The Green Road to Success
What starts with the best of intentions and great gusto for saving the environment is often met with the cold hard truth of reality. What are these challenges? Are they different from those that other start-up founders face? How do green start-up founders tackle them? Read on…
When Chetan Badhe decided to get into the banana fibre business, he saw that there was a large production of bananas in Jalgaon where he lives. “The banana plant was generally chopped off and dumped in a far-off place to be burnt when they dried. I thought why not use those banana stems? Not only does banana grow aplenty in Jalgaon but also in India. So, availability of raw material would not be a problem.”
Or so he thought. But what was growing in abundance was not being treated well enough to produce quality banana fibre that could be used. “The problem was two-fold. One was that the farmer would have to cart the stems to the manufacturing unit where they would be converted to fibre. This increased cost as each farmer would have to go to a central unit. In addition to this, several middlemen cropped up adding to the cost.”
Co-founders & CEO, Awega Green Technologies
While the raw material was in abundance for Desicaravan Traders & Exporters, for Awega Green Technologies that uses hemp to create different products such as bio-diesel and packaging bags, the story was just the opposite. Says Karan Sarsar, CEO and co-founder, “Hemp or weed as it is commonly called is better known for its psychoactive uses. But that is cannabis indica. What we use to make different products is cannabis sativa. However, the production of this plant is restricted and under Govt control for obvious reasons.”
Thinking that procurement of cannabis sativa would be the biggest obstacle turned out to be quite the opposite. Says Karan, “initially the farmers weren’t aware of its uses. And cannabis grows unhindered. So they didn’t know what to do with it and would sell it very cheap. However, as demand increased, the business got into the hands of middlemen and as things stand today hemp in India costs as much as it would if we got it imported from the US – at Rs. 250 /kg. But if we import it from China or Nepal it costs us Rs 90-120/kg.”
Chetan got lucky with the procurement of the banana fibre as the local MP understood the problem. Says he “the MP formed a group of about 200 banana farmers and provided about five of them with the machinery to make fibre. This worked to reduce the transportation cost and helped me procure directly from the manufacturer.”
Co-founders & CTO, Awega Green Technologies
In addition to this, the Navsari Agricultural College made a discovery. Says Chetan, “they found out that the water from the pulp is a great fertilizer for the plant. So, the banana growers had more reason to use their banana plant for the manufacture of fibre.”
But Awega didn’t get so lucky. The middlemen continue to control the sale of hemp, says Karan, “so we have tied up with AnantaJit Creations Consolidates Pvt Ltd and Maati Naturals who are our tech partners to create a blockchain system to streamline the sale of hemp. This should be ready in a year’s time with the Central Govt, NCB and Customs departments being the other stakeholders.” Till then it’s the import route for them.
Raw material procurement is one part of a green start-up’s story. Manufacturing is another. Says Chetan, “even though banana is widely grown in Jalgaon, not many people know how to weave products from the fibre. I did get into training some women but it just didn’t come up to the mark.” So, Chetan had to hunt across the country to source professional weavers who could weave baskets, mats, etc from banana fibre. “I found that Tamil Nadu, Kerala and the seven sister states of the North East do a great job.” So, the fibre now moves from Jalgaon to the South for the finished product.
Co-founders & COO, Awega Green Technologies
Building a prototype is a challenge for any start-up. And Awega got creative with its prototype. Says Karan, “we knew that COEP, Cummins, Sinhagad, MIT had labs that could help our studies. For a small fee, we used their facilities to test the gases emitted from our biodiesel, or test the strength of our hemp bags. They have also worked on other products such as Hemp Exhaust Muffler, Hemp EcoPLY ‘CANNAWOOD’, Hemp Body Panel Parts for vehicles, CANNSPIRATOR HN95 Hemp Face Mask etc.
Awega in fact won two awards – from the Ministry of Textile and the Ministry of Agriculture in 2020, for creating a replacement for the single-use Plastic bags, their Hemp EcoBags. This year the company was shortlisted, got incubated and received Rs. 20 lakhs as seed fund by PUSA KRISHI, ICAR IARI, for piloting of the HEMP ECOBags Project.
Getting to the Market:
Chetan feels that banana fibre is not well known amongst consumers. “We had put up our products on e-commerce website but saw a lot of bouncing off.” So, he plans to create awareness by setting up a promotional centre at Ellora caves, “that has a footfall of about 12,000 people in season time. I will set up a unit where visitors can see an array of the products we make, see how a weaver makes them and if interested also read about the technical aspect of it.” This he hopes will help create awareness.
Awega meanwhile, aims to work via the Ministry of Agriculture which can help to connect them with the manufacturers of plastic bags that farmers use. Says Karan, “our hemp eco bags can very effectively hold up to 20 kgs of weight and work is on to see how we can increase its strength. Our bags will cost Rs. 25-30 while a plastic bag costs 35-40. While plastic will burden the earth, our bags can be recycled up to seven times after which they can be used as compost.” Now, who can argue with that? Mother Earth sure needs more such start-ups.