

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