For many who grew up around the Niger Delta waterways, Kolo Creek is a familiar destination, being the only playground most children had to play and hone their swimming and fishing skills.
Today, the waterway around the region of Bayelsa State is covered by water hyacinth which the surrounding communities consider a nuisance because the density of the weed deprives aquatic plants and fish of sunlight and oxygen. It also causes significant increases in water loss through evapotranspiration.
But Achenyo Idachaba, who first came across the weed on the University of Ibadan campus several years ago, decided to string them into functional purposes. She chose not to see water hyacinth as a pervasive problem but rather as an opportunity for alternate livelihoods and community transformation.
The applied computer scientist said she remembers Awba Dam ‘all of a sudden’ being covered with this blanket of weeds. “It was covered completely and I thought to myself what a bummer!”
Following her relocation to Nigeria in 2009, she noticed the once clear Lagos Lagoon beneath the 3rd Mainland Bridge was a sight of several fishing boats hemmed in by dense mats of water hyacinth left an indelible impression.
“I felt so sorry for the numerous ‘fisherfolk’ whose livelihoods were being hampered by the infestation of the weeds,” she said.
According to the 2014 Finalist Cartier Women’s Initiative Awards from sub-Saharan Africa, this observation was timely: “because I was doing some research on waste recovery and utilisation during that period. I then figured there had to be a low cost and high impact practical solution for the environment and the people whose livelihoods were negatively impacted by the presence of invasive aquatic weeds.
“I subsequently spent several months working with the weeds to understand the characteristics and how to work it. I keep telling all who care to listen, that if necessity is the mother of invention, frustration has got to be the father of innovation! I put myself in the shoes of the frustrated riverine communities and sought a win-win solution for the people and for the environment. That’s how I was finally able to develop a few aesthetic handicrafts from the water hyacinths.”
Now offering items such as laundry baskets, vases, stationery and accent furniture, amongst others, from their Ibadan workshop, Idachaba says “we not only produce handicrafts but also train communities across Nigeria on how to make handicrafts from natural resources like water hyacinth.
Idachaba’s company, MitiMeth, has partnered with Enactus University of Lagos to train 20 women and youths in Makoko; with FACE initiative in Bayelsa, an NGO focusing on gender advocacy and economic empowerment.
With the co-sponsorship of the Dutch Embassy it has also trained 40 women from Abobiri, Ewoi, Kolo, Oruma, Otuokpoti.
The former ExxonMobil staff said these efforts are merely scratching the surface in terms of building capacity in water hyacinth handicrafts production in Bayelsa. “We want to do much more and would be happy to partner with community based organisations, NGOs, the private and public sectors that share our vision.
“In Delta (Owahwa / Esaba) we partnered with WITS and TreasureLake (both NGOs) to build capacity amongst the youth. We have also partnered with a few riverine communities in Kogi and with LAWMA in Lagos to harvest the weeds from the waterways,” she said.
Idachaba is exploring other options for water hyacinth utilisation sourced from Ibadan, Lagos, Idah, Owahwa, with locally-fabricated technology.
Idachaba’s relationship with the plant which led her to establish a social enterprise engaging people at the base of the economic pyramid in producing handcrafted accessories from renewable resources, gives her a mission to “combine solid commercial returns with long term developmental impacts in Nigeria’s riparian and riverine communities.”
The 2013 Local Raw Materials Content Award recipient added that: “If I didn’t take a leap of faith at the time I did to start a new chapter as an entrepreneur in Nigeria, I suspect I would still be working in corporate America for the same company.
“My objective as an entrepreneur is to focus on opportunities that would provide positive environmental and economic impacts at the base of the pyramid,” she said.
With much ado about going green, Idachaba states that the initiative has been very welcomed. “In general people like our products and the story behind the products. Most of our products are sold in Lagos where customers seem to have a better appreciation for handicrafts and they also have the purchasing power to back up that appreciation. Our training workshops have been well received by the communities. People have been eager to participate in the programme and put their newly acquired skills to economic use.”
With repurposing the weed being a multipronged business venture from its harvest to rope making to making the final product, the entrepreneur admits that, there are challenges.
“Finding skilled and committed artisans locally, within the environs of where we have our production workshop is a problem,” she said.
Adding that: “They are few and far between. The making of quality handicrafts requires patience and diligence. And it is very unfortunate that you cannot find many people that possess these attributes in our surrounding environment today.”
On the kind of products the company makes, Idachaba said: “Our eco-friendly hand-crafted accessories include multi-purpose storage, pens, jotters, baskets, vases, lampshades, ottomans, mirrors, coasters etc. For some of the products, we combine the water hyacinth with non-timber resources.”
“Our customers kept asking if we made souvenirs. We listened to our customers and started making souvenir items for them using our existing product offering as a launching platform.”
Her projection for the company in another five years is that it is an eco-friendly household brand used for home décor here in Nigeria and abroad. “We’re hoping to facilitate training workshops in all of the 20 states that are currently impacted by the infestation of the weeds and impact hundreds of communities,’ Idachaba said.