Noreen Mwancha at the Make it Circular Challenge Winners Bootcamp

Last week, we held a virtual closing ceremony for the 13 winning teams of the Make it Circular Challenge (MiCC). During the ceremony, we celebrated the progress made by each team since winning the Challenge, marking the end of a marvellous and demanding journey. Part of the package was a tailored coaching trajectory, for which each team was matched with a hand-selected mentor specialised in their project’s niche. What have these teams achieved since being recognised as one of the next big circular design innovations, and how did their mentors help them get there?

I caught up with Noreen Mwancha from Rethread Africa, a startup manufacturing textiles from crop waste, and their mentor Lawrence Thiga to hear about their process. We covered how Lawrence was able to lend a bit of extra muscle to Rethread’s negotiations, his guidance in getting the Rethread team from point A to point B on action points big and small, and how a small word of encouragement can go a long way.

Chieri Higa (WDCD): Lawrence, can you tell me a little bit more about why you decided to take on this mentorship role for Rethread Africa?

Lawrence Thiga: Yes. This is something that I have been doing since 2016 for Kenya Climate Innovation Center, before What Design Can Do came into my picture. What motivated me with What Design Can Do specifically is the uniqueness of the innovations. My greatest motivation was to be able to be part of a unique innovation and be able to find new ways for them to be able to grow and bring the elements of sustainability to the forefront. So that was the exciting part.

C: And what were you hoping to share or pass on? 

L: The biggest thing that I was hoping to share was to be able to break down difficult concepts into a one, two and a three—meaning to simplify business concepts, simplify marketing concepts, simplify customer reaching concepts in a way that a startup can be able to tackle. And I think [that with Rethread Africa] we have been able to handle quite a few of those challenges in a very simple way. For example, just being able to help them to come up with a minimum viable product, then be able to link them to a standardisation organisation, and then after that help them to negotiate with the organisation… With startups most of the time there is a bit of fear, a lack of confidence, and just to be able to step into the gap for them in that way and encourage them to take the first steps. 

‘Looking back to the time we submitted our application, Rethread Africa was just an idea on paper. We saw the potential it could have, but were unsure of the next steps.’

C: Noreen, what was your initial motivation to submit your work to the Challenge?

Noreen Mwancha (Rethread Africa): Looking back to the time we submitted our application, Rethread Africa was just an idea on paper; something that started out as a school project. We saw the potential that it could have, but were unsure of the next steps. So we said, let’s just try and see how far this can go. 

The Rethread Africa team experimenting with raw fibres from pineapple leaves.

C: And what was the most important thing that you gained via the mentorship process with Lawrence?

N: I think I can say that Lawrence came in at the perfect time—it was very, very necessary to have him on board and it has really made an impact on Rethread Africa. During our monthly meetings, we get to share our progress: what we were planning to do, what we’ve been able to do, what we’ve not done and what has been the obstacle. 

We’ve been able to start the conversation on how we can do a lifecycle assessment, and it has been thanks to links through Lawrence. That has been something we’ve been wanting to do, but we had not made any steps towards it until we pointed it out to Lawrence, and he was able to guide us on how to proceed. Most recently, we have been able to get a working space that we can use and that’s thanks to Lawrence as well—usually, our meetings would take place at one of our universities, you know, zero budget, sitting outside and showing each other laptops, bringing in a presentation and putting the volume as loud as possible. Once we started this mentorship journey with Lawrence, we were like, ‘This is a problem; why not ask him and see how that conversation will go?’ Lawrence helped us with uncertainties like how to deal with the costs that would come along with that.

During our monthly meetings with Lawrence, we get to share our progress: what we were planning to do, what we’ve been able to do, what we’ve not done and what has been the obstacle.’

C: Lawrence, can you tell me about a time you pushed the Rethread Africa team to move forward? But also, do you have examples of instances where you told them to pull back a little bit?

L: Yes. One instance that I have ‘pushed’ is in the face of one particular challenge where the machinery for processing [raw material] had some parts that needed to be replaced, which was going to take time. My path was to shift their view from just waiting for that and to see what they can do in the meantime. 

There was another time when the team was debating about what sort of machine to buy, There, I did not necessarily tell them to wait or pull back, but I gave them the advice to take a bit of time to look at all the variable things that are in a machine that would work best. I encouraged them to find companies who are using the same kind of machine and to visit them.

C: How has the mentoring process changed since you started? 

L: At our first meeting that I had with Rethread, I anticipated a situation where I as a mentor would learn together with the Rethread team about certain aspects of circular economy. But as we went on, I realised that the team needed more practical solutions. So the mentorship relationship from my end shifted into something more action-based.

Samples of the woven pineapple fibre.

C: The next question is sort of mirrored: for Lawrence, what advice would you give to creative entrepreneurs who are at the start of their journey? And for Noreen, what’s the most valuable piece of advice that you’ve received from Lawrence so far?

N: One thing that I can see looking back at the whole mentorship journey is that sometimes you just need a push, and then it’s very, very possible to have a dream come into reality. 

I recall at the end of each call Lawrence would tell us, ‘Keep doing what you’re doing because you’re doing a great job, keep pushing.’ Having him tell us that from his point of view as our mentor contributed to us having that energy to keep going when we would keep hitting rocks and walls. And it’s like, ‘Okay, why are we doing this? Let’s just stop doing this and pick something else and focus on our education,’ or something of that sort. But Lawrence has instilled in us that you can keep going; don’t stop what you’re doing because of the hurdles. These statements are just words to some people. But if you’re in that space where you need to hear them, they give you a push and if you were about to stop you wouldn’t. You’d continue.

What I would say to people at the start of their journey is, it’s not going to be easy. It’s going to be tough... As long as you keep going, that will help you grow the business.

L: What I would say to people at the start of their journey is, it’s not going to be easy. It’s going to be tough. Things will continually change and shift as you’re piloting and it will take a lot of effort: physical, emotional, and even internal—where you feel, ‘Maybe I should not do this. Maybe it’s too hard.’ But for me, I’d say it’s not too hard. It only takes a bit more time than we ever anticipated as innovators. As long as you keep going, that will help you grow the business. 

And the second thing: get a mentor. Get somebody who you can talk to over the business, and even your personal challenges. This will allow you to have a balanced view of whether you’re making progress or not. Because you will always see what you’re not doing. You’ll be comparing yourself or your reality with the ideal in your mind, and that gap is usually quite huge. Once you get a mentor or somebody who will tell you, ‘I know you intended to take ten steps here, but you’ve taken three, and you know what? Because you’ve taken three, we now know that we’ll change direction to something else which will make you move in the right direction and achieve your goal faster.’ That’s what I would say. 

Noreen at the WDCD Circular Showcase in Amsterdam last June. Photo: Tom Doms.

C: What’s the biggest ‘step forward’ you’ve taken since winning the challenge, and what’s next? 

N: Since winning the challenge, the bootcamp and mentorship programme gave us an opportunity to go back to the drawing board and define the direction of our business model, circular thinking, design thinking, marketing and consumer relationships. We’ve refined what we had before and improved it, making it suitable for us to scale into a business and we’ve been able to successfully do that. 

Our next step is a launch in March. So everything that’s happening between now and February is just working towards that. We’ll be partnering with another company to co-create garments to showcase in the launch. We are also doing research on other ways of getting sustainable materials from agricultural waste so we can be able to address this issue within the fashion industry at a larger scale.

C: Finally, what advice would you give to startups who are thinking about applying to a What Design Can Do challenge? 

N: I would highly encourage them to go ahead and make the application because the benefits of winning, I can’t even put it down on paper because it’s so much. Starting from the bootcamp, having the chance to interact with people from every corner of the world. What Design Can Do is amazing in terms of support and follow-ups and their network provided us with amazing resources. I would definitely encourage anybody who has a startup or a project to apply—don’t be scared and just give it a shot. You never know the outcome.

L: For me, I’d encourage them to apply because What Design Can Do is an anchor for non-conventional ideas. So if you have one too, this is the place to apply and get the resources that will help you get the support that will give you a chance to give birth to that new idea in a safe environment, which will catalyse the growth of that idea and help you bring it into the world. 

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.