Meet Gabriel Moreno, who was born in Colombia and grew up in Wandsworth. Together with his father, he is the co-founder Fiquetex, a textile company with a production plant in Medellin. Fiquetex produces 100% sustainable, renewable and biodegradable non-woven textiles made of fique fibre and natural rubber latex.
Where did your business idea come from?
One day we opened a cupboard at home and a mountain of plastic bags fell out. Then I kept hearing facts like by 2050 there will be more plastic bags than fish in the sea and the Pacific garbage patch is bigger than the size of France.
My father has worked in textile engineering for about three decades, so we wondered how we could come up with a way to solve this problem and make it more sustainable. We were walking through the hills of Medellin one day looking at the Fique plant. It grows very well everywhere and needs almost no maintenance, so that’s where the idea started for a new product. My dad got to work on the chemistry and here we are.
Fiquetex is an innovation. There are other sustainable alternatives, but this is affordable, atheistically pleasing and durable with a wide array of possible applications. It uses much less energy to produce than other sorts of sustainable bags. For example, for recycled paper, you need to boil and bleach it. You need to change the pH levels, and then the final product is flimsy and weak, and can only be used once or twice. Other supposedly vegan leathers use high amounts of unsustainable plastic ingredients too. All of these things add up and can still damage the environment whereas Fiquetex uses less energy to produce and totally biodegradable. Furthermore, we are using a waste product and help rural communities, as farmers currently discard the small fibres that we use.
What stage is your business at?
We have a fully automated production line where the raw material goes in at one end and creates several products. Fique Fabric is a stylish textile that is also long-lasting and economical. It can be adapted for numerous purposes, such as packaging material, eco-friendly carrier bags, scouring pads for washing up or even outdoor agricultural use and flower wrapping. Fique Vegan Leather is an adaptable and durable alternative to bovine and synthetic leather. Its design and appearance are equal to animal leather, without the negative environmental consequences. Once the textiles have reached the end of their useful lives, they can be planted in the group and can decompose in just 100 days, becoming nutrients to the soil. Hundreds of companies are already in touch with us, including some major fashion retailers. We plan to make it more affordable per square metre than what’s currently available, meaning if designers put in orders for thousands of metres, they will be saving the environment and money at the same time – everybody wins.
We will target the Latin American market as a starting point to test it and get feedback, as it’s easier to transport and get things running without shipping complications. Then we plan to bring it to the UK, USA and Canada. There are lots of green targets and incentives to push for it here connected to recycling and eco-friendliness. We have an investor for the machinery that needed to be imported and for raw materials.
How do work together as a family business?
My father takes care of engineering and technology whereas I studied started marketing and business and recently completed a masters in Latin American Economics. My grandfather, who was a figurehead in the Latin American Non-woven industry, also offers us his support and guidance.
The logistics can be complex. There are a lot of phone calls! He’s in Colombia which is about 5-6 hours behind so when he finishes his working day at the production line, he will give me a call and update me on the day’s progress. But obviously, for me, that’s about midnight, just when I’m trying to wind down, and my head gets filled with all these ideas!
How has your background and your community influenced your business journey?
My mother and I came to the UK at a time when Colombia was unsafe. Unfortunately, my country is often in the news for the wrong reasons. The bad press and some of the negative stereotypes can be quite difficult. I have been the butt of so many jokes about drugs when people hear I’m Colombian. In reality, we have some of the best musicians, authors, sportspeople, doctors in the world. We also want to showcase our own Colombian innovation. The media is also very patriotic and really keen on promoting us.
What challenges have you faced in your business journey?
Apart from negative perceptions of Colombia we also have the challenge of getting people to believe in Fiquetex. We now have prototypes, but it was initially hard to secure investment and sales with quite an abstract idea that needed over a million dollars in investment due to the importation of high-tech machinery.
Also, the pandemic has created significant delays in production.
How did the Stride OneTech programme support you? Did you develop any new skills?
It was great to hear all the other ideas and network with other founders. I think it improved my public speaking. It gave me a good insight into the overall picture of the business. It also clarified how to sharpen the business identity- what do you want people to see when they look and think about your business? It needs to really emphasise the whole green and quality aspect. When people go on our website now straight away, they see eco-friendly products.
Have you had a moment when you knew you would be successful?
I won a competition for the best new innovative entrepreneurship idea at Oxford University. I was in the postgraduate category so there were a few people in groups with doctorates who are the experts and world leaders in their fields. So, when we won that it was ‘OK if these guys think it can go far, then it’s got legs.’
Also, when I launched the website, we got a high volume of sample orders with zero paid marketing. It was just the Instagram account. That’s a good sign.
What are your dreams or plans for the future?
We’d like to be exporting in at least five countries soon, so that will be Colombia, UK, USA, Canada and Italy. We want to get exposure at the fashion shows like London Fashion Week, Paris, New York and work with fashion academia. If we get a decent following on our website, we can have guest writers to grow the company and awareness and get involved on a global scale to get this brand out there as much as we can. But most importantly I hope we can make a difference and save some animals and reduce pollution. From saving cows for their leather, ocean life from plastic waste, or land animals from less global warming and landfill pollution, then the efforts will have been worth it.
What’s your message to inspire other founders especially founders who are from underrepresented communities?
Network, network, network! Reach out to people -obviously in a polite way. The worst that can happen is they don’t reply. I’d say go for it and you’d be surprised how many people are willing to help.
It definitely is hard work to balance everything because the business takes over your time, especially working in a different time zone. I remember a quote that business is the ultimate sport. A football match lasts 90 minutes whereas entrepreneurship takes up 24 hours a day. All-day you’re on the phone or emails. It’s important to know when to have a rest and take time out. To be able to think, take a step back and look at it from a different point of view to see what we’re doing right and how we can improve.