The tale of Sunbird
It was one of the finalists and the only startup from India selected for the Youth Ecopreneur Award 2023, organised in Mongolia by ITC and the UN.
CHENNAI: It all began with a fallen coconut leaf,” says Saji Varghese, a professor at Christ University in Bengaluru. “One of its leaves was pointing upwards, curled like a straw. That sight inspired me to convert the leaf into a straw,” says the founder of Sunbird Straws, the world’s first premium multi-layered drinking straws and pens made from dried coconut and pandanus leaves. The straws are entirely biodegradable and eco-friendly, he says.
Recently, Sunbird added a new feather to its cap. It was one of the finalists and the only startup from India selected for the Youth Ecopreneur Award 2023, organised in Mongolia by ITC and the UN. The award is a recognition for young entrepreneurs who work towards sustainable development. Sunbirds participated under its registered name Brown Reed Agri Waste Innovations Pvt Ltd.
It took Saji years to give life to the idea formed from a trivial image. There were many factors to making a straw with its essential qualities. After a year’s trial and error, Saji finally succeeded in developing one with eco-friendly and user-friendly attributes.
The dry fallen leaves were cleaned and steamed like banana leaves for packing lunch. That’s when Saji realised the wax from the leaves can act as a natural hydrophobic coating. Then, the leaves were pressed and rolled out to form cylindrical tubes of various diameters and lengths for regular drinks, shakes, and boba teas. Not just organic, he made them antifungal with a shelf life of more than one year. The final product can stay intact in a drink for about three hours.
“We also make straws from naturally dried pandanus leaves. This will boost the cultivation of pandanus, which helps prevent soil erosion and reduce the impact of high tides on seashores. Traditionally, pandanus leaves are used to make mats, baskets, and other items. Now, the straws will ensure consistent incomes to communities who make products using pandanus leaves,” Saji says.
And he named his product aptly, Sunbird Straws. “It has a story behind it. A sunbird is a bird with shiny feathers, and its beak is designed to drink nectar from flowers. Similarly, the straws have a natural shine,” he smiles.
Initially, most of the manufacturing and processing work was done manually and by just eight women. Fortunately, a video taken on the processing of the straws went viral, and Saji started receiving orders from across the globe. Following this, he sent out some samples, leading to many countries asking for bulk orders of the straw. And due to the enormous orders, his team has to develop machines to increase the production rate.
Now, he employs more women who were taught to operate the machines and help in the production.
“So we have a hub and spoke production model, a pyramid structure you can imagine. Multiple leaf centres in coconut-abundant regions collect and process leaves. They send the leaves to the straw production centres. The straws are rolled here using our special-purpose machines and sent to the post-processing centre. Currently, the post-processing centre is in Bengaluru,” explains Chirag M G, the co-founder who heads Operations and Innovation Management at Sunbird.
“Now, we have two leaf processing centres in Nagercoil (Tamil Nadu) and Mellahalli (Mysuru). And there are three straw production centres — in Bannur (Mysuru), Tuticorin (Tamil Nadu), and Kasaragod (Kerala). Then in post-production, we do quality check, sterilisation, and hands-free packaging and branding,” Chirag adds.
Sunbird now aims to produce 3,00,000 straws per day by the end of 2024 while giving meaningful employment opportunities around the year to 500 women in rural India. “By doing this, we aim to contain 550 million tonnes of carbon dioxide equivalent from reaching the earth’s atmosphere. And we plan to extend to all 11 coconut growing states in India, right from Gujarat to West Bengal, including Lakshadweep and Andaman and Nicobar Islands,” Chirag says.