Coffee Break Chat: Sameel ‘Samo’ Johnson, the Man Behind Eco-Tings
by Stephanie Koathes May 6, 2019
From working with reggae artistes and as a creative director, running his business, Eco-Tings, to selling these eco-friendly items on Instagram, Sameel ‘Samo’ Johnson is an unconventional businessman.
One of the first things he said as we sat down outside of Island Coffees Café at Devon House, was that he wouldn’t describe himself as an entrepreneur. But Sameel’s mind is full of ideas.
We drank our coffees and chatted about Eco-Tings, what inspired the idea to bring sustainable tools to the Jamaican market, and his plans for the brand.
How did Eco-Tings come about?
I work with Jah9, a female reggae artist, she’s vegan and very conscious. She’s a very strong conscious person, very into yoga and a holistic lifestyle and meditation. On tour, she would have her wooden spork or her straws, or she would bathe with exfoliating gloves. A number of the [Eco-Tings] items were inspired by how she operated. They weren’t things that I necessarily knew about; it was just seeing her use those things and saying “wow we don’t have these things in Jamaica, people would be interested in them, I would be interested.” So that was I guess one of the major influences.
Was the plastic ban an influence?
The plastic ban wasn’t an influence at all. Honestly, I am not very into the news. I don’t watch TV; my news comes through my friends. I didn’t think about the plastic ban, it was when I started it, and people were coming to me saying “Samo you smart eh, you started before…” and I said, “zeen, mad!”
What was it like starting up?
I wouldn’t describe myself as an entrepreneur, but I have never worked in an office. Since summer jobs, since I dropped out of UWI, I have never worked in a corporate office job. I’ve just always had ideas in my head of how to start things.
I’m someone who just goes with the natural flow of life. So I had the idea, started to work on it, realised I don’t need anyone I can do this by myself. I got the vision [for Eco-Tings] around the beginning of 2018; I even ordered some items like the coconut opener, which was something I saw in Brazil.
I didn’t have a name or anything, just the idea and the things, it’s more the items I had in mind and thinking there would be a demand for them. I sat down on some items for like six months. But then I just got the energy saying don’t wait on it, just move, just start an Instagram page.
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Do you order your products from abroad?
Right now I import most of my stuff.
Are you looking to source more things locally?
Probably about 80% of the things that I import, I think the whole infrastructure of Jamaica would have to change for me to be able to manufacture here and sell at a competitive cost.
There are definitely some things that can be done here, for instance, the bamboo straws. I get my bamboo straws from Jamaica. It would be cheaper to get them online, but I want to support Jamaica.
Most of the ideas that I had before were to get things from inside Jamaica out, so it’s kind of funny that I’ve ended up doing the opposite. I kind of ‘feel a way’ about it, but these are still items not available here, but definitely, I want more local items like calabash bowls. And that’s where I want to go with it.
I take most of the photos on my page. That’s where I would say my strength lies – creative direction – representing Jamaican roots culture. Roots also has to do with health and nutrition.
So you want to represent the roots look and culture?
Yeah and its whole ‘goodness’ and ‘irieness’ that I’ve been looking at how to market and I think I’ve been doing it. Especially in terms of representing Jamaican roots culture and making it presentable to overseas and home. It’s about finding ways that people will appreciate the look and vibe. That’s kind of how Eco Tings came about.
How has the reception to Eco-Tings been?
Much better than I expected, and give thanks to the plastic ban because that’s definitely boosted it.
Are you only on Instagram?
Right now the business is entirely through Instagram.
Are there any plans to develop a website and to expand?
There are definitely plans to expand. Right now I’m observing seeing if it’s something I should make available abroad in terms of worldwide shipping. I’m watching to see if it’s the right time, right now it’s still easier for Jamaican people to order from me through Instagram. We’re having an Eco Vibes plastic-free pop-up shop featuring eco venders on 2 June in the parking lot of 28 Haining Road. It’s a collaboration between Eco-Tings and Thrift Nature.
How do you balance Eco-Tings and your work with musical artistes, especially given how much you travel?
Honestly being away recently, I think it was the first time being away since the business has been doing really well, it was hard. It made me think okay now it’s time to expand and to hire somebody. I’m also looking for space. I’m looking for a unique space, not a big store but somewhere I can have a small area within a space where I can set up and have somebody there.
Another thing I’m interested in is creating spaces where people can learn. Recently, I teamed up with a thrift shop and had an ‘Eco Vibes’ pop up with around five vendors where people sold natural products, etc. That’s something I want to grow. I want to create spaces where people leave with at least some information or an idea like “you know I’m going to create a backyard garden.” I want people to walk away with not just products but knowledge [on sustainability] as well.
Certain things like a coconut opener, they’re not necessarily an eco-tool, but it’s something that allows you to be more eco-friendly. That’s creating that awareness. Instead of buying coconut water and putting it in a plastic bottle you know coconuts really aren’t that hard to open. You can buy 10 coconuts, bring it to your yard and you can have fresh coconut.
If you feel like having fresh coconut water at home, you can check out the coconut opener or other Eco-Tings products on Instagram at @ecotings.