[0:00:06.7] ES: Hello and welcome back to Happy Porch Radio season six. This season, we are still focusing on circular economy in Africa. Today, we have the pleasure of talking to Fela Akinse, who is the founder of Salubata, a company based in Nigeria that makes modular shoes from plastic waste. There is loads going on with this company that was just really inspiring and Fela is a very ambitious guy and it was a real pleasure to speak to him.
I found that his kind of energy really came through when he was telling me about his vision for the future, Barry.
[0:00:40.2] BOK: Yeah, definitely and his ambitions and plans, I really liked how interwoven he’s really thought about the impact with his business across all the way through from where the plastic comes from and working with disadvantaged people and a contribution of income or profit from his shoe all the way through to the modularity of the shoe and thinking then about how he’s going to scale and it’s really fascinating, very inspiring guy in this fine business.
From a point of view of a technologist and people working in designer marketing, it’s finding these kinds of entrepreneurs and businesses and multiplying and accepting the catalyst for a greater impact I think is where we as an industry can fit in.
[0:01:17.9] ES: He mentions his various different interests and passions and how they all just came together in this nice solution for plastic waste as a problem and that he wants to offer that to his customers and he made it sound so simple.
[0:01:36.1] BOK: Without any further ado, in fact, let’s hear from Fela.
[0:01:43.7] FA: Hi everyone, my name is Fela and we see you in the story, co-founder to the brand Salubata. And at Salubata, we have a mission to invent lifestyle technologies that help people and the planet currently by this niche of recycled plastic shoes that makes a profit while also benefiting people and the planet. We do not just make shoes of plastic waste alone, the shoes themselves are also modular and so it’s again waste-free, thank you.
[0:02:18.7] BOK: Awesome, brilliant, welcome to Happy Porch Radio. I’m really excited to talk a little bit about the product but let’s start with a little bit of the background, I’m excited about the product by the way because of the modularity, I think that’s really exciting from a circular economy point of view and that you're using recycled waste for the product as well and we can talk a little bit more of what that means in a moment. To start, tell us a little bit about your background Fela, what led you to the point where you're now working on this business with this broad vision?
[0:02:46.0] FA: Yeah so, I went to University of Lagos, it’s in Nigeria and I studied environmental toxicology. It’s really about pollution management, toxic kinds. I graduated at the top of my class but that’s not it. It’s really about making myself, trying to find traditional teams, think even while I was in school,I mean, really end up in our – like organize it for spelling competition for the various institution, there have never been any like that so it was really a lot and important for me so I did bachelors and master’s degree in environmental toxicology and pollution management and I’m going to work out in [inaudible 0:03:25.0] under these and also in environmental sciences.
Also, we’re designing shoes for the past six years, while working as an environmental scientist, I noticed a problem with work and it’s with plastic pollution and I’ve always known that the problem with plastics themselves is really around the components. That if we can crush the volume in the plastics then we can certainly battle our problem [inaudible 0:03:50.3].
That problem, I realized that we have more people who are using this waste, other than recycle or so I couldn’t. If you reuse then it fully retains, while more plastics are being produced per day and if you continue reusing before you get your main constant. What is constant or even more. It’s more using why you see that you have a lot of recycling properties around but the volume of plastic waste in the environment, now it remains constant but also more in the environment.
You know that is why are we making these shoes, we make shoes from our backyard but then we weigh them before they are being expired and so the weight, the talents, the price, the cost of materials and we do not operate the new upgrades. We do upgrade. We’ve been upgrading in [inaudible 0:04:38.4] from scratch. We have career partners that work with us.
We realign their accordance in the weight of the shoes, it’s about five kilograms and also study that the average person in the metropolitan on those about dropping five kilograms of plastic waste per day. With this reason we’ll find like, okay, in a year alone, there are over 351 million pounds per plastic boots.
Just only about 9% of this waste is ever being recycled, just nine. I felt like, if the weight of the shoe is about 5 kilogram and these specific contents are five kilogram plus inspect and then I make this wastes into shoes and so what’s the reason why for like if we could combat the volume of plastic waste produced yearly, that’s about trillion, it’s one million, a month or two over 782 trillion shoes per [inaudible 0:05:33.9].
Well, yes, we understand that we cannot produce that and so it was the reason why, I think we were just really about a lot of dots connecting from environmental background to the business background then to the design background. A lot of, [inaudible 0:05:51.8] dots connecting anymore. From what’s with the perspective of trying to go far, it’s mission that works and so that’s what really brought us to doing what we are doing.
[0:06:01.5] BOK: Yeah, that’s brilliant, I really like that story as you say of many dots connecting, you’re obviously, we’re really passionate and interested in the environmental and the questions around waste, it took all the waste to reach to do a masters of it and to excel academically in that. Then, did your interest in designing shoes, was that independent, is that just a coincidental that you’ve managed to combine those two interests or is it very deliberate?
[0:06:24.6] FA: Well, for shoes, I just would like to make money, one, and then design. I’ve been an artist, period, right from when I was really small. I like to draw and so I think what’s really – in fact, I’ve also been a makeup artist where I grew up, [inaudible 0:06:43.2] but then in being that, but then for, when this, all of this artistry work and business background and science background into one then it could really use something really beautiful.
Even while we are marketing these shoes made from plastic waste, see that shoes and their – there’s a lot of aesthetics that we consider in the manufacturing and in the design. Because we understand that, a lot of people just want to wear shoes, a lot of them just want to wear shoes. The people could not really care about the materials from where we get it from. You have to make them, the products really appealing irrespective of the material.
You have to make the marketing done, materials that are not sustainable so you can get a lot of crew and really, that’s it. That’s really about all of this background.
[0:07:33.8] BOK: Yeah. I think you really hit home on an absolutely vital thread there of the business of doing, like it’s being sustainable isn’t enough. The product needs to be good, it needs to be equally as good or better than the alternatives if it’s going to be a successful business, that makes complete sense. Coming from a very passionate and address myself in the circular economy, that is something that is constantly need reminded of.
I really like that you’re combining those three things. Yeah, that interest and the kind of wrap around the interest in business and then the creative artistic side. Tell us a little bit about the shoes and what you mean by how are they modular, what does it actually look like, what is it?
[0:08:11.1] ES: Sorry to interrupt. Can I ask a question before you ask that question Barry?
[0:08:15.2] BOK: Go ahead, please do.
[0:08:18.2] ES: I don’t mean to cut in but yeah, I love what you said that you’ve got these three kinds of interests and passions and expertise and you’ve just gone right, there’s a problem I can solve with all these things, it’s really inspiring. Do you remember if there was like a moment, even before you started studying environmental toxicology, maybe, I don’t know when it would have come for you, where you thought, “This is something that I need to dedicate some time to. This is clearly a problem, I want to help solve it.”
[0:08:47.3] FA: Well, thank you for the question. I would say that I would consider myself as a problem solver and the problem with plastic waste is something that I see as being recurrent in the environment and a lot – the damages it’s caused in a lot of places. It was really not, I wouldn’t still fix on solving the problem with plastic waste actually. I started with making shoes just to make money but then, I felt like, “Well, I can combine my environmental background with this and so this might just make a lot of sense” and so that’s what really happened.
I didn’t really come out to start to just making shoes from plastic waste. I think my background has really helped to accelerate the process because one thing that we are already understand is design. Design I believe is really key and what we believe that is essential for scalability and that is one of it. I would really talk about Apple with it. Apple products like the iPhones, the Mac Book, the way that these has been used, through fast learner from humanities, for the aesthetics, they put a lot of work into aesthetics and so it is one of those things that we also have a foundation at Salubata that we’re expecting that how good our product is. It must be really appealing is shared, at least.
[0:10:14.9] ES: Yeah, I think that is a really good point that there’s this kind of making the product trendy, will help make it successful and the circularity of it then becomes part of it being trendy as well as this solution that’s helping this global issue of plastic waste. Barry, do you want to ask your question now?
[0:10:39.3] BOK: Yeah, we’ve left a bit of a tease there with what’s the product.
[0:10:42.1] ES: I know.
[0:10:42.9] BOK: Yeah, let’s talk about that. It’s shoes but they’re modular, can you just describe them and what you mean by modular?
[0:10:50.1] FA: Okay, yeah. Modular means – the reason – before we started going into making shoes from modular, I mean these shoes are modular is that while we’re making our research, we realize that we wouldn’t force people to start making shoes from plastic waste. We have the likes of Adidas, the have the likes of [inaudible 0:11:09.0] making shoes on plastic waste to [inaudible 0:11:12.1] could take us in the regional area.
Just going just beyond making shoes from plastic waste to making them modular and the modularity is that for example, you have one shoe, one sole with a lot of detachable uppers. Imagine that you have just your shoe, sorry, I could have probably brought a shoe here to show you. You can head over to our website to salubataofficial.com to see what I mean.
What the modular means is that, we have just one sole but we have the modular bit that is detachable and so you can replace different colors and different designs. With that, we are helping people save money for people that really want to save money. We are helping people to save space. We are helping people, for people who like to wash their shoes easily, especially the smelly parts where the hands cannot touch like where they have the foot in.
It’s easy to wash so you can readily detach the shoes from the toe and wash it and something I really enjoy is the washing machine just like the clothes and you wash it easily. It was from those perspectives where you're thinking, often the angle of the customer needs actually and not really from a side education of making shoes from plastic waste of trying to be more sustainable from aside the additional educational point of view for sustainability, we are more in focus on the customer and what the customer needs. The needs of the customer.
We believe these are the things that we really – efforts, replicate our impact faster. It was really about the customer, trying to see how we can help the customer save cost, save space and also considering the manufacturer because by the coming year, we will be launching the Salubata franchise where anyone anywhere in the world can tap into our technology. For the manufacturer to be – you do not have to spend a lot of energy on manufacturing an extra shoe because the sole itself consists about 70% of the energy that is being used on the shoe manufacturing.
We do not need to produce an extra sole, all you need to produce is just one sole. In this feeling with our customers that have bought like five different colors or different uppers, in fact, we just found out that we’re making even more money from the modularity and everybody, every customer is also feeling that they’re also helping the environment and they’re also feeling good about the shoes. The shoes are also really very cool.
I would say, it’s all intertwined and all encompassing and it’s really about the functionality and also the profits. We believe we are playing this role really well but especially for the customer and the environment, yeah.
[0:14:11.6] BOK: Awesome, wonderful. Like you say, it’s hard to describe the front, just visualize it in hidden audio format but we’ll put the links into happyporchradio.com as always but if anybody wants to check out pictures of the shoes so it becomes a bit clearer in your mind, it’s salubataofficial.com.
Like you say, there’s a web, there’s a real interconnected web of benefits and the reasons for the product. I’d like to sort of walk through a little bit of the journey of some of those things in a sort of journey format. First of all, some of the material comes from or it comes from plastic waste, what does that mean, do you literally collect, where does your plastic come from and can you quickly describe the process for turning that into the material that then makes the shoe?
[0:14:54.1] FA: Yeah, thank you. Because we realize that a lot of these impacts, the downward impact of these pollutants, plastic waste pollutants affects the people in the underserved communities the most and so that’s one of the reasons why we’re focusing more on pollutants, plastic waste only in the underserved communities. Yeah, about last week, we’re actually thinking about some product concepts of not just focusing on the downward impact but also on the uphill impacts.
It’s just more like, there’s somebody on a bid, trying to stone you from a hill or like a mountain and you keep breaking it. I think the best way to do that is to remove the best thing on the mountain or ravine and to prevent this stone from falling on you.
For us, it’s really from collecting the plastic waste from these underserved communities and we realize that most are the people that have been impacted the most are the women and the children. Coming back to that but then shoes are being collected and so we partner up to partner with recycling companies and they are really sorting.
The plastic insert has been shredded, after being shredded, accommodating us. This is how it feels like, lines of your clothing, feels like your material like your wool and bought them plastic and this then are then drawn into patterns, the patterns then are being used to make the shoes.
That’s really the process. Then, I would come back out, I was trying to talk about impact of the pollutants on typically the underserved communities, of course, we realize that we don’t really [inaudible 0:16:33.0], the pollutants are fairly good between the communities we believe. It is one of the reasons why we contribute.
For every shoe, which is we have 5% of our profits that have been dedicated to empower women in these communities, so it is not giving them the money. We are empowering them, training them to have skill sets where we can already also employ them as employees at Salubata. We believe [inaudible 0:16:58.9] would be helping the environment and also helping people get [inaudible 0:17:03.0]
[0:17:04.4] ES: It is just heartwarming to hear because all the good things of helping people and planet and also getting a viable business out of it. I love the thing that you said about what really kind of focused on the system buddy stuff, you were thinking what do your customers need. They need convenience of cleaning these things, they want variety, they need low costs and it just so happens that your solution is actually what they need is a very circular project and within that, you’re also supporting women and children in local communities. Yeah, it sounds amazing.
[0:17:43.3] FA: Thank you.
[0:17:46.1] ES: Can you tell us a bit about the network that you work with in Nigeria and the circularity and scene that you are connected with in your work?
[0:17:58.9] FA: I do not really say we work with a particular network. What we just find is we just are getting a lot of people who are interested in what we are doing by the day, by the week, once about for us. I would not say we belong to the particular network. Yes, in Nigeria you have obviously environment out was called organizations know about what we are doing and also beyond like in Ireland there was an award we won.
It was previously our work force for circularity, obviously that we build into the community automatically. We did [inaudible 0:18:36.1] some acceleration, accelerators and also something [inaudible 0:18:39.1] and the US also and in Britain and so we believe those are what we would refer to as our communities. Also alongside our customers we’d say those are our networks actually, yeah.
[0:18:54.9] ES: Cool, so like the international circularity community is your professional community. That’s very cool.
[0:19:02.2] FA: Yeah.
[0:19:02.8] ES: I kind of want a pair of these shoes, I don’t know about you Barry but I’m going to do some shopping after we have this conversation.
[0:19:09.5] BOK: That’s a nice little segue to the next question I wanted to ask. A lot of the intention of this podcast is to talk about the design process and the technology that can complement or that allows the creation of products and businesses like yours. We’ve touched a little bit on the design process and I wanted to quickly go back to that and ask about I guess from your point of view, the design process of creating a shoe and then making it modular.
Was there a lot for you to learn there? Did it come very naturally? Was it a case of having very comfortable designing these cool shoes and they’re modular or how difficult was it to make the product, to pull the whole product together?
[0:19:46.3] FA: Yes, so I think for I would say one in Africa here, I feel one of the reasons a lot of these businesses do not really succeed is because they are not designed to succeed and so one of the issues we have in the country, right, is the problem of standardization. If you are asked to maybe make 1,000 shoes maybe that might be cool but if you are told to make 10,000 there would be a problem and so this lies in the kind of machineries and also most importantly the people.
A lot of times, you will not get to find the people with the right skillsets to be able to put you kind of have to do everything and so it’s really all of these problems and I’m forced. Now, it is really about really skilling our business and our lay working part but then we cannot be limited by the problems that exist. That is the problem of standardization and I feel like for us now it is really about partnering with factories who are able to do that even better.
For us it’s really about the kind of the impact we can make rapidly and then that is really about the design that we feel like a lot of people do not put that in mind by [inaudible 0:21:08.4] then encounter a lot of problems. [inaudible 0:21:11.4] can readily get our customers of you and we can just get it first time. If you tried the second time if you do the course, then they said there is a lot of problem then we could see them no more and we just wanted to wait on the machines.
This one’s also I feel like it is really about buying the customer for life and that’s why a lot of efforts you see put into standardization. I think for us that is the core part of what we should be doing no matter what because the truth is a lot of people do not care about the environment and so what they care about is how visually appealing the product is, the aesthetics and the people that really care about the environment, it is growing but it is not so much right now.
What we want to do is to cover everybody, those that care and who doesn’t care, finding that way we would be able to educate more people along with that.
[0:22:09.1] BOK: Yeah, that makes sense and it is really interesting you described that as your – what did you describe that, the challenge of standardization and being able to scale what you’re doing as your biggest challenge, is what you are trying to get to?
[0:22:21.0] FA: Well, yes. That is one of those challenges but then it is also an issue of funding but then it’s true like I have seen [inaudible: 22:28] and if you really had a lot of money, even if you have a lot of money, it is still for me to prioritize the issue of standardization over funding. The right funding makes a lot of sense, it will really add a lot of money and [inaudible 0:22:42.8]. We also get customers too, a few, what needs to be sorted first is the issue of standardization even before you are raising money.
[0:22:52.5] BOK: Yeah, that makes complete sense and one of the implications you made there was that you were finding that besides in Africa that there is issues of standardization. How much of those problems are unique to the scenario that you’re in, in Nigeria or the things that you think that are specific to both challenges and opportunities that are specific to being in Nigeria?
[0:23:10.4] FA: I would say that it’s a lot of – it is a big problem. The truth is like I said, a lot of businesses are not good for skill for sustainability and so we are the improving and small jobs or within small outlets trying to do that. Okay, for example, there was a place I went to, it is one of the states I went to in Nigeria that is trying to seek a manufacturing partner. We realized that we had machines donated by the government through this factory and we do not have people that could use this machine, the machines.
It’s really about the people and the machines, it’s more about the people actually than the machines. The right set of people will exclude that, so it is a really a big problem. For us, it is really about how can we grow so big that we can become even bigger than the likes of Nike or Adidas in a very short time and that is, already. we’re trying to do that. Somebody who does the products is [inaudible 0:24:10.6]. We are trying to view a group of our community for our product and our technologies.
If anybody in Japan is trying to wear our shoes is that you get the same quality as factories getting in Taiwan or in the United States or in the UK. It is what we are trying to really achieve and believe the issue of standardization is something we really need to adapt.
[0:24:36.4] BOK: Yeah, that makes sense and yeah, the skillsets and the technical skillsets of the people doing the work I can see that as one of the core issues you’ve identified. That is really interesting. You touched on I think franchising and maybe some other things but we’ve talked about that problem of scaling and standardization. Is the franchise model or how is – what’s the solutions that you are currently working on to let you get to solve those problems?
[0:24:59.3] FA: Yes, so I mentioned earlier what we’re trying to do is to partner with factories with enough credibility while we monitor the whole processes of manufacturing because first, in the end, yes, we are more like a social enterprise where we are more – we foster business to. Of course, we need money to sustain the business, so we need to partner with people that will give us what we need and so we believe in that manner we can grow, learn skills really faster and begin.
That is what we’re pointedly doing right now and beyond that also partnering with retail outlets in Europe and also in the US right now, we also considering this year and so it is one those decided ways we are trying to grow our scope, partner with some marketing partners, marketing agencies in the US and also we are willing to of course drive the growth of our products and so we believe these are always good foundations for anybody that wants to be able to buy into our franchise. ]
Beyond, even before the franchise, we are trying to have enough credibility globally first then we can invite them to come to buy into our dream but then these are our growth strategies.
[0:26:17.3] BOK: I wanted to ask as well, you’ve got a nice website where people can go and buy the products, so where do your current sales come from? Is most of your business local with local retail? How much of the websites that kind of business how much comes that way, what’s the current situation of where your business comes from?
[0:26:36.6] FA: Yes, so we’ve got our application channels, most of them are visual or online and we utilize from really our website. We are also getting some views with some different platforms to do that but from our really point of sale is our website and also we direct people from our social media pages to our website but I think the most active of all is Instagram, it’s to Salubata Official on Instagram and so it’s still directly to –
A lot of times we do not operate a physical store. We believe that is a better way for us to grow and we have seen some what our companies what’s planning in the US growing them right now. I feel like we can incorporate that model in our operation. We believe that we were actually positioned for during COVID and because we never operated any physical store where we have able to add more sales virtually more than people that operates physical store.
We believe that would be a good way to go and I think the way forward to what we are doing now is [inaudible 0:27:43.4] and there are physical stores and what we are doing just to anyone to keep doing this, keep boosting our online platforms and working with partners.
[0:27:55.0] ES: It is great to hear about your ambitions for the company and going global and taking over Nike and everyone. In terms of the product itself, and your kind of circularity and maybe also the social side of your impact, do you have ambitions for that? Is there a way that you can be even more circular or even more impactful in terms of the plastic waste and what you are trying to do with it?
[0:28:21.7] FA: Well, we believe that yes, if we do not scale what we’re doing we would not be able to impact a lot of lives and even the environment and so, it’s one of the reasons why we are trying to grow big and growth is not about money alone, it is really about the impact and the number of lives we can impact and what we can do to even improve the environment. We believe in that manner and there is another model we also incorporated into Salubata and this is a closed loop system.
This closed loop system we’re doing is that we are trying to operate a system where nothing escapes the environment, we’re buying the same shoes that are a bit more higher in quality and made into other shoes. This work will be in a couple of months and so that is what we are trying to do is we’re not trying to escape into the environment and we don’t believe that we truly keep in the whole system circular so yeah.
[0:29:21.3] ES: Nice, yeah I was going to ask that if by the time your shoes get to the under of their cycle can it be re-entered into the system, that’s really nice. I was wondering about the process that you have of recycling the plastic and then obviously when you are talking about standardization and growth, I mean first of all, where does your plastic come from that you then recycle and turn into shoes and how do you see that in terms of the standardization thing?
I assume that’s kind of a big question of standardization that the plastic, it is not verged in plastic. It’s coming from recycled sources.
[0:29:52.6] FA: Yeah, so the plastic reserves are PETs. They are not entity plastics, they are not exactly plastics and the reason for that is that they are already dyed. It can be easily dyed into new products. The plastic themselves, talking about the issue or the case of operation enclosed looped technology, our closed loop system is whereby the same plastic distributors are the plastics, the PETs and they are being used to make these shoes are being collected and used to make for the shoes.
Even when in order to produce the [inaudible 0:30:26.6] so I guess I am able to ask that question, I’m not too sure yet.
[0:30:31.8] ES: I’m excited to see where it goes.
[0:30:33.7] FA: Yeah, thank you.
[0:30:35.3] BOK: Yeah, thank you so much. It is really a fascinating conversation and as we talk, we keep discovering more and more little positive things you are doing like introducing the closed slips, getting the returns back. You mentioned before about where the supplier and helping those disadvantaged communities and the modularity of the product. There is so much as you described the sort of systems thinking, there is so much different interconnected things that you are doing with the business and I think it is truly wonderful.
[0:30:58.6] FA: Thank you.
[0:30:59.0] BOK: Just to finish up, for anybody listening who wants to get in touch with you or find out more about the work you’re doing, where can they go?
[0:31:06.0] FA: Yes, so if you guys go on Google and type Salubata to find us. Definitely go on Google, type Salubata and on social media, you can go on Salubata Official on all of our social media, Salubata Official and on Twitter it is @salubata1000 but primarily our point of contact is our website and that is www.salubataofficial.com. Just type Salubata on Google, you can see the results and thank you.
[0:31:39.9] BOK: Thanks. Brilliant, I love that. Just go type Salubata in Google you’ll find them. Salubata and we’ll put all of those links as normal and to happyporchradio.com. Thanks again Fela, I really enjoyed the conversation today.
[0:31:51.7] FA: Thank you so much. Thank you Emily, thank you Barry.
[0:31:55.5] ES: Thank you. Thanks Fela.
[0:31:59.1] ES: Thanks for listening to this episode of Happy Porch Radio. I hope you enjoyed it. You can hear more of our episodes at happyporchradio.com. You can also get in touch with us there, let us know what you think, let us know if you have any ideas or if you want to talk to us about something. We’d also love it if you can share this podcast, review, rate, tell your pals, tell your neighbors, tell everyone.
[0:32:20.8] BOK: Tell your dog.
[0:32:21.3] ES: Tell your dog, listen along with the whole family.
[0:32:24.8] BOK: My name is Barry and I founded happyporch.com and Happy Porch Fund and Support Podcast. At Happy Porch, we do technology and software development for purpose-led businesses and we are particularly excited about the role of digital as an enabler for the circular economy. If you’re working on solutions to the big problems we face today, problems like climate change and biodiversity loss and global and equality, then let’s connect. Visit happyporch.com and get in touch.
[0:32:51.3] ES: My name is Emily and I am a coach, a facilitator and a podcaster. My projects focus on personal development, innovation for a better world and connecting with nature. My latest podcasting adventure, alongside Happy Porch Radio, is exploring the world of carbon removal. Find out more about this and everything that I do at emilyswaddle.com or you can get in touch with me at firstname.lastname@example.org.