Sustaining the World, One Dry Leaf at a Time!
By Maria Michael, Ivin Roby Paul & Meljo Thomas Karakunnel
Dr Saji Varghese was walking by the trees in the lush green Christ University Campus on a fine morning in October 2017 for a class. The eureka moment came when he noticed a coconut leaf that had fallen on the ground. “I chanced upon a fallen coconut leaf on the campus with one of its leaves pointing upwards, curled like a drinking straw. It was this sight which gave me the insight of converting it into a straw,” he says. That was the genesis of Sunbird Straws.
He took a few coconut leaves and soaked them in water. Upon further analysis, he discovered that the leaves could be softened without losing their structural integrity, making them more flexible. After further experimentation and research spanning two years, he developed the patented multi-layered straw which is a chemical free, naturally shiny, viable, efficient, and fully functional.
Saji realized the potential of this idea when he discovered the scalability of the product and its manufacturing. He sensed greater opportunities when he started getting calls from other countries. So, he focused on two things. One, setting up a team and two, developing the right technology to ensure the sustainability of the product during manufacturing.
Coconut leaves are used to make thatched roofs, woven bags, brooms and toothpicks in rural India as a natural alternative to other such products. Undoubtedly, Saji’s innovation from coconut leaves had the potential to eliminate plastic straws, one of the biggest environmental hazards. The innovation won many national and international accolades. In 2017, the initiative secured the award for ‘Best Innovation for Social Impact’ against 45 competing countries at the Climate Launchpad Award in the Netherlands as well as the Swiss Re Shine Entrepreneur Award among others. Latest in the row was The Honey Bee Creativity and Inclusivity Innovation Award through the UNDP. Once internationally acclaimed, the product soon received orders from countries like Malaysia, the USA, UK, Germany, Australia, and the Philippines.
Path of trial and error- Entrepreneurship
This was not Saji’s first venture. Just like many other entrepreneurs out there, he had tried many ventures before. But they had all failed. First, there was an aquarium shop. Second, there was a restaurant. The main objective of these ventures was to provide employment to his community people. However, it did not work out.
Saji realized that his purpose of entrepreneurship was to make a difference. Out of interest, being an English Professor, he conducted various experiments and extensive research on several biodegradable materials at the campus Incubation Centre at the CHRIST (Deemed to be University), where he teaches. Saji launched ‘Blessing Palms,’ a startup, promoting biodegradable and eco-friendly innovations with the help of the institution.
Entrepreneurship and sustainability meet
The world is constantly changing. The effect of globalization has impacted various segments of the world in a non-friendly way, including the environment. Maybe three decades ago, one would have believed that plastic was going to revolutionize everything in its way. Which is true, but not completely. It has left its mark on things unwanted as well.
Plastic straws used to be the main item you would use to sip on a soothing drink during a hot summer. Now, it can also be made out of coconut leaves. “Sunbird is driven by a shared dream for a Green tomorrow. Sustaining the environment and empowering rural communities, one green innovation at a time, lies at the heart of our philosophy, considering that climate change is the biggest disrupter of our times,” Saji reiterates.
Doing something about the environment
The increased public awareness of the environmental catastrophe has prompted considerable religious reflection on human-environment interaction. God, humanity, and the environment all have deep associations. The ecosystem is constantly getting destroyed by deforestation, good arable land is eroding, waterways are becoming contaminated or drying up, and women in rural areas must go thousands of kilometers to obtain ever-more dangerous firewood. Gold, diamonds, silver, emeralds, ivory, petroleum, and other valuables are being used as weapons in conflicts. Finding harmony between the environment and people will solve this issue and lead to development as well as environmental sustainability.
Simply put, sustainable development is addressing the needs of the present without jeopardizing those of future generations. Building sustainable relationships between people and between people and the environment is a part of this process, and it can only be accomplished by improving decision-making skills through the exchange of information and technology.
Helping the environment
The company aims to value and solve wicked global problems. In a survey in 15 villages in the rural place, they came to know that the dried leaves are burnt in landfills. Now, because of what they are doing that won’t happen. These dried leaves will be used in making products like straws and pens which are eco-friendly.
A coconut tree loses around six of its leaves each year and these are simply burnt across rural India adding to the already high levels of carbon emission in the country. Around two hundred straws can be made from one naturally dried and fallen coconut leaf. Sunbird straws, made out of these dried coconut leaves, are 100% biodegradable and made in a chemical free process under strict hygiene protocols. The company claims that ‘the multi-layered straw, with natural anti-fungal and hydrophobic outer and inner wall, retains its shape in any kind of warm or cold beverage for about three hours. Unlike paper straws, this does not get soggy or leak glue and colour into the beverage.’ Additionally, the business places a strong emphasis on preserving marine life by minimizing plastic waste, particularly in coastal areas.
Empowering Rural Women in India
A key feature of ‘Sunbird Straws’ is its focus on technology as well as social concerns i.e., women empowerment, employment in rural areas, etc. Generally, companies that choose to innovate in the market are more technology oriented. It is surprising and delightful to see a company focusing on both technological advancements and social issues at the same time. The Sunbird project is not just a story of straws and scrubbers, it's about precious human lives- the rural women whose families' living standards are improved and who impact the world with the products they make.
The company has set up around 5 production units in Madurai, Kasargod, Tuticorin and so on employing nearly hundred rural women across South India, mainly in coastal areas. Empowering rural communities along with solving environmental problems is the reason why Chirag, a student volunteer, joined the team. “We used to burn the coconut leaves in landfills or out-kitchens. But now we convert it into products that provide us with our everyday living and solve the issues created by burning,” one of the employees said.
The entrepreneurs dream that “a gentleman in California or a little girl in Auckland, or a tourist in Dubai sipping guilt-free out of a straw made by the palms of these women, made out of the tall palms nurtured by the earth” as given in their website captures the team’s vision and passion.
So, in the end…
What started as a mere initiation by Saji has now manifested itself into a means for sustenance for several people who couldn’t make their ends meet. If you think about it, people like Saji need not have strived to solve the problems stated above, but their avid interest in their commitment towards the society explains how God manifests His nature in each and every person.
Saji's inspiring tale is also an excellent example of how God will ensure that if you have the willpower to do something, He will make it happen should you deserve it. “Our innovation aims to curb the plastic menace endangering our oceans and aquatic life, empower rural women by creating meaningful employment opportunities and involve communities by switching to a sustainable lifestyle,” the company website states.
For Saji Varghese, the Sunbird Project was his spiritual journey. Reading about Abraham, Moses, and Joshua, he asked himself what his faith statement was. He too, wanted to use his God given talents with faith in God to touch the lives of people around. His favourite quote from the Bible is: “But those who wait on the Lord shall renew their strength. They shall mount up with wings like eagles, they shall run and not be weary, they shall walk and not faint” (Isaiah 40:31 NKJV) said the professor who made straws from coconut leaves.
The Sustainable-development startup called Sunbird Straws was founded by Dr. Saji Varghese, Associate Professor, Christ University, Bengaluru. It has four main products based on organic straws- Boba Straws, Cocktail Straws, Regular Straws, Shakes and Smoothie Straws. The core team includes student volunteers like Jobin, Chirag, Sandeep, Fousul, and Lisa, responsible for technology management, operations and innovations management, training and production, marketing and sales, and impact assessment respectively whereas Saji is responsible for product development.