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Textile innovations will transform the fashion industry
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Textile innovations will transform the fashion industry

November 23, 2020

Kirti Manian [00:51]: Hi Jonah. Thank you so much for coming on the show. I am going to get started by asking you this. Talk to us more about your background and more on your journey to this current moment please.

Jonah Mwangi [01:01]: Thank you very much for hosting me. I am Jonah Mwangi. I am a biochemist by profession, farmer by passion and a social entrepreneur with a zeal to see positive sustainable change for the safe future of generations & lives. I am the founder and the lead researcher of Green Nettle Textile, a social enterprise working to reinvent fashion by making eco-textile from eco-fibre extracted from stinging nettle in a biological and eco-conservative way. 

During my final project as another graduate back in 2015, I was researching on effective usage of waste material & steep slopes & last which are accumulated by minerals to prevent soil erosion and minerals leaching to the rivers and streams. Among the clothes that performed well was stinging nettle. But we had a challenge on how to dispose of the mass that we created from the waste that… and this is why we started the research on how to extract economic benefit from stinging nettle. Among those which performed well was fibre extraction through biological processes which didn’t have a lot of waste. All the waste could be commercially used and didn’t have an impact on the environment.

Then another detail is the nettle. It was easy to grow nettle in different parts of the world. It is during this that we met with a professor who had been doing research in fibre. He was a taxonomist who helped me in research and advised on the varieties of nettle which we can use for commercial purposes of fibre extraction. 

Green Nettle Textiles was born in late 2017 after two years of research. And we have faced challenges as we try to streamline fibre production. But at the same time, we have been able to see more successes by forming a social enterprise which is globally recognized in sustainable fashion, in a way that we all invented fashion by creating an eco-fibre which doesn’t have a negative impact on the environment.

Kirti Manian [03:04]: Oh, that’s brilliant, that’s brilliant. But in terms of your own background, you have done biochemistry. So, where does this desire to kind of figure out fashion looking at a circular economy in that sense all come about from, I mean I would be interested to know about that as well. 

Jonah Mwangi [03:21]: Biochemistry is a wide field and phytochemistry is one of the subjects that is taught within biochemistry. Phytochemistry is how you can be able to use plant maybe to extract minerals from the polluted dregs, and that was my interest. In my final year I was majoring in phytochemistry. And fibre extraction is also a branch. Plant based fibre is also one part of economic biochemistry. 

So, I was doing my research in phytochemistry on how we can be able to use plant to prevent mineral leaching to the river from bio-accumulated lab. And this way I got a lot of mass. Yes, the plant was effective in preventing minerals from leaching to the river. But then, we had to dispose the mass. On how to dispose the mass is when I started research of how can I use this plant material & fibre extractions starting from that point….. 

Kirti Manian [04:13]: Ah, right. That sounds amazing right. Your obvious interest in the whole subject had actually led you to creating this amazing company.

Jonah Mwangi [04:21]: Yeah.

Kirti Manian [04:22]: Now in terms of Green Nettle itself, you talk about how you started off and where it is right now. So, in terms of challenges, have there been any technical challenges, have there been challenges in setting up finds for the company? We’ll be interested to know what kind of challenges have you faced since you set up about three years ago, right, you said. So, from that point onwards, what kind of challenges have you faced?

Jonah Mwangi [04:45]: We are in Africa, and innovation in Africa, innovation development in Africa is very slow. Unfortunately, we have low access to technology, low access to financing. But to us, financing was not a big issue because then, we had to prove our point before we get to that point of financing.

The main challenge that we had in Africa being chief importers of textile, felt like you want to make a new textile in Africa, and almost 90% of what we have in Africa are imports from Europe, is access to technology. For me even to do a single step maybe I had to consult people who have done nettle long ago. Nepal had been a very good source for me. So, to access even the Asian technology and to improve on it and to see how I am performing vis-à-vis such as in the global market, I had to go all the way to Nepal. Low access to technology is an issue even in Nepal because they have not even mechanized nettle production and there are ways of mechanical decortication.  

And those which are available in Europe are chemical processing which I am again is, because then it’s like adding one and subtracting one. You are creating a fibre, a good fibre, a good fibre, but using a lot of chemical processes. So, access to technology is that, technology development is that, because I was not in textile, though I have advisors who are in textile and textile technologies.

The other one root trust for startups in Global South. You say you all are startup, you come from Africa, you come from Africa or Asia, then getting an audience from global participants is too hard. Then there is stiff competition. Definitely once we started production later in 2018 and 2019, there is steep competition from easy to produce chemical fibres. These are polyester and others, because it is easier to produce polyester, they are cheaper. And in an arbitrate market which is Africa, people major a lot on their cost and not their quality or the impact of what they are wearing has on the environment. 

Kirti Manian [06:46]: So, you went all the way from Kenya to Nepal to learn more about this technology. But then even there you are saying that it’s more about using chemicals over actually using any kind of organic or proper technology in that sense, not to create emissions in that sense, right?

Jonah Mwangi [07:02]: We have been researching in Nepal. In Nepal they don’t use chemical but they use traditional ways. 

Kirti Manian [07:08]: Ah...Right.

Jonah Mwangi [07:08]: Which cannot be profitable soon, and you cannot be able to get quality fibre, because this, our big vision is having nettle fibre in a way that you can be able to wear a T-shirt, not only for the things like mats and others.

So, for me, I have been working closer with communities in Nepal, not only in Kenya but from all my research, we have been working closer with several companies in Nepal, in a way the machines that I am currently using and the currently importance have been developed in conjunction with native communities in Nepal because they have been doing nettle for ages.

Kirti Manian [07:39]: Oh, that’s brilliant! That is really, really good. I mean you are literally reaching across continents to get the right kinds of results in that sense. That sounds amazing.

Now since COVID has set in, does the nature of your challenges changed, like travelling to meet up with communities, to get the work done within your own company, are you facing these kinds of challenges in that sense?

Jonah Mwangi [08:02]: Yeah, COVID has its own share of challenges, to us, a lot of challenges. First of all, access to technology, and developing new technology has been slowed a lot. In February month we had, me and my team had come to Nepal. We have been developing a decortication machine in communities that does nettle harvesting in Pokhara that’s in Nepal. And since then even the machines have not been shipped up to today. Nepal was set up to lockdown, Kenya in lockdown. So, it’s hard even to access the machines. We developed it, we invested in it, we made it, we piloted it, it performed well both, in nettle that is produced in Nepal and the one that we are using in Kenya currently. But we have not even as of today been able to import that machine to Kenya. To us it has slowed a lot of technology development herein. 

The other one in a good note, like corona came. The government of Kenya and most governments in Africa were able to close down imports of second hand clothing. This to us was good because the government and policy makers had time to reflect on growing local companies, or how can we be able to survive without, as having all these imports from Europe, from China and from Asia. To us it was good because it gave us time to engage government ministries and to explain to them how we can be able to develop our Asian companies. Companies which are passionate for Kenya can produce for Kenya and can sell in Kenya. To us it was good because now we are engaging the policy makers. But in terms of technology development, in terms of working with other partners, it has really slowed down.

Kirti Manian [09:47]: I think this point we made is very interesting right, you found like a silver lining even within the fact that COVID has hit and you actually managed to engage with the government at a level that might not have been possible earlier. And that’s very interesting right. It reflects on how the government is also thinking about what is happening in terms of manufacturing and what more should they do to kind of push the economy forward as well.

I want to talk more about your company being the first African winner of the prestigious Global Change Award winning… you won like hundred and fifty thousand euros from the H&M Foundation in 2019. Congratulations on this, this is like a massive win. Tell us more about the award and more on how you plan to use the prize money.

Jonah Mwangi [10:26]: Thank you very much. We are humbled it was inspiring that H&M Foundation believed in our dreams, passion and action in our early days when almost nobody believed in us, ourselves and our team. About money, because for us the most interest, when we were applying for H&M it was not about money.

The most important thing we got from H&M, it was credibility. And now we can be able even to talk to partners. We can be able to get audience from those people who’ll not have reason to ask unless H&M be the winner. All in all, I hope in the next edition it wouldn’t be like we are not the only winners. More Africans will be able to win because Africans have potential. 

With the money that we got from H&M Foundation, it has really pushed us far in terms of research and development, acquisitions of new machines that will have decortication, and lowering the production time from two weeks to allow two days because biological fermentation happens within, takes as long as two weeks at farmer’s point. Now with mechanical decortication which we have been able to develop, we are awaiting the shipping of the machines, we can be able to give these machines to farmers and university and [inaudible 11:39] and producing machines in Kenya for farmers to be able to extract fibres within two or three days.

Kirti Manian [11:46]: Oh that’s fabulous. You can actually spend that time doing other things rather than waiting for the process to actually happen. So, from two weeks to two days, it sounds phenomenal. 

Can you give us context about the climate change scenario in Kenya please? We don’t need to go into very, in details, but we are good to know in terms of what kind of impacts do you see on your company in the coming years because of climate change?

Jonah Mwangi [12:08]: Climate in Kenya has been… over the few years we have been able to experience unpredictable extended dry spell. In 2020, the year that we are in, we are staring at ecological disaster in the famous Great Rift valley. Acidic waters are rising beyond capacity and the real possibility of saline and freshwater lakes merging. To us it’s a constant. On success, apart from us reducing the carbon emitted in synthetic textile manufacturing, reduce chemicals and water used in growing other fibres like cotton which definitely uses a lot of water and chemical to grow.

Our production at that scale, of the raw material, for us to get nettle involved a lot of ecological conservation in the community forested areas. One of the reasons we grow nettle because we can be able to develop it even where there are forests. It grows naturally everywhere. The only thing that you need to do is to commercialize it and harvest it in a conservative way. And through this we have an agreement and memorandum of understanding with Kenya Forest Services in which we are using the same tools where farmers have been farming. A lot of situation going on.

We are using these areas to do conservation farming. In that we establish stinging nettle, farmers plant trees. They are able to have this nettle only allowed in the, like, protected tree and make sure that the tree grows to maturity. So, through this we can be able to mitigate the effect of climate change in both ways, in reducing carbon emission, at the same time producing trees which can be able to cut down carbon emission. 

Kirti Manian [13:46]: That sounds great, that sounds great. I am glad that there is something in place that kind of helped you push your whole agenda forward and also look at mitigating the impacts of climate change. So, that sounds wonderful.

I want to talk about the fashion industry now and this accounts for 20% of global wastewater and 10% of global carbon emissions such as garbage trucks of clothes discarded every second to be burned or sit in landfills for up to two hundred years, and this was before even COVID-19 hit. What role do you see the circular economy playing and can you comment on the future of the industry and where you see it heading in the next twenty years please?

Jonah Mwangi [14:24]: Well, coming from Kenya, a country in which imports are allowed 177,00 tonnes of second hand clothing from Europe which have very short shelf life and end up in a dump site within a year. The recyclability involves using recycled and everything, but the concept of recycle if applied in the manufacturing plant, it will help a lot. In my own opinion, exporting second hand clothing in Africa who have zero recycling ability wouldn’t help, it is simple transfer of dump site from Europe, from America to Africa. However, I have seen very innovative startups coming up through H&M Foundation and other platforms. I am seeing innovative ideas coming up in recycle, use to sustainable and secular production. And because most of this innovation are here to reduce, who are passionate about new generation, I can oversee, like in the next thirty years there will be next generation clothing in which it will definitely have low impact on the environment than the  clothing that we have today, simply because innovation is scaling day in, day out. And the big brass [inaudible 15:34] company like H&M, [inaudible 15:36] have taken corporate social responsibility to reduce the impact and also to mitigate the negative impact that they had over years.

Kirti Manian [15:46]: The way it sounds to me is that as if Europe and the Americas are dumping, and I use that in quotes, all their clothing in Africa, right. And obviously this is having an impact on the economy, it’s having an impact on how things are structured and manufactured. With COVID, has that changed and do you see it as kind of the continent saying, we don’t want to be the dumping ground anymore of clothes that are just thrown away in that sense right. So, do you see that happening?

Jonah Mwangi [16:17]: Sure. In Kenya, it has already happened. The government has already banned some clothes, not all clothes from importation from next year after realizing that locals can be able to produce better quality, long shelf life, and the same implies as we import second hand clothing. It is changing, very fast changing. And it is very fast changing in Africa because even the policies are being developed to prevent the introduction of second hand clothing from abroad.

However, I really appreciate the efforts that Europe and America are having in recycling what they produce rather than just exporting it out. I know H&M because I have worked very closely with H&M Foundation. They have a recycling plant in Hong Kong which can be able to recycle almost half of what they produce, and that’s much commendable. Other companies are taking up the challenge of, model of  developing clothes which can be recycled rather than being exported.

Kirti Manian [17:19]: Yeah, and also this concept of fast fashion right, like, I think it’s very interesting to see how companies are saying to themselves they need to stop doing fast fashion because literally it lasts for like six months and you throw it away and that’s that right, and that becomes life cycle. I am glad to see companies taking initiative and feeling they need to do something about this right, rather than it becoming, ending up in a landfill and just rotting away in that sense. So, this is great news Jonah. 

You talked about your MOU with the Kenyan Forest Services for instance, and you have talked a little bit about how the local government is also keen on sponsoring or looking after local companies in that sense. How does politics and policy play a role in the growth of your company, and what more do you think the government needs to do in order for your company to grow and for others like you for that matter?

Jonah Mwangi [18:11]: Politics rarely affects our company but policies do meaning in a negative way. We are in a continent where the word is affordability rather than sustainability, quality, circularity or environmental impact. It is cheaper to import than manufacturing locally currently. There is a lot of tax in production and tax in startups and innovation. New products are rarely approved by the Bureau of Standards. So, you cannot be able to sell even if you produce. And because of trade agreement between countries, Kenya cannot tax things from China, or Kenya cannot be able to tax things from America. So, to local producers it’s a challenge. Those policies are challenges to us, especially a challenge that touches us in tax and lack of approval, like lack of strategization for us to be able to sell to the market.

But with more use move into innovation, invention and entrepreneurship, in the current proposal in most of African countries to have like a tax auditor for the use and support innovation through incubation labs. Then government is doing more, and can do more through the same, through reducing tax or giving tax auditors to use for young companies, at the same time supporting innovation by availing technology or making it easier for researchers, young researcher, not necessarily those who are doing academic research to access government laboratory tests of what they are doing.

Kirti Manian [19:46]: That’s great to know. You were an alumni of the Yali Transformative Leaders program and also the YCAP Social Changemakers program. Can you talk a little bit about what those experiences were likely?

Jonah Mwangi [19:58]: Yeah, good. During the startup phase, they are too good, especially the Yali program, Young African Leadership Initiative program, is super good for young Africans because it helps you realize who you are. It helps you realize the continent you are in. In most things if I ask you about Africa and if you ask most people who are outside Africa about Africa, you talk about poverty, you talk about beggars, you talk about people who are waiting to being given from abroad. 

But unfortunately, if you come to Africa, you’ll realize that Africa has a lot of opportunities. Africa is the only continent which has not been affected too much by fashion. It has contributed nothing, almost nothing in pollution. But it is the most affected in terms of climate change. So, YALI program helps you realize about who you are, where you are and how you can be able to create change in the space that you are. 

YCAP program is an Australian program, although they have run the program in Kenya and South Africa. It’s good for entrepreneurs, social entrepreneurs because it helps you now to startup the idea that you got from YALI into a real business. It helps you to act, not think.

Kirti Manian [21:10]: Yeah, I think this sounds great. And to your point about how Africa is perceived outside of… you know we have had two guests at least on the podcast, Dr Debisi Araba and we had Nnaemeka Ikegwuonu. And it is so inspiring to hear about the opportunities that are available and the innovations that people on the continent are thinking about, right. And when you are looking in, you have this, I think very stereotyped or stereotypical perceptions about Africa, what it means. And you view the continent as a whole. 

But it's a living breathing mass of so many different people, and it is doing so well in terms of you know… when Debisi talked about agriculture and Nnaemeka talked about using renewable energy, and you are talking about circular economy and fashion. And so, for us and for listeners, I think it’s very, very important that all these perspectives kind of come together and it showcases a different viewpoint about Africa as well. So, thank you so much for that. And thank you for telling me about the YALI program as well. It sounds fascinating because you are talking about identity as well in that sense, right. You said it shows you who you are, and I think the nature of the program sounds absolutely fascinating.

Now, you talked about social entrepreneurship as well, right. Is there awareness in the media about social entrepreneurship and does more need to be done?

Jonah Mwangi [22:28]: There is awareness, but too little, because most entrepreneurship, entrepreneurship that is shown in media is most skewed towards profit. And in Africa it is used as an alternative of graduate unemployment. Someone will tell you, you need to get employment, if you don’t get employment, go to entrepreneurship, make money. But no one will tell you follow your heart, follow your passion, follow your vision, go to business, make impact, you can make money, but first of all look at the impact. There is some skewness towards business rather than entrepreneurship. And unfortunately, in Africa it is only used for unemployed youth. Politicians will use this to entice unemployed youth. If you don’t got job, create jobs, that’s what they call entrepreneurship here.

Media needs to do a lot and concentrate more on the purpose, why is that business there, and impact and vision, because that’s what will outreach in case we have financial crisis, as we have now during COVID time.

Kirti Manian [23:33]: Thank you for that, and I do agree on this. I think it’s just about perception and sometimes it just becomes about optics right to politicians unfortunately. So, I think this idea of raising more awareness is very, very important. 

Now, you started off about three years ago with Green Nettle, and what advice would you give based on your own experiences to young entrepreneurs who are interested in the field?

Jonah Mwangi [23:55]: It won’t be easy.

Kirti Manian [23:57]: Right! [laughing]

Jonah Mwangi [23:58]: But it is doable. Follow your purpose and soon you will find someone who will believe in it. And with that now you will be able to scale.

Kirti Manian [24:06]: Short and sweet. Thank you so much Jonah. So now to my last question. We talk about climate change and we say okay, this is something that’s important, and the work that you are doing is also important and helping, you know mitigating the impacts in that sense. What would your call of action be to our listeners, what should our listeners do, and what is the one thing that we should perhaps do to do some climate action in that sense?

Jonah Mwangi [24:29]: I am in fashion, and fashion is the second contributor in pollution and climate change. So, before you wear, ask yourself who made your clothes or what am I doing to nature and to future generations.

Kirti Manian [24:44]: Oh my god! That really got me! [laughing] That really got me, that is so powerful Jonah, that is really so powerful. Because it is so true, right. Like every time I buy something, I don’t necessarily think about it, and that talks about privilege as well. 

Jonah Mwangi [24:58]: Yeah.

Kirti Manian [24:59]: Thank you for those very powerful words. And ending on that Jonah, thank you so much for these fabulous insights you have given us. We have had a great, great time talking to you. Thank you very much.

Jonah Mwangi [25:08]: Thank you very much. 

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