US-born businesswoman Achenyo Idachaba, computer scientist and business analyst-turned-entrepreneur, always dreamed of starting a business in her parent’s native country of Nigeria. Five years ago her dream came true as she moved to Ibadan, and three years ago started her own company, MitiMeth. Idachaba’s company produces both home and personal accessories from an aquatic weed which is the scourge of Nigerian waterways. this sustainable and environmentally-aware business got her nominated to the Cartier Women’s Initiative Awards.
We catch up with Idachaba to talk weeds, weaving and mid-life migration.
1. You were born in the US, but have found yourself back working and living in your parent’s native land. What called you back to Nigeria?
I think it was a deep conviction to return and do some social good. Although born in the U.S. and having spent more than half of my life in the U.S., I had also spent part of my childhood and early adult years in Nigeria. My parents strongly believed in the possibility of a better Nigeria if everyone put their hands to the plough and made positive contributions. Their belief inevitably rubbed off on me. Even though I had a good corporate career with globetrotting perks, there was this tug to do something in Nigeria that would bring a positive light to people’s lives.
2. Are there particular challenges for African when starting sustainable businesses, or are there some hidden perks to being from the continent?
I can’t speak for Africa as a continent but can speak from my Nigerian experience which may or may not be similar to experiences in other African countries. Challenges? A big resounding yes and the environment has its own fair share to be very candid. I did not expect a cakewalk and I didn’t get one, so I was not completely disappointed nor disillusioned with the challenges I faced. I just learned to use the challenges as stepping stones to reaching the desired goals.
Before starting my business, I was fully aware that the electricity situation was deplorable so I made up mind that whatever we did should require minimal power to produce. Also, I was used to knowing where to find information and having easy access to it. In, Nigeria, that wasn’t the case. I spent inordinate amounts of time just trying to find basic information. My solution was to get plugged into various professional networks and partner with institutions that had technical resources that could be of benefit to our work.
I did not start my social enterprise with the sole purpose of making astounding profits from Day 1 or Month 1 or Year 1, for that matter. I think that has kept me plugging away at making MitiMeth a long-term venture. There are several opportunities and hidden perks. Being first to market in this large Nigerian market is one of the many. We have chosen the path not popularly trodden and thankfully we have found favour both domestically and internationally.
3. Before MitiMeth, you had a successful career as a computer scientist and business analyst. How long did you foster the idea of starting a sustainable business before taking the plunge?
I had a good Corporate career in the U.S. and was very fortunate to have had different opportunities to excel while at ExxonMobil for 11 years. I had also wanted to work in Nigeria so I could have a rounded corporate experience and wanted to get transferred with the company to Nigeria. Mentally, I had set a time frame within which I wanted it to happen, and if it didn’t come through by that time, I would take a leap of faith and start a new chapter in the area of Sustainable Development. The latter is exactly what happened. In all, it took about 2 years of serious thought, planning and execution.
I relocated to Nigeria in 2009. I started off consulting in the area of Climate Change and working on a few project teams. MitiMeth, my social enterprise, evolved from my consulting experience in Climate Change about 1 year later.
4. MitiMeth produces home and personal accessories made from invasive aquatic weeds that flourish in Nigeria’s rivers and streams. So you’re creating something beautiful from something potentially very destructive. Where did the inspiration for this business idea come from?
It was divine inspiration that I was able to see beauty and hope in unexpected places through the transformation of invasive aquatic weeds. I also often say that “if necessity is the mother of invention, then frustration is the father of innovation!” I just put myself in the shoes of those negatively impacted by the invasive aquatic weeds and figured there had to be a win-win solution to this problem. It led me to do further research on what was happening in other parts of the world after which I latched on Handicrafts production. With that idea, I started to design business models that could potentially work in the Nigerian environment.
5. You call yourself a “social enterprise that exclusively engages people at the bottom of the economic pyramid”; are many Nigerian businesses working on their social investment, and trying to employ those who most need the work?
I would say there are probably a few, not many. I know of one here in Ibadan that specifically employs deaf individuals in the company’s factory. I also had the opportunity and privilege of receiving Technical Assistance from the Business Innovation Facility (BIF) and through the facility became aware of businesses in Nigeria with social investment programmes.
6. MitiMeth runs a training programs as part of its social involvement. What types of programs do you offer?
Most people that need employment the most, aren’t skilled or learned. At MitiMeth, we want to ensure our communities are employable in the Handicrafts sector. That means we equip them with the knowledge and skills they need to get started. Within a two month period post training, our trainees are equipped to weave a few products such as handbags, shoes, baskets. Our partners, Community-based Organizations, are then responsible for ensuring that the trainees form a cooperative though which supply partnerships can be formed. We also offer the opportunity to trainees to come to our workshop location to shadow our artisans on-site.
7. How has the Cartier competition changed your life – and the life of your business – thus far?
It is such an honour and delight to be 1 of 18 Finalists from the Globe, and 1 of 3 from Sub-Saharan Africa, for the Cartier Women’s Initiative Awards. The Cartier competition has given me global exposure on a different level than we were previously. Being a finalist has also made me realize that we need to “up our game” quickly at MitiMeth. My team members are thrilled to be a part of an organization that has received global recognition. It is great to be a part of the Cartier Awards Community with talented enterprising women and I have already identified a few women I would love to collaborate with in the near future. I am looking forward to the planned activities and Networking opportunities in Paris and Deauville during the Awards Finals’ week in October.
8. Where can we buy your products in South Africa?
Fantastic question. We are looking to start exporting in 2015 and would love to sell MitiMeth products in South Africa. We are very open to exploring and developing partnership opportunities with retailers / distributors in South Africa.