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Innovative Sustainable Business: A Three Trillion-Dollar Opportunity that UN Environment Wants People to Develop

Achenyo Idachaba-Obaro, the founder of Mitimeth, a social enterprise that has trained hundreds of women on how to make popular handicrafts from water hyacinth. Credit: Isaiah Esipisu/IPS

NAIROBI, Mar 12 2019 (IPS) - In the East African region, communities around the continent’s largest water body, Lake Victoria, regard the water hyacinth as a great menace that clogs the lake and hampers their fishing activities. But in Lagos, Nigeria, some groups of women have learned how to convert the invasive weed into a resource, providing them with the raw material needed to make handicrafts.

“Our biggest challenge right now is the market where these women can sell their finished products from the water hyacinth,” said Achenyo Idachaba-Obaro, the founder of Mitimeth, a social enterprise that has trained hundreds of women on how to make popular handicrafts from water hyacinth.

Dressed in a blouse partly made of fabric from water hyacinth and buttons made from a coconut shell at the ongoing United Nations Environment Assembly (UNEA) in Nairobi, Kenya, Idachaba-Obaro showcased several products made from the aquatic weed ranging from boutique dresses, unique multipurpose baskets, vases, stationery, wall decor, and dining ware, among others.

“All these items are a product of handcrafts by women whom we have trained, and they are now able to generate extra income from a weed that is seen as a menace to many other people worldwide,” she told IPS.

So far, over 350 women, comprising mostly of widows but who also include students and teachers, from riparian rural communities have been trained on how to make finished products from water hyacinth, and they all sell them locally.

“Whenever we have a ready market, we always call on them to make water hyacinth ropes for us, which is the first stage of developing any water hyacinth fabric,” said Idachaba-Obaro.

In the past few months for example, a team of 70 women were able to make ropes which earned them 1.4 million Naira (3,880 dollars). “It has become a big business in Nigeria where everybody wants to be involved,” she said.

Her exhibition was one of the 42 technologies and innovative solutions from around the world that formed the 2019 Sustainable Innovation Expo at the UNEA conference in Nairobi, which is being held Mar. 8-15.
To move such innovations forward through research and to later upscale them, Joyce Msuya, the U.N. Environment Acting Executive Director and Assistant Secretary-General of the U.N. urged countries to provide enabling environments for both innovators and researchers.

“Innovation will be the heartbeat of the transformation we want and this cannot happen by itself. Policies and incentives to spur innovation and sustainable consumption and production must be backed by efforts to build implementation capacity,” she told the more than 4,000 delegates from 170 countries during the official opening of the assembly in Nairobi.

According to Siim Kisler, the Minister of Environment in Estonia and the UNEA President, there is need to find innovative solutions for environmental challenges through different approaches to sustainable consumption and production, inspiring nations, private sector players and individuals.

The Expo is the U.N. Environment Assembly’s solution-based platform for engaging innovators using exhibitions that reveal the latest technologies, panel discussions, and networking opportunities.

Other innovative techniques showcased at the expo include ‘Timbeter’ a digital (mobile app) timber measurement solution that uses a smart phone for accurate log detection.

“With this app on your smart phone, you only need to point the phone camera to say a lorry full of timber, and it will accurately give you the total number of logs on the truck, and circumference measurement of each of the logs,” Anna-Greta Tsahkna the Co-founder of the Estonian-based Timbeter told IPS.

So far, the technology has been embraced in Thailand, Brazil, South Africa, Russia and Chile where companies are using it to share measurements with contractors and clients. They use it to count logs, the log diameter and density in less than 3 minutes. It is an important tool in eradicating illegal logging.

Apart from another exhibition by a Canadian company that uses shipping containers to create affordable and sustainable housing, Brazilian experts from a company called Votorantim were showcasing a technique where they extract DNA from different forest species to analyse their chemical makeup.

“This makes it easy for users to know which type of trees, plants, grass or anything within the biodiversity they should target based on what they want to extract for medicines, cosmetics, perfumes among others,” said Frineia Rezente, the Executive Manager of Votorantim, said.

According to a statement by U.N. Environment, innovative sustainable business represents a trillion-dollar opportunity that can bring value to people and the environment.

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