He is a professor of English in Bengaluru, but his sustainable innovation has won a global victory.
Prof. Saji Varghese from Christ University crafted a product made of coconut leaves, which are not only environmentally friendly but also has offered a new lease of life of rural women in the coastal areas, especially when the plastic threat has acquired pandemic proportions.
On the afternoon of October 3, 2017, the professor, who holds a Ph.D. in English, was walking home after class when he saw a palm fern on campus. “I picked it up and saw that the dried leaves are folded, giving the form of straw,” recalls the professor.
The professor took the leaves into the lab and steamed under high pressure to find it developed naturally shiny layer under heat. He decided to replace the common plastic straw with organic alternatives.
Finally, in early 2018, Varghese successfully developed a multi-layered thatch of palm leaves. Her organic creation is not only anti-fungal but also can hold water for more than six hours, with a shelf life of over 12 months. “Initially, we started producing straw using a basic machine. We set up three units in villages in Madurai, Tuticorin, and Kasargod districts and employs rural womenfolk to produce a straw, “he added.
The professor’s biodegradable alternative paid off directly as a straw licking the food business it is marketed under the brand name, SunBird. Within a year, he was flooded with orders from abroad too. Straws are now being exported to 25 countries, including the United States, Australia, and countries of the European Union.
“I received a patent for the product in May and is now beginning to produce it on a large scale. The idea is to provide a livelihood for the urban poor and rural women, especially in the coastal areas of Karnataka, Kerala, Tamil Nadu, and Andhra Pradesh. Work is underway to set up 20 units, “he said.
The innovation has won him the Swadeshi Startup award 2018 from NT Delhi, Swiss Re Shine Entrepreneur award, and Climate Launchpad Award 2018 for social impact from Scotland.
The straws are priced at Rs 5 per piece and can soon be bought online.