Saji Varghese is a professor of English at the Christ University in Bangalore who has created a straw made from coconut leaves that is not only organic but sustainable at the same time. His invention has also given a new lease of life to the women in the rural areas in the coastal region of Bangalore who now work for him, in making sustainable straws, a venture that has also brought international laurels to the professor.
Varghese’s incredible innovation is being touted as the next best game changer, especially in a climate of plastic products threatening the globe with dire consequences. Back in 2017 on a warm October afternoon, Professor Varghese, who also holds a PhD in English, was taking a walk back to his home after classes got over, when he saw a frond of coconut on the campus. The 51-year old says that he picked it up and observed that the dry frond had folded into itself, giving it the appearance and shape of a straw.
The professor’s curiosity was piqued and he took the leaf to a laboratory where it was steamed under high pressure. Thereafter the leaf developed a shiny, natural layer on exposure to heat. It was then that the idea came to the professor to use this organic straw as a replacement for the shiny, plastic ones that are currently in use all over the world.
After experimenting for a few months, the professor managed to create a single layered straw, binding it with food grade glue. However that was not too sturdy, and professor Varghese started to improvise on the product. Early in 2018, he developed a multi-layered straw successfully from coconut leaf.
Professor Varghese’s invention was anti-fungal and can also withstand water for over 6 hours. It additionally has a shelf life of over 12 months, which is a huge advantage if the straw were to be used in the food and beverage industry. He says that in the initial days, the straws were produced using basic machinery but after initial success, three manufacturing units were established in Madurai, Tuticorin and Kasargod district, with rural women forming the bulk of the workforce.
This initiative by Professor Varghese was an instant hit as his company SunBird took off in a major way. Food businesses wrestled with one another in a bid to obtain the biodegradable straws that the professor was manufacturing. Within the span of a year of starting operations, there were many offers from overseas clients too. Now, these straws are being exported to over 25 countries including USA, Australia and the EU nations.
The professor signs off by saying that the patent for the product was received in May, following which production has been ramped-up on a large scale. His idea is to be a source of livelihood for the urban and rural poor in the coastal regions of Kerala, Karnataka, Andhra Pradesh and Tamil Nadu. Work is going on in order to set up another whopping 20 units where this straw, costing 5 rupees, will be made.
For his invention and enterprise, Professor Varghese has won the Swadeshi Startup Award 2018 from IIT Delhi, Swiss Re Shine Entrepreneur Award, as well as the Climate Launchpad Award in 2018 for social impact from a jury in Scotland.
Image Source: The Better India