Baltimore sisters score a hit with bamboo toilet paper

One of their first memories of toilet paper was when they ate some on a dare when they were 3 and 4, respectively, growing up in West Baltimore. Neither sister can remember who dared them. “We were bored. It wasn’t like our parents didn’t feed us,” said Louise, 35, as the sisters broke into laughter.

Fast-forward three decades, and the sisters have donated almost 5,000 rolls of toilet paper to Baltimoreans during the coronavirus pandemic after launching the business in 2018. They have inked a year-long contract to provide their product to a popular local boutique hotel and said they also are in talks to do the same with other hotels along the East Coast.

“We are super sustainable. I drive an electric car,” said Nnadagi, 34, adding that their venture is part of expanding eco-friendly options to Black people, a consumer market they said is often ignored.

The Isa sisters have picked a fantastic time to launch their business, according to Patricia Kanashiro, associate professor of management at Loyola University Maryland.

“They are business-savvy,” she said. “The timing is perfect for too many reasons.”

In addition to the premium some companies recently have placed on diversity when choosing businesses to work with, an increased demand for goods from locally owned companies could also benefit the sisters.

“A lot of the consumers and companies had to turn to local businesses,” Kanashiro said in reference to the company’s recent selling success in Baltimore. “Lor Tush took advantage of the momentum. They saw an opportunity to fill the gap.”

The sisters say they are pretty much self-taught businesswomen.

“I had zero help, no business consultant, no business degree,” Nnadagi said. “I’m a self-taught, fast learner. I found our manufacturer through trial and error and a whole lot of research.”

They said they worked with a manufacturer in China to create the toilet paper to their specifications. That meant they could offer a product that was free from dyes and other chemicals and was also safe for septic tanks. Most important, it had to “feel good.”

“We went back and forth,” said Louise, adding that the sisters’ eventual goal is to bring their entire manufacturing operation to Baltimore. “We landed on a pretty good [formula].”

“It has some strength to it and softness,” Nnadagi said. “It has no problem going down the toilet. It feels like luxury paper. That’s the response we have been getting” from customers.

Using bamboo, which they said grows in abundance, instead of paper from trees, isn’t as environmentally harmful.

“We use the same process as making tree toilet paper,” Nnadagi added. “But bamboo is better for the environment and grows faster.”

The sisters estimate this first year of doing business has cost about $30,000 — most of which came from their savings. The sisters continue to work their day jobs — Louise is a manager at an organic grocery store, and Nnadagi is a musician who also works for a marketing agency. They said they also received an $8,000 loan from a friend.

The sisters came up with the idea for the toilet paper in mid-2018 and were able to develop their first batch of rolls in November 2019. The coronavirus pandemic struck just as they were prepared to launch their first retail push. Seeing the shortage of toilet paper at the beginning of the pandemic, the Isa sisters decided to donate their first run of product to the community.

They set up an online questionnaire on their website that helped them identify people in need of their product — whether that meant people who had severe allergies or simply were in financial need.

“Our default position is helping people. That makes us happy,” said Nnadagi, who added that her family grew up with little money.

The family was evicted several times and was homeless on a number of occasions, she said.

“Our parents did what they could. There are days when you run out of stuff. You make it work,” Louise said softly.

“We carried that with us through today,” Nnadagi said.

The sisters’ good deeds did not go unnoticed. Word spread of their philanthropy. Baltimoreans who received the toilet paper took on the role of mini influencers, leading the sisters to Hotel Revival and its director of culture and impact, Jason Bass. He worked with them to develop a business deal.

“My responsibility is supporting local businesses, especially local minority businesses, and [determining] how we can purchase [products] and supplies from those businesses,” Bass said.

Beyond his appreciation for the story of the Isa sisters’ company, Bass also liked their product.

“I personally fell in love with it,” he said. “The staff was impressed with the quality and presentation.”

The hotel also plans to bring attention to the company by telling guests about its local roots, Bass said.

“It’s something of significance to us,” he said. “We want people to understand what they are looking at. This is made in Baltimore by Black women.”

Louise remembers first learning about the environment in elementary school and immediately trying to implement what she learned in the classroom at home.

“Where we lived, the most we could do was recycle,” Louise recalled. “Our parents would encourage us to do more once they saw us doing it. We learned from that.”

The youngest of four children of Nigerian immigrants, the sisters learned early to embrace their entrepreneurial spirit.

“Everything we do and our entrepreneur spirit is our mom believing in us,” Nnadagi said of their late mother, Deborah, who died in March. She worked with nursing homes as a medical technician.

“Our dad would say those words: ‘You can do anything.’ There wasn’t limited thinking,” Louise said.

Their father is now a schoolteacher and pastor in Nigeria.

These encouraging words have helped propel the sisters into the business world. So has necessity. Allergies were actually the final reason that fueled their toilet paper endeavors.

“I have a ton of allergies,” Louise explained.

“I just hated how dusty and how much residue comes with toilet paper [made from trees],” Nnadagi recalled. “They were not hypoallergenic. When you rip [our toilet paper] you don’t get a lot of particles flying everywhere.”

The sisters are quick to say that their business journey does not end with toilet paper.

“We have more products coming,” Louise promised.

And they pledge that their future endeavors will be done as a pair.

“We’re best friends. We have been since we were eating toilet paper,” Louise said with a laugh.

Currently, the sisters sell their toilet paper through their website. The rolls are sold in a 12-pack for $16.99; 24-pack for $31.99 or a subscription, which is slightly cheaper than the 24-pack.

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