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

Maria Kuriakose, founder of sustainable lifestyle startup Thenga speaks to SocialStory about how she is trying to promote sustainable living while providing livelihoods to artisans.
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Maria Kuriakose always wanted to be an entrepreneur. When the lockdown was announced last year, she decided to return to her native Kerala from Mumbai and focus on her dream of starting a ‘business with a cause'.

“I always wanted to live a  more eco-friendly lifestyle,” says Maria, Founder of Thenga, a sustainable lifestyle product that upcycles waste coconut shells. 

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

Maria Kuriakose, founder of Thenga with het father, Kuriakose Varoo

“I zeroed in on using the coconut shell because I saw that despite having usage potential, a lot was often burnt or discarded in landfills,” says Maria, speaking to SocialStory.

The coconut shell is a sustainable, practical and durable alternative for plastic especially for making kitchenware. It can also be easily decomposed. Unlike steel and plastic kitchenware, it can be conveniently broken into smaller parts and mixed with soil,” she says 

Reviving a dying tradition 

Maria reached out to a coconut shell artisan from Thrissur who was already working with shells to make decorative items like flowers. She shared her vision with him and had a few meetings in his workshop where he understood her idea and also gave a few inputs on how to execute it. 

“I realised that these artisans did not have enough full-time work and were doing odd jobs like working on construction sites to sustain themselves,” says Maria.

She started working with these artisans who now, devote 60 percent of their time to creating coconut shell products. As the brand has expanded, even fulfilling international orders, the team now employs 12 artisans from five districts in Kerala. “As we grow, we are  trying to discover more artisans who can join the group,” says Maria 

“We as a business understand the challenges the artisans go through. As a social enterprise, the artisans are an important part of who we are. So even if they miss out on certain parameters, we ensure they get paid for the work they put in and train them and make them attend workshops so that it doesn’t happen again.” she adds.

“I have always been interested in helping people and supporting them in a sustainable way. Instead of only giving people things, I want to teach them to live on their own. I see business as a good solution, because you can make money but also work for a cause. That concept is something I am very passionate about and that helped me push through the difficulties,”  says Maria.

Ensuring that the business remains profitable while staying true to the cause is something that’s difficult and was initially tricky to navigate. She believes supporting the artisans that she works with and selling the best quality products at the best rate to customers is key for any social business. “We try to maintain good quality so that we can charge good prices and even share a part of the profits with the artisans,” she adds.

However, when it came to finding investors, Maria said interest was low. “I was reaching out to oil mills to sell me the shells that they were discarding after extracting oil from the flesh. My father, a retired engineer, helped me develop a machine to polish the shells,” says Maria, adding that they developed a low-cost system to dry the coconut fibre using fan paper, and polished them using coconut oil.

“We gave it out to a few business houses from where we got our first set of orders. We’re still a self-funded startup.” 

Smoothie and fruit bowls made using coconut

Challenges on the way 

A major challenge that she faced was with the sizing of the shells. “The coconut shell is a natural product that comes in a variety of sizes. Getting 100 or 200 shells of a particular size is quite difficult,” she says.

“In the beginning, I just went around in Kerala, asking friends and families for coconut shells because everybody had coconut trees in their backyard. I went to a few oil mills and manufacturers and asked them. That’s how the first set of 1,500 came out. I had to also polish it all myself at that time as I didn’t have any help. So that was a really challenging time for me.” Maria said. 

Impact of the pandemic 

However, sales were higher than usual during the pandemic. Maria believes that it is because people are trying to explore more sustainable alternatives and go back to traditional, healthier ways of living. However, there has been a shortage of staff and running and co-ordination has become a difficult task. 

Thenga plans on expanding and increasing its reach in the future. From a current customer base of 3,000 people, they want to reach lakhs of people so the impact is felt far and wide. They also plan on expanding their product range by making coconut shell toys and containers. The idea is to spread more sustainable ways of living as well as providing the artisans of Kerala with better job opportunities.

Edited by Diya Koshy George

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