Adejoke Lasisi is the founder of Jokelinks, an outfit that has revived the culture of Aso Oke; the Yoruba traditional fabric which was gradually going into extinction. She has since gone beyond Aso Oke weaving, introducing recycling of plastic and other fabrics for use. She established the Planet 3R Initiative outfit with which she has empowered many youths. Her hardwork and innovation recently won her the MSME Award of the Year with a branded car to show for it. In this interview, Lasisi, a graduate of Economics from the Obafemi Awolowo University, Ile-Ife, Osun State, Nigeria, told DAYO EMMANUEL how she evolved and transformed the Aso Oke tradition she learnt from her mother. She also talked about how she met the Nigerian Export Promotion Council (NEPC) and her recent award. Excerpts:
How and when did you start the Aso Oke trade?
I started doing Aso Oke at age nine. It was something I learnt by going to help my mum and later on I went to the university. I graduated from the Obafemi Awolowo University (OAU), Ile-Ife where I studied Economics. So as at the time I graduated, I realised many people were not into Aso Oke; it had started going into extinction. So I conducted a little survey to understand why people were not going into Aso Oke. The majority of them said it is heavy and not attractive. We came up with an innovation and it became lighter and attractive. That was how Jokelinks came to being. We started improving on Aso Oke and started making what people want at the same time to achieve our vision of preserving our heritage. So we keep doing that at the same time making our customer happy. Later on we realised that many people like myself, young graduates, we discovered that many of them are not doing anything out there. We started training people and it has been a good experience. Some of them have started their businesses. Some of them did not weave, they are selling Aso Oke, they understood it and it has really helped us in what we do.
Later on in 2016 I got to know about the Nigerian Export Promotion Council (NEPC), but I didn’t have an idea of how to go about connecting with them. So when I heard about a program that they were going to do in Lagos that people should bring their products that if they select someone’s product, the person would go and represent Nigeria and take the products there. So when I got to the program I realised the products one can take along should be one that the person can be proud of and it must be of international standard. So I learnt a lot and when I came back, I told myself I need to work on my products. At that time, I didn’t even have export license but I started working at getting the products to good standard, so we started doing bags, adding values to what we do, it was not just about weaving Aso Oke for Aso Ebi anymore.
How did you start inculcating recycling waste materials into what you do?
In my quest to creating more impact, I realised many people in my community usually dump textile and plastic wastes by the road side while some even go to the extent of burning them thereby depleting the ozone layer which is hazardous to our health and environment. This prompted me to use my weaving skills at Jokelinks to create an innovative solution by starting Planet 3R Initiative.
You’ve added so much innovation, can this be traceable to your educational background?
I believe education helped me and self-development as well.
How long does it take to learn weaving in your school?
We have minimum of three months, if someone wants to really learn standard weaving, it is a minimum of three months, we have six months, we have one year and two years depending on how long the person wants to stay. People just want a short program probably because of their status, may be they are already working and they just want to have the skills. Some of them only come for the designs and not the weaving aspect. Some students come for the designing; that depends on what they really want to learn. The advanced students sometimes want only the basics. We have different aspects. For instance for the people that we train in the communities, we do basic trainings for them. Those ones are just one week or two weeks.
How many students do you enroll per period and how is Ibadan taking this innovation, are young people taking this experience seriously?
We don’t really have a specific number we take per period but presently we have over ten students that we are training right now and on how Ibadan is taking the innovation, you know people, especially Ibadan people. They were not really accepting it like that unlike people from outside Ibadan especially people from Lagos. But with the social media and the impact we are making in the community, we do creative awareness. We go to schools and communities to teach people on the need for clean environment and what we do with all those wastes and by seeing all those wastes and converting them. This alone makes them want to be a part of it. Recently the award we won especially when I drive the car round the community make people to start bringing their children. They want to learn Aso Oke as well. Now they are seeing that there is a prospect in getting the skill, but when I started the Aso Oke with JokeLinks, Aso Oke was already going into extinction. We were able to bring in new designs and create things out of the ordinary and not only for aso ebi but for day to day activities. We were able to make products like laptop bags, fashion bags, slippers, shoes, things that people can wear to work like jackets. That alone has changed people’s minds to how they see Aso Oke, now that we have brought this Planet 3R in.
Tell us more about your Planet 3R Initiative
Planet 3R is a social enterprise dedicated to converting textile and plastic wastes into eco-friendly products using the 3R: Reduce, Reuse, Recycle to save our planet earth by weaving them into innovative items. With the vision of creating a sustainable world without textile and plastic wastes, it became necessary for us at Planet 3R to reduce the landfill space by recycling clothes and nylons. As we know landfill sites is a threat to our environment as well as water supplies.
What actually motivated us to start Planet 3R was the fact that we wanted to make more impact in the community, Jokelinks was already making social impact by creating employment opportunities though empowering young people and we wanted to make environmental impact through the wastes we see in our communities. We used the skills we already have at Jokelinks to convert those plastic and textile wastes. That was how Planet 3R was bathed. So what makes our brand unique is that we are able to convert these waste into beautiful products and we make sure that we link our products into heritage that we promote our heritage to the world by converting these wastes and at the same time uphold our culture to really make these products and one of the things we did by coming into the environmental sector. We didn’t come with the idea to compete, rather we complement existing solutions. We identified that we have existing solutions where by most of them use tyres, some people make use of pet bottles and Ankara wastes from tailors. The majority of them were not working with nylon bags, textile wastes, jeans, t-shirts and we were able to see that there are gaps and Planet 3R is already bridging that gap.
You seem to be simplifying Aso Oke, don’t you think you may be watering down the culture of Aso Oke?
I believe that in this life you just have to evolve. There was a time people went to China that they should produce Aso Oke for them and when they brought it to Nigeria, people did not like the feel of the texture because the uniqueness of handmade is gone. There is something about craft; using hand to produce something, the uniqueness is there. That we even add some innovation to it is a fact that we are promoting our culture. We should still know that if we want to sell our heritage to the world, we want to sell our culture to the world, we must still promote our culture at the same time meet up with international standard, some of the products may not meet export standard but with what we are doing now we are able to take our products out there for exhibition and sell our products to people of different countries and continents. I believe it is a welcome development because this is going to help the poor.
What is the meeting point of environmental and Aso Oke making?
We just use the skill of Aso Oke making to convert this waste at least we are using the skill of Aso Oke, because people think in Aso Oke you only need to weave thread, but now we are weaving thread, using nylon. I’m just happy that people are now accepting it. There is this big celebrity that said she really wants to tie this nylon gele that she is waiting for it. So many people are really buying into this idea and thankfully we came out with this innovation of using this woven nylon to do reusable shopping bag. We are trying to tell people to stop using this one-time nylon bags, by the time they use this re-usable shopping bags, they use it and wash and use again. These are the things we are trying to use to impart our environment, educating people and providing solutions from our own end. To some extent I think we are able to achieve that, it is not about using new things but re-using the old things and recycle.
Tell us about the award you won…
We recently got this award, the MSME award, overall award of the year for the year 2020. How did it happen? I have been trying at the first edition in 2018, they did some exhibitions where people came with different products. The Vice President came around but after that we were encouraged to apply for different categories, we applied for Excellence in Manufacturing in which I was nominated and we went to Aso Rock then. I did not win the award and if you did not win, you can apply again. Then I was only weaving Aso Oke, I had not started Planet 3R. Last year I applied again using Jokelinks. I was not even selected at all. I guess my idea was probably almost the same thing with other people’s ideas. One thing about life is that if you want a different outcome, you have to make sure you change the way you do things to achieve that different result. So when we started Planet 3R, we were creating employment opportunity, environmental impact, social impact. I said okay this thing is something we apply we might have a chance to win in a category. So I applied for excellence in creative category. When I received the call that I was not selected for Creative Art but I was nominated for MSME of the year, that my innovation is more than Creative Art that I deserve to be in MSME of the year and the MSME Award of the year is a category you don’t apply for, they only select from the people that applied for the overall nomination, so they nominated me. They selected from the pool of the nominees. That was how I was nominated and I won that award of the MSME of the year 2020. It is not just about the MSME of the year but to be able to get some opportunities which I believe will help our business grow and thrive in the coming year. I believe so.