Salubata… Recycling plastics to footwear
It was a windy afternoon in the bustling Lagos suburb of Mushin. In one of the popular markets, local artisans are mending the saws, hammers, and sewing machines, creating leather fashion accessories. Everyone was minding his work, as the day strolled by.
However, one could notice a common culture amid these artisans; they all recourse to the surrounding gutters and roadsides as their waste bins, increasing the city’s already choking pollution problem.
Experts estimate that Lagos generates, at least, 10, 000 tons of plastic waste daily. While many individuals are unaware of its environmental impact, 31-year-old Felabuyi Akunse turned to fashion as a means of rescuing the planet from its ill-fated pollution challenges.
In this interview with CHINONSO IHEKIRE, the Environmental Scientist and fashion entrepreneur talks about crafting footwear from recycled plastic waste, child-focused philanthropy, and the prospects of sustainable fashion in Nigeria.
How did you come about Salubata?
THE brand Salubata wasn’t really planned. In 2015, I went to Eko Market to purchase a sandal and I went to a friend’s house; his uncle liked the shoes and asked if I was the one producing them. My friend signaled to me to say yes and I did. So, his uncle purchased three of them from me.
Over time, we realised that a lot of people kept complaining about the quality of the products. We realised that we had shoes that were made with a lot of inferior materials. So, it was from there we started thinking of making our own leather products. So, that is how we started. We started with three people; we are now two. Our office is located in Maryland, Victoria Island, Lagos.
What inspired the idea of using plastic waste to create footwear?
Over the time, I had personally worked as an environmental scientist; I had been designing shoes too, since 2015. Then, we had been having issues, while I was working as an environmental scientist, with plastic pollution. My boss complained about flooding near his home. Then, I started thinking about the volume of plastic waste available. So, then I suggested to him about making water bottles that can be squeezed just like paper; it was just a random thought.
With a background in Environmental Science from the University of Lagos – I studied environmental pollution and environmental toxicology – I had a distinction in my Masters. We were still making shoes from leather then. In a metropolitan city like Lagos, there are over 1,200tons of plastic waste generated per day. We normally take our shoes to weigh them before they are dispatched. So, we realised that the average weight of a shoe is 0.5 kilogramme. So, it was more expensive to dispatch; that was when the dots started connecting.
The problem in Nigeria is that over 90.5 per cent of plastic wastes have never been recycled. We have a lot of recycling companies around, but the volume of plastic waste is still very rife. Asides from the fact that we even make shoes from plastic waste, we realised the fact that even Adidas, Nike, in the United States even make shoes from plastic waste. So, we started making modular shoes from plastic waste.
Modular in the sense that these shoes can be detached and replaced. So, instead of buying a shoe or more than two shoes, you would only be buying a sole and a number of shoe bodies you want. We trade at Salubataofficial.com and you would see them there. We want to really address the mass market. We have a patent in Nigeria and in the United States on this invention. We also have two design rights and two trademarks; that’s how we started.
How exactly does this work?
So, it starts from the collection. From the collection, there are machines that shred these plastics; the plastics themselves are being heated and drawn into yarns. These yarns are being drawn into fibers and we make any design from them.
What is your workforce like?
Well, I don’t work alone. I notice that one of the primary killers of Nigerian businesses is that we run a one-man business; I currently work with my co-founders. I also have a quality assurance manager and a project manager. The current advantage over other businesses is that we have a professional fashion photographer in our business; it is really cool. We also have some partners, like the United Kingdom Department for International Trade. A few of them are also coming up, like Co-creation hub. I must also remember the artisans we work with. We currently have about 7 of them. So, in total, we are about 11 in the company.
What are the main issues you face with running your brand in Nigeria?
One of the reasons we started making shoes from plastic waste was because we realised that some years ago, Gucci was sold to another brand and it was sold for about 1 billion dollars plus. We compared it to Facebook and the valuation of Facebook is over 100 billion dollars. So, we started thinking of how to act similarly to Facebook.
We realised that the high-end brands have a lot of admirers, but few buyers. Asides from that, we started thinking; Nigeria produces a lot of leather but a lot of people cannot afford the leather. We started thinking of how we could target the mass market; we want to have franchises. It would help us scale really faster.
The main issue in running a business here is people not being able to afford what we are producing. The disposable income of Nigerians is extremely low. One of the other problems is that we do not have a lot of people with deep insight into businesses. They just want to save money instantly. We have more people interested in our brand from outside the country, than Nigerians themselves; it is really pathetic.
On a national scale, what is your vision of sustainable footwear?
Primarily, we started out as seeing what we want to do as a global business; it is not limited to a location, in Africa or any continent. We have read a lot about the likes of Nike and Adidas. The whole concept of Made-in-Nigeria is an archaic concept; a lot of people have gone beyond those clichés. The scope of made in a particular country is very backward. For us, it is not really a vision; we have a global vision. We want to become one of the 100 most sustainable brands by 2024. We know that there is a lot that still needs to be done pertaining to this kind of marketing. COVID-19 has exposed that we only care about feeding and sheer.
How do you feel about the level of international exposure you are gaining?
So, we believe in branding itself. The way you start matters a lot, but it doesn’t mean you should continue the way you started, even if you do not start well. For us, it is really not just starting; we are really educated. We are a set of very smart people in the team; it has helped us to think bigger. For us, it has really been about achieving the dream. So, it is really about what you want; it is happening.
What are your visions for up-scaling this initiative?
So, our plan is that in a year, we want to produce about 3 to 3.2 million shoes. We have decided to contribute 5 per cent of the profit from every shoe to the costs of feeding children and empowering women in underprivileged communities. We understand that the downhill effects of these pollutants affect these people the most. So, asides from footwear, we want to be able to make anything wearable from these sustainable materials. For us, it is more of the insights and also the background.
Anything you would like to add?
Lastly, I would like to add that it is not really about those that started 20 or 30 years ago. There can be a new starter and gain a lot of traction in a very short time; you need to study global trends a lot. That would really help you to position your business. A lot of Nigerian businesses imitate themselves. So, it is really about having a global scope; we don’t play small. If you start really big, big things would happen to you.