Startup Saturday: Going nuts about eco-friendly tableware
Betel nut tableware is standard in south India. Given that it is biodegradable, it’s an option Pune must consider. This startup clicked on.Updated: Sep 22, 2018, 15:24 IST
Anindita Chaudhuri did not have business on her mind when she began getting involved with environmental issues. The commitment ran so deep that the lady now has a manufacturing unit in Coimbatore that makes areca leaf disposable plates and bowls.
Says she, “I have always been interested in doing something for the environment and was deeply involved with neighbourhood groups and NGOs that promoted ecofriendly lifestyles. Then I met up with a friend who lives in Coimbatore.” Anindita smelt opportunity that was perfectly aligned with her natural instinct.
“In Coimbatore I noticed that areca leaf tableware was very common. Everyone uses it as a matter of routine. However, in Maharashtra it was unknown. Here we use plastic and thermocol. So I thought why not bring these plates to Maharashtra and reduce the plastic burden? Since my friend has a family business and is well entrenched there, she came across this defunct unit that the owner was not interested in running.”
”The owner was doing other things and had practically shut down this one. I thought that this would be a perfect replacement for plastic. We asked the owner if we could rent his unit. He had two machines that could make tableware form areca nut leaves. He agreed and at Rs 5,000 per month we rented out his manufacturing unit.”
You need more than just a manufacturing unit
Anindita then had to figure out why the machines were not functional. “We got some technicians to look at it and they fixed the problem,” she says. The duo invested Rs 3 lakh getting the unit ready. Now came the job of procuring the raw material. Areca nut leaf tableware demands the unit be placed close to the farms. Says Anindita, “The leaves are very heavy so you cannot have your unit far away from the farms. “ The problem was deeper than what the two ladies believed. Says Anindita, “Most farmers burn their areca leaves for manure. We had to find farmers who would be willing to give us a portion of their leaves and not burn all.”
This they did by roping in the local administration. They managed to find some farmers who agreed to give them part of their farm leaves. “So a famer who had 12 acres agreed to give us half of the leaves that the trees would drop,” she says. Understanding the local environment played a key role. “My friend is a local and could speak the language. Soon we figured out several problems. The farmers were not very keen to give us the leaves because in the past they were given promises and these were not kept. We gave them our word. We even built a storage room and told them that since leaves are a seasonal business we would collect all the leaves that gave us for future use. It made them a little comfortable, but they wanted more money. We agreed to that as well. In 2015 we agreed to a price of 70 paise per leaf, though now it is 90-95 paise.
Sorting the human resource
Getting people is never easy. Anindita needed people to pick up the leaves and transport them to her unit. She needed five people to work at the unit. “Each machine has five dyes that can make five different items. We needed two people per machine and one supervisor. First off we wanted to employ only women. Then we realised that they were poorly paid. In addition to that there was no guarantee of work. So we told the ladies that we will pay them 45-50 paise per plate, as against 25 paise that they were paid earlier. Moreover we gave them an assurance that we are in the business for good. Our storage unit made them feel more comfortable about that. With this they were up and running. By the end of 2015, they were making about 1,000 plates per day.
To market, to market…
Anindita knew that selling locally was useless. “There were so many manufacturers so it was no point in selling there. I decided to leverage my NGO and corporate network in Maharashtra. And my friend decided to take on Bangalore. Anindita went personally to all the offices, farmers markets, NGOs and sold her plates and bowls. “2016 was a bad year for us. We did not manage to make decent sales. The next year, after the plastic ban in the state we saw some traction.” She aims to expand her reach and make her brand known. “I plan to use social media, our website and also e-commerce sites to reach out to more customers. We are in the process of doing that.”
All about money, honey
Over the years the duo invested Rs 15 lakh totally. They are cautious about expansion plans. Says Anindita, “Our business is such that it is totally dependent on the areca nut leaves. I cannot put in another machine unless I am sure of getting the leaves. I have to be very careful that I match my demand with my supply. If I see demand increasing I will put up another machine, but that will have to be at a location close to the areca nut plantation. Which is why we are going slow. I am sure more and more people will become environment conscious and use leaf plates rather than plastic.”
Areca nut (areca catechu), a tropical crop, is popularly known as betel nut or supari. It is grown primarily along the coast lines of India. Plantations are mostly found in Karnataka, which produces about 62% of the crop in India, followed by Kerela, Meghalaya, West Bengal and Assam. These three states account for about 88% of the total production of Areca nut. While it is also grown in parts of China and Southeast Asia, India accounts for 49% of worldwide production.
Bamboo and sugarcane too is used to make eco friendly table ware. However betel nut occupies the No 1 position as it is easily biodegradable and is used from fallen leaves, unlike bamboo. While sugarcane table ware needs special conditions for composting, available only in commercial composting centres, areca plates can be decomposed in your backyard.