Cut, paste, press and it’s done! Pushpa P of Thimmareddypalli village at Siddipet district in Telangana readies a batch of eco-friendly, biodegradable and sustainable plates using palash tree leaves and cardboard in just a few minutes. She makes 800 of these leaf plates a day. They are already being exported to the US and are now ready to travel to Kenya, Nairobi, Malaysia, Canada and Dubai.
And Telangana-based Vistaraku, founded by husband and wife duo Venu Vippulancha and Madhavi Vippulancha, has already set out on this global journey.
She has been making leaf plates for a year at Vistaraku, earning Rs 250 per day. Pushpa is among the five girls, all between the ages 18-20, who have completed their school and are working at Vistaraku, which makes biodegradable plates and bowls from leaves.
Literally translated, Vistar in Telugu means spread and aku means leaf – leaf plate. Founded in February 2019, Vistaraku makes bowls and plates from leaves of palash (flame of the forest or sacred tree) as well as siali, a large-leafed creeper that grows around sal trees. It also makes forks, spoons and knives using birchwood.
Keeping alive a centuries-old practice
While palash is local to Telangana, siali leaves are brought in from Odisha, where they are harvested by tribal women. “For years, people of Telangana have been serving food on palash leaves as part of their tradition. It is an Ayurvedic tree, but many, including ryots (tenant farmers) do not know about its antibacterial qualities,” says Venu.
Serving food on leaf plates has been a tradition in India for centuries. Temples across the country use leaf plates not only for offering naivedyam to deities but also for distributing prasadam to devotees. They are a part of marriages and community feasts and known by many local names like pattal, vistaraku, patravali, dona (leaf bowl) etc. From palash and sal to banana and siali, leaves of many trees are used for plates.
There are many cottage industries in Telangana and Andhra Pradesh that thrive on stitching these leaves. They are stitched either using cotton threads or with coconut strands. Vistaraku procures these stitched leaves and then turns them into plates. “Unlike the beedi (poor man’s cigarette) industry, this leaves stitching industry did not grow and has been declining rapidly. But by procuring their goods, we are trying to revive them,” says Venu.
How are leaf plates made?
Since Vistaraku is now a regular buyer from stitched leaf suppliers, it is now in talks with NGOs to train tribal people in leaf stitching.
Different types of machines are used to make plates in different sizes and bowls etc.
The use of cardboard and heat makes the plates sturdy. Plates made using traditional methods without cardboard are fragile and only fit for serving food while sitting in one place. These Vistaraku plates undergo airtight packaging to avoid the formation of any moulds. Its customers are primarily organic retail outlets and also include NGOs, caterers, hotels and banquet halls.
While leaves have antiseptic and antibacterial properties, the cutlery is not only healthy but also sustainable. They are biodegradable and can be easily disposed of. Besides they don’t require cleaning and save time and labour.
The birth of an idea, and a business
Vistaraku currently produces around 5,000 plates per day and has the capacity to go up to 10,000 plates. It is currently shipping to the US. Distributors in Kenya, Nairobi, Malaysia, Canada and Dubai have also approached Vistaraku for buying the products. “We had a turnover of Rs 7 lakh last year, and expect our sustainable model to be more successful after the pandemic,” says Madhavi.
Their customers are primarily households who place small orders and they are also connected with distributors who supply to temples and events. While the business is beginning to take off now, it wasn’t an easy choice for the couple.
When mechanical engineer husband Venu and pharmacist wife Madhavi decided to leave the US and return to their native Siddipet in 2003, little did they know about plate-making. Venu had an interest towards their culture and Madhavi towards plants. “We were toying with ideas of start-ups and product development. Just around that time, an exhibition of rural crafts organised by the National Institute of Rural Development sparked within us the idea to make plates out of leaves, which can be both eco-friendly and sustainable,” says Venu.
The couple began to work on the idea and after six months of research, got in touch with the Annapurna Cottage Industries based in Hyderabad. Annapurna specialises in leaf plate making machinery and leaf stitching. The duo procured machinery from them.
Venu and Madhavi not only wanted this initiative to be nature friendly, they were also keen to employ local women who had completed their schooling and wanted to work but could not get jobs. “These girls, some of whom are pursuing undergraduate studies, work here during their free time,” says Madhavi.
18-year-old G Manasa is one such girl, pursuing her undergraduate degree in Pharmacy. She’s been home due to the COVID-19 lockdown. While her widowed mother works at a hostel, Manasa now works for Vistaraku. Having no interest in working on the farms, Manasa tries to help her mother financially.
Vistaraku is already doing its bit in helping local livelihoods. But COVID-19 has helped boost its business in another unexpected way. As consumers get more aware about hygiene and cleanliness, more people are opting for disposable one-time use cutlery. The demand for eco-friendly goods is on the rise, and companies like Vistaraku will only benefit from this.
(Lead pic: through Vistaraku)
(Anusha Sundar is a Tamil Nadu-based journalist specialising in environment, gender, culture and mental health issues)