Women in Business: Achenyo Idachaba
Achenyo Idachaba is an Americanborn entrepreneur working in Nigeria. She won the Cartier Initiative Award for women in Sub-saharan Africa in 2014. Her TED talk has had over a 1.9 million views in 2020. Idachaba came to notice after she moved to Ibadan, Nigeria, in 2009 to set up an environmental consultancy.
She had an affinity with Nigeria as her parents had been born there and she had spent some time visiting when she was younger, although she was born and educated in America. She worked as a computer scientist and business analyst before moving to Nigeria to set up an environmental consultancy business.
She realised that Water Hyacinth (Eichornia crassipes) which was recognised as an invasive weed could be harvested as she had read of this happening in Asia. In collaboration with local craftspeople, she set up a range of products that were woven from the dried plants. The company was called Mitimeth. She developed products such as a waste basket and a table tidy, which were made from plants that are usually only known for being invasive. These plants were originally from South America and can be seen as attractive in a domestic garden however, they have been called the “worst aquatic plant” as they grow so abundantly that they create large floating mats of plants that quickly reproduce.
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By 2013, she had won a grant from the government and she was employing seven staff. The weeds are harvested, dried and then made into rope which can then be made into products.
In 2014, her efforts were recognised when she was given the Cartier award. This was the women’s initiative award for sub-saharan Africa, which had also been won the year before by another Nigerian, Bilikiss Adebiyi Abiola. She has been featured on CNN.
Mitimeth creates handcrafted products from natural fibers that would otherwise be considered waste or environmental menaces. These natural fibers include aquatic weeds (water hyacinth, typha grass) and agricultural waste forms (banana bark, maize husks).
At Mitimeth, they upcycle and add value to recovered waste (plants and non-timber resources) by harvesting and transforming it into furniture and home accents, storage pieces, lamps, kitchen and dining ware, stationery, and branded souvenir items. Everything is made locally, but designed with global appeal.
Mitimeth also runs training programs that teach local community members how to find alternative income generating opportunities by using the resources around them. These workshops are financed through partnerships with private and public sector institutions who want to see a positive return in the lives of the trainees.
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 – ‘the roots marry themselves!’ says Achenyo 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. The big question she sought to answer was how to turn this adversity in our midst into a form of prosperity.
Achenyo hit upon the idea of transforming the environmental menace into beneficial use through research she undertook, which showed that communities in East Africa and Southeast Asia afflicted by water hyacinth infestation had harvested the weed and transformed it through weaving into marketable products.
‘I thought to myself, this transformation certainly can be done here in Nigeria.’ Visiting the Sabo and Ojurin Bodija communities in 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.