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Meet the Linacre student that invented new vegan leather

W A Whitten speaks to Gabriel Moreno, who won Best Postgraduate idea at the Oxford All-Innovate Competition.

With the ever-increasing rise of awareness of pollution, global warming, and the use of plastic the search for alternative materials becomes more urgent, Gabriel Moreno and his father Alex started Fiquetex with the aim of providing a reliable source of alternative greener materials made from the Fique plant. Gabriel and Fiquetex won best postgraduate idea at the Oxford All-Innovate competition, whose previous winners include Neurolytic Healthcare, a precision medicine company, and Genei, a system that allows AI to reduce research time. The competition is judged based on the criteria of what is the problem the idea tries to solve, how well it tackles that idea, the strength of the team, and the viability of the idea. 

Cherwell spoke with Gabriel, a master’s student at Linacre College, to discuss the importance of green materials, as well as the importance of Fiquetex for Colombia and vegan clothing.

Cherwell: Where did the initial thought for this award-winning idea come from?

GM: “It started I suppose about ten years when we realised how many plastic bags we had stored away […]. We realised this just really wasn’t very efficient and a waste of plastic. We were walking in Colombia and saw the fique plant, and were wondering what uses it could have. Currently farmers only use it for string and rope, and they do not use the small fibres, and we thought these could be used for an alternative material. So, we came up with the idea of using these fibres for package bags.”

Cherwell: How important is it that alternative materials are used to replace plastic bags and other such plastic products? Why are alternatives important?

GM: “The stats speak for themselves. The issues of global warming and plastic pollution are killing animals in the sea and on land. The issue is a serious problem, and the population is going to get bigger, by 2050 the population is going to be [almost] ten billion. It is already a major problem, the Pacific garbage patch is already bigger than France. Imagine when the population is three billion more people! The problem is only going to be worse.”

Cherwell: Is Fique and Fiquetex the solution?

GM: “Yes. I mean, they are not the only solution. They are definitely a new material people can use. It is definitely a new idea, a new patent, it has not been done before. It is a circular economy, so we use the fibres and then you use the products and once you are done with it you can bury it and it will become nutrients in the soil within 100 days. So, a fique plant or whatever you want can grow in its place.”

Cherwell: What benefits does Fique have over other such alternatives?

GM: “Firstly, the material itself is quite durable unlike paper and other vegan alternatives made from things such as apple. It is relatively cost efficient: other vegan alternatives such as mushrooms or even cotton require lighting, artificial heat, and watering to farm. Fique does not. Fique does not need chemical, pesticides, it just grows naturally. Fique saves on water and chemicals are used and then thrown away, causing their own pollution. It is not only a biodegradable alternative in use, but it is also more environmentally friendly in production. Most things which are biodegradable are only about 80% biodegradable or take four hundred years, this is completely biodegradable in 100 days.”

Cherwell: Will Fiquetex have a positive impact on Colombia and the local communities there?

GM: “Yes, one million percent. We will give a fair-trade price for fibres [that] they are not currently using; we are going to create employment in rural areas where there are not many other opportunities. The Colombian local governments are behind the idea. It will also employ a wide range of people, across several fields from agriculture and farming to accountants. It will provide an alternative to people joining gangs.”

Cherwell: How big of an impact do you think winning the competition will have?

GM: “I think it will have a big impact. People are really starting to become aware of sustainability, look at the [documentary] Seaspiracy on Netflix [becoming] so popular. The fact that these expert judges saw the potential of our company is really great, it has given me lots of confidence, and it has given the company legitimacy. No longer are we an abstract idea from Colombia but we have the legitimacy from the Oxford name. This should help, especially going into pitches.” 

Cherwell: What is the company’s plan next?

GM: “We are currently building the production line; we are hoping to have that done next month to then go on and testing and standardising production. We will then go on to local distribution in Colombia in Medellin to see what is liked. Later on in the year I would like to come to the UK, as I am based here, and would like to continue that. I would like to go to fashion designers and get it in London fashion week, or something similar, for the unveiling for Fiquetex.”

Alex Moreno standing next to a Fiquetex production line
Alex Moreno standing next to production machinery. Image: Fiquetex

Cherwell: Fique can be used as a vegan leather. Is this going to be a major part of the company’s production and image?

GM: “Yes definitely, originally our plan was to look to climate change activists, but feedback from the Vegan community showed that they were an important target market. We definitely agree with their values that we need to stop harming animals […] as well as them being mistreated in farming.”

Cherwell: What advantage does Fique have over other Vegan leathers?

GM: “The material is much lower in maintenance and in production costs. With Fique we do not have to worry about irrigation and seasonal growing patterns. Fique grows all year. Our product is also completely biodegradable unlike other Vegan leathers, which are not fully biodegradable. Our product is more durable and can take more weight. Fique leather will be affordable, which vegan leathers currently are not despite the Vegan leather market growing at 50% annually, by 2025 it is estimated to be worth 90 billion dollars. The current leathers are very expensive and are really only for designers’ brands, we hope that Fique can be used both for these but also for less expensive and independent shops.”

Further information about Fiquetex can be found on their website and social media.

Featured Image: Fiquetex

8/4/21, 18:53 – this article was edited to remove a reference to Fiquitex being PETA certified. While they are certified, it is not yet fully binding

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