How this startup converts discarded coconut shells into trendy, sustainable lifestyle products

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Maria Kuriakose always wanted to be an entrepreneur. When the lockdown was announced last year, she decided to return from Mumbai to her native Kerala and focus on her dream of starting a “business with a good cause”.

“I’ve always wanted to lead a greener lifestyle,” says Maria, founder of Thenga, a sustainable lifestyle product that recycles coconut shells.

The word ‘thenga’ means coconut in Malayalam and is unique in that any part of the coconut tree can be used for something, be it food, shelter, fuel or storage.

Maria Kuriakose, founder of Thenga with her father Kuriakose Varoo

“I concentrated on using the coconut shell because I saw that, despite the potential for use, a lot was burned or disposed of in landfills,” says Maria in an interview with SocialStory.

The Coconut shell is a sustainable one, practical and long-lasting alternative to plastic especially for the production of tableware. It is also easily decomposed. Unlike steel and plastic kitchenware, it can be easily broken into smaller pieces and mixed with soil, ”she says

Reviving a dying tradition

Maria turned to a coconut shell artisan from Thrissur who was already working with seashells to make decorative items such as flowers. She shared her vision with him and had a few meetings in his workshop where he understood her idea and also gave some suggestions for implementation.

“I realized that these craftsmen didn’t have enough full-time jobs and were doing odd jobs like construction sites to make a living,” says Maria.

She began working with these artisans who now devote 60 percent of their time to making coconut shell products. As the brand expanded, even Fulfillment of international orders, the team now employs 12 craftsmen from five districts in Kerala. “As we grow, we try to find more artisans to join the group,” says Maria

“As a company, we understand the challenges that tradespeople have to face. As a social enterprise, the craftsmen are an important part of us. Even if they miss certain parameters, we make sure they get paid for a job, train them and take them to workshops so that it doesn’t happen again. ”She adds.

“I’ve always been interested in helping people and giving them sustainable support. Instead of just giving people things, I want to teach them to live independently. I see business as a good solution because you can make money, but you can also work for a good cause. This concept is very important to me and has helped me to overcome the difficulties, ”says Maria.

Making sure the business stays profitable while staying true to the cause is a little tricky and was difficult to navigate at first. She believes that helping the artisans she works with and selling the best quality products at the best price to customers is the key to any social enterprise. “We try to keep the quality good, to ask for good prices and even to share some of the profit with the artisans,” she adds.

However, when it came to finding investors, Maria said interest was low. “I contacted oil mills to sell me the peels they threw away after extracting oil from the meat. My father, a retired engineer, helped me develop a machine to polish the pods, ”says Maria, adding that they developed an inexpensive system for drying the coconut fibers with fan paper and buffing them with coconut oil.

“We distributed it to a couple of commercial buildings, from which we received our first orders. We are still a self-financed startup. ”

Coconut smoothie and fruit bowls

Challenges along the way

A major challenge she faced was the dimensioning of the bowls. “The coconut shell is a natural product that is available in different sizes. It’s pretty difficult to get 100 or 200 clams of any size, ”she says.

“In the beginning, I was just walking around Kerala asking friends and families about coconut shells because everyone had coconut trees in their garden. I went to a couple of oil mills and manufacturers and asked them. This is how the first set of 1,500 pieces was created. At that time I also had to polish everything myself because I had no help. It was a really challenging time for me, ”said Maria.

Effects of the pandemic

However, during the pandemic, sales were higher than usual. Maria believes this is because people are trying to explore more sustainable alternatives and return to traditional, healthier ways of life. However, there was a lack of staff and management and coordination have become a difficult task.

Thenga plans to expand and increase its reach in the future. From one stream 3,000 customer base People, they want to reach a lot of people so that the effect can be felt far and wide. They also plan to expand their product range by making toys and containers out of coconut shells. The idea is to spread more sustainable ways of life and provide better job opportunities for the artisans of Kerala.

Edited by Diya Koshy George