[Photo: courtesy of Salubata] Fela Buyi, CEO & Founder of Salubata
Well known for its abundance of natural gas reserves, Nigeria is projected to be among the world’s top 10 economies by the year 2050. With the increase in Nigeria’s economy, environmental issues such as urbanization, deforestation and pollution have become more prevalent. In 2021, the Nigerian Federal Ministry of Environment reported that the country generated 5.84 million tons of plastic waste per year, ranking it 7th in the world for plastic waste generation. As the country faces growing environmental concerns, Nigerian scientist and entrepreneur Fela Buyi is setting out to drastically reduce the amount of plastic pollution the country is generating, one step at a time.
Buyi is the co-founder of Salubata, a company that makes shoes from recycled plastic waste. He has also developed technology that creates detachable modular shoes that allows the soles to be completely separated from the rest of the shoe. This unique design enables the top of the shoe to be detached and replaced with an upper component of another color or style, also decreasing resource use since the whole shoe does not need to be replaced when one part wears out.
Connecting the Dots
Prior to confounding Salubata, Fela worked in 3 different roles that gave him the skills to run a successful shoe brand. He spent 5 years working as a shoe designer and business analyst for a leather shoe brand in Lagos, Nigeria. Prior to that, he began his career as an environmental scientist focusing on environmental pollution. In this role, he saw copious amounts of plastic waste throughout the city and sewage systems. His exposure to plastic waste pollution kickstarted his brainstorming, and he began to think of a new solution that would reduce the amount of plastic waste present in the environment.
“I thought, if I could reduce the volume of plastic by crushing the bottle itself, maybe we could provide a potential solution to this problem of plastic pollution,” Buyi said.
[Photo: courtesy of Salubata] The modular sneakers shown above in white are breathable and detachable which allow for increased aeration and efficient storage.
The Sole of an Entrepreneur
“I’ve always liked providing solutions to problems and trying to do things differently than everyone else,” Buyi said. “I think being an entrepreneur is really about finding a better route than the existing path.”
Buyi consistently takes the road less travelled. For example, when he was in college, he opted for a more difficult computer science program, just for the sake of being different. “I ended up cramming and forgot what I had learned before the exam and it didn’t end up working. If I had prepared well it could have worked. That’s why I say entrepreneurship is not about going a different route necessarily, but instead having the right tools to solve a problem.”
When the time came for solutions to be provided for the problem of plastic waste pollution, it was Buyi’s out-of-the-box thinking and previous experience in science and shoe design that equipped him with the tools to create a brilliant solution.
[Photo: courtesy of The Guardian] The plastic waste pollution in the West African country of Nigeria.
Crafting a New Footprint
381 million tons of plastic waste are produced worldwide every year. Unfortunately, only 9% of this waste gets properly recycled. According to the Ocean Cleanup Foundation, plastic pollution can have detrimental effects on marine life by way of entanglement, ingestion, and starvation. Plastic pollution can also lead to the buildup of synthetic plastic products in the environment, which can in turn generate toxic pollutants entering into the food chain affecting sea life and humans.
For an average sneaker, 30 grams of plastic waste are needed to make a pair of shoes (i.e., 3-4 PET water bottles). Converting grams to pounds, 30 grams is about 1/15th of a pound of plastic waste, meaning 15 pairs of shoes can be made from 1 pound of plastic waste. If Buyi could convert all 381 million tons (762 billion pounds) of plastic waste into shoes, this would be approximately 11.6 trillion pairs of shoes!
“Although I cannot produce that many shoes, converting plastic waste into shoes can help significantly reduce the amount of plastic present in the environment,” Buyi says. With other companies like Nike and Adidas using plastic waste to create shoes, Fela sought out ways to make his shoes more affordable, fashionable, and even space-conscious, by creating a detachable model. Salubata has created a line of shoes that allows for the soles and the upper shoe part to be taken apart. This innovative feature allows for style versatility, efficient storing, and easy cleaning.
For each pair of Salubata shoes, the carbon emissions are completely offset, helping to reduce the carbon footprint that normally comes with making shoes, which is around 30 pounds for a typical pair of running shoes according to a MIT-led life-cycle analysis. In the coming years, Salubata has plans to not only offset carbon emissions but to reduce them by utilizing tools that decompose the CO2 from the atmosphere into oxygen and carbon.
[Photo: courtesy of Salubata] The Mamba Zero by Salubata is handwoven from recycled plastic waste.
[Photo: courtesy of Salubata] The modular detachable sneakers allow for customers to change between various colors in the upper shoe component while keeping the same sole.
Salubata plans to continue paving the way to a world of less plastic waste and hopes to franchise the brand and partner with wholesale distributors in the coming years. Buyi’s favorite part about creating Salubata has been seeing his ideas become a reality, as well as being able to impact the lives of so many people around the world.
“I feel like I can be the one to create jobs for other people and make a big impact by helping many people who may not have been helped otherwise,” he said. “Though it takes a lot of hard work and I’ve had to make many sacrifices to create this company, I’d say to anyone looking to pursue entrepreneurship, you must understand that this is a process. You may build many things that don’t work, but once you build something that does work and it provides a solution to a problem, it’s worth the past trials and efforts. Keep trying.”
Ocean Cleanup – https://theoceancleanup.com/about/
Nigeria’s Plastic Waste Generation Statistics: https://www.afrik21.africa/en/nigeria-the-fec-approves-a-new-law-on-plastic-waste-management/
Economic Growth Projections in Nigeria: https://www.pwc.com/gx/en/research-insights/economy/the-world-in-2050.html
National Generation of Plastic Waste: https://www.condorferries.co.uk/plastic-in-the-ocean-statistics
Carbon footprint of Shoes: https://www.technologyreview.com/2013/08/21/252466/a-sneakers-carbon-footprint/
Photo of Plastic Waste in Nigeria: https://guardian.ng/features/aquatic-wildlife-environment-in-danger-from-plastic-waste/