Meet Iriya: our Head of Environmental Monitoring
Meet the Team – Iriya Jona
Today we’re talking to Iriya Jona who leads on the environmental monitoring for Kelp Blue Namibia. Iriya grew up in a village in Northern Namibia, hundreds of kilometres from the ocean.
How did you know you wanted to study fisheries?
I’m a village girl, all the way from the North of Namibia. Growing up we didn’t really go to the coast and I was always fascinated by people living on the coast and specifically divers. In grade 12, I saw the University of Namibia prospectus and it had a picture of a marine biologist on the cover and I thought – that’s what I want to do. Growing up you can’t swim in the dams or ponds because your parents are scared that you will drown. So I just wanted to be able to swim in the ocean.
What did your family think of you doing this unusual course?
My family wanted me to do either education or nursing. That’s the field that everyone takes because of the guarantee that you will have a job afterwards. But I knew that if I went for that I would not really be happy. But then it comes to the point that you did the course that you fought to do although your parents told you not to do it, and then when you graduate you don’t have a job. My friend and I used to go around submitting CVs at fishing companies in Walvis Bay just to do an internship.
Where did you get your lucky break?
I saw this advert about a student entrepreneurship programme where they were training fresh graduates on how to start businesses and become successful entrepreneurs. They basically guide you through the whole process. So I thought what can I do? What do I have at my disposal from my field of study? And I thought of seaweed – you could collect washed up seaweed, dry it and export it.
How did you pick seaweed?
We always have lots of seaweed that washes up. Sometimes you go to the coast and it’s all black – full of kelp. So I think it was really the curiosity to see what can I make out of what is already there. But then I thought about how could I add value? Instead of just collecting seaweed and selling it, what else can I do? At that time Namibia was not receiving a lot of rain. The government was trying to support anyone who was venturing in chicken farming because it was the only kind of farming working out because of the drought. So I thought, maybe we could use seaweed as chicken feed? For me, it was a long section of learning and seeing how you can make an impact and also add value to whatever products you want to produce.
You won an award for the business idea. Can you tell me about that?
I applied to Total Start-up of the year and the following year – 2019 – they called me to give a pitch and luckily I was one of the 3 winners. I was the 2nd winner and the top female entrepreneur. I got the opportunity to go to Paris with the other female entrepreneurs where we also got training as well as classes at GIBS (Gordon Institute of Business Science) for 5 months in South Africa. We got funding to look at different prototypes for the feed and bought more equipment and machinery to do the testing we needed.
What happened to the start-up?
All that was left was the exploratory licence to be able to collect the seaweed. I started applying for the licence in 2017 but by the end of 2020 I still hadn’t got it. I kept going to the offices to the point that they all knew who I was. But I never got the licence.
That must have been a frustrating experience.
I got a lot of support in the country and lots of training – just not the rights to collect seaweed. But that’s when I saw the advert for Kelp Blue. A friend sent me the advert and Caroline reached out. I thought – this is happening in Namibia, it’s what I always wanted to do in Namibia so I will just join Kelp Blue. So I applied, I had a chat with Caroline and here I am.
What does Kelp Blue mean to you?
Kelp Blue is for me the future. It’s not only about making money and making profits, it’s about working hand in hand with nature. What we are doing here is amazing work. I’m always proud to come to work every day. I know we are doing this for our climate, for our future generations.
What is your particular role in Kelp Blue?
I am responsible for environmental monitoring – to monitor and keep track of all changes. It doesn’t matter if they are positive or negative, whatever changes we make to the environment, it’s our job to monitor and come up with mitigation recommendations. I love it! Because you get to see why it’s so important for every company to keep track of what they put in and what they take out. We monitor the DNA footprint of the structures, the geochemistry of the water, wildlife, everything that might change from our operations.
How does it feel when you’re out on the boat doing the monitoring?
It’s really cool. For someone who is still not comfortable with swimming, I’m never scared being at sea. I know the water is very deep, but I never feel that it is deep. I feel at home. You get seasick which is quite normal – you feed the fish and then you continue. It’s life. But it’s really nice. Once you know why you are doing something and you are convinced it is for a good cause, whatever else comes after doesn’t really matter. So everyday you think what can I do today. It’s exciting.
How have you found it working in such a diverse team with people from all over the world?
I like it! Working with people from different backgrounds – whether foreigners or someone from the South or from Okavango – it doesn’t really matter. If you work with people who are not from your area you always have a chance of learning something new. With our team there is always so much to learn. I love the diversity in the team, everyone has something to offer. Everyone is always willing to assist and explain what they are doing. It’s amazing to see how other people work. It gives you that free open mind to welcome other people’s input and opinions. I like it. I really like it.
Another string to your bow is the fabrics company, can you tell me a bit about that?
At some point when we couldn’t get funding for the chicken feed business, my friend and I started thinking, what can we do to make money? Living in Windhoek is not that cheap. So we borrowed money from her sister and we started the fabrics business. We ordered 70 materials from Tanzania, Zambia and Ghana. They came, we sold them, we paid back the money and that’s how it all started. We’ve been running it since 2018, it’s still running. I want to grow the business to be able to have our own patterns and prints, something to reflect the Namibian landscape.
What about Kelp Fabrics?
That would be cool. You can also use the alginates from kelp to make the wax on printed fabrics. One way or the other they are going to go hand in hand. The business is still going on the side – we call it the ‘side hustle’.
Link to LinkedIn page: Iriya Jona
Link to fabric page: African Prints Namibia | Facebook