“Our product gives us the opportunity as Africans to gain a foothold in the eco-fibre market.”
In April, Kenya-based Green Nettle Textile was awarded a grant of €150,000 out of a €1 million pot distributed by the Global Change Award – a fashion innovation challenge initiated by H&M (@hm) Foundation in collaboration with management consulting firm Accenture and the KTH Royal Institute of Technology in Sweden. Green Nettle Textile was one of five winners of the 2019 Award. The company grows nettles to create a sustainable linen-fabric and opportunities for farmers in Kenya to boost their livelihoods.
Here, Bio Market Insight’s Liz Gyekye catches up with Jonah Mwangi, founder of Green Nettle Textile.
Liz Gyekye (LG): Welcome to 5 Minutes With. Can you begin with a description about Green Nettle Textile and what it is the organisation does?
JM: Green Nettle Textile started as a seed-stage social venture in Kenya focusing on the production of eco fibre from stinging nettle plantations established on steep slopes near the ecosystem-based West Central Kenyan areas of Aberdare and Mau.
I was training as a biochemist when I first started the project. Initially, the project started as a research programme in phytoremediation – the direct use of living green plants for in situ, or in place, removal, degradation, or containment of contaminants in soils, sludges, sediments, surface water and groundwater.
Out of all the crops that we researched, nettles on steep slopes performed well. During the research of the nettle waste, we did lab tests to assess potential commercial uses of nettle with fibre production. We replicated these lab tests at a commercial pilot and found out that the results were the same. Subsequently, I joined a group of diverse innovators to help me scale up the project. As a passionate farmer, this was very important to me. All of the founders had the same dream and we started scaling up, not only for conservation purposes, but also for sustainability and commercial purposes. We wanted to help give locals a continuous stream of cash for an eco-conservation crop.
Essentially, we looked at barren areas to produce environmentally-friendly alternatives to conventional fabric and create income for local farmers.
LG: Before becoming founder of Green Nettle Textile, what did you use to do?
JM: I am a biochemist by profession, farmer by passion and a trained social entrepreneur. With a great passion for making sustainable changes local communities, I spent most of my time on the farm training farmers on effective farming practices. I did this with the aim of helping to maximise productivity and profitability.
I also had a venture, which trained farmers with arable lands to set up practical agribusinesses. During this experience, I was able to learn more about steep slope lands. This set me up to help the launch of Green Nettle Textiles. However, to me, I have just scaled up my passion to serve local farmers.
LG: What is Green Nettle Textile’s biggest opportunity?
JM: This is an initial avenue for Kenya and Africa as a whole to produce its own sustainable eco fibres. If you look at big clothing firms, they are increasingly shifting towards using sustainable fibres. Our product gives us the opportunity as Africans to gain a foothold in the eco-fibre market. Although there are other eco fibres on the market, none can match the quality and feel of cotton, except nettle eco fibres. Consequently, this means that we should be able to replace the need for cotton fibre whose production uses a lot of chemicals leading to global warming. We should be able to do this with our successful scale up.
Elsewhere, our population is increasing and there are many people who are becoming more aware about the environment and the need to use sustainable clothes. We are aware that the market for eco-fashion is growing and there is a demand for this fashion in Africa. With few actors working to genuinely bridge the gap, Green Nettle Textile has got a big opportunity to act as first market entrants.
LG: What challenges do you face?
JM: One of the challenges we face is low acceptability of our products on the local market. More than 80% of local clothes sold in Kenya are cheap second-hand imports from Europe. In Kenya, most people buy what is affordable than buy out of purpose. With this, breaking in through the market requires cheap products which can only be guaranteed by conventional fibres rather than our high quality eco fibres.
A sophisticated community that buys “class and purpose” have developed a loyal attachment with international brands which they think define class.
In relation to this, the Green Nettle team has selected to limit its target market to eco, social conscious fashion consumers who “mainly buy for a purpose”.
With the market currently not tapped in Kenya and Africa, we are optimistic that serving only this population will see us scale up and be sustainable as we look to increase production that will lower our products to affordable levels.
Another challenge that we face is access to the right technology to enable us to scale up.
LG: What advice would you give somebody else starting out in this space?
JM: Just do it. Although it will not be easy, it’s doable.
Money, profits and break-even points may be hard to come by, but the purpose to be fulfilled should be satisfactory enough to power you on.
You got the dream, no one can do it better than you. Future generations will thrive because of the steps you do today.
LG: What is your favourite bio-based product?
JM: I like the products made by Le Qara (@leqarabio), who produce vegan biodegradable leather. I like them because they use microorganisms to produce the leather and kill no animals. The production of leather causes a lot of harm to the environment and it’s expensive to produce. It’s great that Le Qara uses an environmentally-friendly process to produce leather and it’s cheap as well.
For more information on the Green Nettle Textile project, please click here.