Achenyo Idachaba-Obaro harvested the reedy stems of the water hyacinth from a dam near Ibadan with a particular mission in mind. With deceptively beautiful blue flowers, water hyacinths are a blight in the water channels of the West African country. Fast-growing, choking, they keep fishers from their traditional livelihoods.
But Idachaba-Obaro, an entrepreneur, was noodling a solution that might, in the words of the Yoruba saying, kill two birds with one stone. Ka fi òkò kan pa ẹyẹ méjì. She wondered if women and youth in Nigerian’s riparian and riverine communities, who are often unemployed, could be taught to weave those stems.
This was a day back in 2010. She climbed the steps in the Sabo quarters in Ibadan, in southwest Nigeria, have long been home to a large number of settlers from the northern part of the Nigeria. In Sabo, she thought she might find weavers, because that part of Nigeria is known for the skill of its weavers, both men and women.
Born in the United States to Nigerian parents, Idachaba-Obaro had come to Nigeria, leaving behind a successful career in the oil industry, to be part of transforming the economy and improving people’s lives. She knew she wanted to start a business. Could water hyacinths become the opportunity she was looking for?
A Path to Agency
Many women that she met in the communities facing the water hyacinth infestation problem didn’t feel they had agency or capacity. But Idachaba-Obaro thought giving them the chance to confront a menace in their communities might change that. The roots of water hyancinths roots grow so thick and dense so fast that they diminish fish yields and keep fisher people from earning their livelihoods. Maybe, she thought, if women learned that water hyacinth could bring value not just destruction, the realization might trigger emotional changes.
“It could be a paradigm shift,” she said. “And that kind of mindset shift could be applied to any other challenge.”
That brings us to the hot and sunny day she went knocking on doors in the narrow alleys of Sabo quarters. “I’m very hands on,” she said with a laugh. “With dogged persistence I started looking for people who knew how to weave.” First, she went to the home of a tailor, who couldn’t help, but directed her on, to a Malam – that’s the Hausa word for “Teacher” but loosely used to address adult males from the north. With the help of trilingual children who were playing nearby, she was able to get her point across and find someone who would teach her the old craft of weaving natural fibers.
That was the birth of MitiMeth, which sells home and office décor made from harvested water hyacinth by both women and youth Artisans. Idachaba-Obaro went on to train other women to produce items like placements and rugs that sell for enough money – for instance, $50 for a set of four placemats – to provide real income for the women. Such a ‘business plan’ is needed to put an enterprise, even a non-for-profit ‘social’ enterprise, on a path to sustainable impact. Today, the company has 13 full and part-time employees and had sales in 2022 of 25 million Naira, or about USD $55,000. In a country where the average annual income is about $9,000 a year, MitiMeth has become an example of a successful social enterprise built from ground zero.
Now the Question: How to Scale Up?
I met Idachaba-Obaro through a project at MIT’s Legatum Center,as she has begun working on a model to scale up the business (Disclosure: I’ve been a journalist in residence at the Center). The Center’s ecosystem tours introduced her to other founders and MIT’s approaches to accelerating innovation ecosystems. “How do I institutionalize and expand the capacity I have built so far?” she asks. “I am looking at how we can establish Makerspaces that leverage indigenous methods using new sustainable materials.”
In Cairo, for instance, she met with other enterprises with a social purpose, including one called Tawasol, a school that offers traditional education and training to help children produce an income to help support their families. Opening distribution for the water hyacinth products across the continent will give her access to a wider pool of middle- and high-income people who can afford to buy them.
The tour also introduced her to other material applications. And that, in turn got her mind spinning again. With the wealth of labor on the African continent, and business models built from the beginning to pay them fairly, could water hyacinth be used to make upholstery in cars?
Her background gives her a perspective to consider much larger projects.
How She Got To This Point
Idachaba-Obaro was born in Chicago, when her father was a graduate student but had grown up in Nigeria. After getting a graduate degree in Applied Computer Science at Illinois State University, she worked for a few years. “I like using the technology to solve problems,” she said. But she also realized she didn’t want to spend the rest of her life coding and writing if-then-else statements. With one eye on her home country – which has the largest oil resources on the continent, but few resources to extract them – she went to work for ExxonMobil.
After an MBA from Cornell University, she seemed to be on a track into ever-higher levels of management. “Golden handcuffs,” she thought to herself, and remembered values her father had taught her – do well in the United States, but don’t forget Nigeria.
There was a pull to return. She first broached the idea with her parents when they visited her in the States. “There was this deep silence,” she remembered. They wanted to see her remain in a financially secure job. She prayed about it for a year before making the decision.
Stepped Away from ExxonMobile
That’s how, at the age of 41, she stepped away from a high-flying job at one of the world’s largest corporations, to start an uncertain social enterprise in the heart of the African continent. “It was a leap of faith out of a deep sense of conviction,” she said. “Sometimes I wish I had done it when I was younger. I made this move at 41.”
She got a lot of support on the way, including from a friend, Swarupa Ganguli of the US EPA, who referred her to a State Department initiative called Methane to Market, which gave her a contract to conduct a study on landfills in Nigeria. The connections made through the Center for Entrepreneurship and Innovation at the University of Ibadan helped, as did work on a Gates Foundation funded project with academics from various departments at the University. Grants from the Nigerian government in 2013 and then from the Cartier Women’s Initiative, in 2014, helped her get MitiMeth off the ground.
“I think we’re just scratching the surface,” she said. “I would like to be in a position where I can guarantee my artisans’ sustainable levels of income year in year out.”
The artisans, Idachaba-Obaro said, marvel at the idea that they are creating wealth from the water hyacinth. “Over the years, we have received calls from Artisans who have come to depend on the income received from transforming these menacing weeds to pay for school fees and other necessities,” she said. “Many who were unbanked are now banked so they can receive payment for their woven goods. A number of the women have also become advocates within their communities by teaching others the craft and paying it forward.”
This story and others on New Builders Dispatch are made possible by a sponsorship from the Ewing Marion Kauffman Foundation. The Ewing Marion Kauffman Foundation is a private, nonpartisan foundation that provides access to opportunities that help people achieve financial stability, upward mobility, and economic prosperity – regardless of race, gender, or geography. The Kansas City, Mo.-based foundation uses its grantmaking, research, programs, and initiatives to support the start and growth of new businesses, a more prepared workforce, and stronger communities. For more information, visit www.kauffman.org and connect with www.twitter.com/kauffmanfdn and www.facebook.com/kauffmanfdn.