They last for hours in a drink, are compostable, and come in different sizes for bubble tea and coconut water. Straws made of fallen coconut leaves are making steady inroads into domestic and global markets
October 3, 2017 was a special day for Professor Saji Varghese, who teaches English, Design Thinking, Innovation and Social Entrepreneurship at Christ University in Bengaluru. As he walked around his campus, he noticed a few fallen coconut leaves. What struck him was a unique curl to the withered leaf, almost resembling a drinking straw. That eureka moment led to three years of research and design, and birthed Sunbird Straws, the first multi-layered coconut straws to hit the market.
“We sent samples of these straws to 10 countries during the last one year and now have potential orders of 25 million straws. We have one operational centre in a village near Madurai, employing six women, but are looking to expand to eight centres in three months, employing 121 women across coastal India,” explains Saji.
Meanwhile, at Bengaluru-based startup Evlogia Ecocare. Founder, Manigandan Kumarappan, says proudly, “We started production in January 2019 with three employees producing 150 straws a day. Now we have grown to produce more than 10,000 straws a day with 15 staff members.” Raw materials are organised at centres in Madurai, Palani and Dindigul where women self-help groups are supported by the TVS Arogya Trust and other NGOs. Over 90% of their straws are exported to the US, Canada, the UK, Australia, and Germany.
Grounded in method
Both these startups make it a point to ensure that all their straws are made from fallen — not plucked — coconut leaves.
It is a meticulous, multi-step, mechanised process, supervised by the staff, explains Saji. First, the leaves undergo a three-stage cleaning process. They are then cut according to specific width — regular straws with 4 mm diameter; bubble tea straws 12 mm in diameter and so on. The leaves are scraped and rendered into spools, fed into long, spiral rolling devices to make the multi-layered straws, and then cut into standard and customised lengths. Then, they go through a sterilisation process and are packed for sale.
Adds Saji, “A wax bursting system preserves the natural wax of the straws, rendering them waterproof, and they have a natural outer and inner anti-fungal wall. This enhances shelf life to nine months and they stay steady in beverages for six hours.”
Though these straws are not that common a sight in the market yet, they are raking in laurels already. For both of them, 2020 has been a good year. Sunbird Straws has been selected under the PACE incubator programme, powered by the RKVY-RAFTAAR scheme, of the Ministry of Agriculture and Family Welfare, receiving a grant up to ₹25 lakh. It has also been chosen for the Shine programme by Swiss Re for 2020, which entails a six-month mentoring programme and a non- equity grant of ₹15 lakh. Evlogia emerged winner at the Circular Innovation Jam 2020 and won plaudits for Best Business plan at the Big Leap 2020 event as well.
Evlogia is partnering with a Noida-based business to provide leafy straws to coconut vendors, making the thirst-quenching experience an environmentally-responsible one as well. In Bengaluru, zero-waste juice shop Eat Raja offers most of its juices in fruit cups, with no straws. But founder Anand Raj says Evlogia’s leafy straws won him over. “A friend supplies these single-layer coconut straws that most of our patrons love. They are good for tender coconuts and great for the planet.”
Neena Gupta, founder of Karmic Seed, an online distributor of sustainable tableware, is happy that she found Sunbird Straws, “I fell in love with these straws when I first used them. They are durable and don’t get soggy like paper straws. The fact that they are made from agri-waste makes me happy, since valuable resources are not being over utilised.” Saji has also secured orders from five-star hotels within India and beverage chains with operations overseas. The next stop is retail, across e-commerce websites.
To Saji, the most important contribution of Sunbird Straws is the intersection of sustainability and rural development, “Using agri-waste, we prevent combustion of these dry leaves, that release harmful gases into the air, and once used, the straws are compostable. We employ people who live off the land, and impart technological and operational training, while incorporating soft skills, financial literacy, and engaging the employees in programmes of physical, mental and emotional well being, through interventions from experts and interns from relevant departments of Christ University.”
For Evlogia, the next stop is production of airtight take-away boxes fashioned out of areca sheets, and banana fibre cups, all with the two-pronged focus of replacing plastic and supporting the rural economy.