This consultant quit her job to recycle coconut shells; empowers artisans and women

Maria Kuriakose set up Thenga Coco in 2019 to recycle coconut shells into lasting, sustainable handmade products. Kerala's women-led enterprise provides dignified livelihood to craftspeople and clocked Rs1 crore in revenues in FY23, mostly through exports

Riya Singh
New Update
Maria Kuriakose, founder of Thenga Coco

Maria Kuriakose, founder of Thenga Coco

Sometime in 2019, Maria Kuriakose collected a few coconut shells from the backyard of her house in Thrissur, Kerala. She removed the husk and rubbed one of the shells with sandpaper to smoothen the surface. Within a few hours, she had transformed the waste coconut shell into a chic, eco-friendly bowl. 

Today, that backyard experiment is a Rs 1-crore green enterprise that repurposes coconut waste into lasting, sustainable, handmade home products. Maria has named her business Thenga Coco – thenga means coconut in Malayalam. 

The women-led startup boasts annual sales of 2.5 lakh ecofriendly products including tableware, home decor, and kitchenware in India and abroad. 

“Coconut is a very versatile tree. We call it the ‘Kalpavriksha’ or the tree of life as every part of it can be used to sustain life, whether it’s the tree trunk, roots, or flowers,” says Maria, who graduated in economics from St. Xavier's College in Mumbai in 2016 and went to Spain for further studies.

She got a job as a consultant with Aon Hewitt in Mumbai in 2017. Along with work, Maria continued to dream about social entrepreneurship that could help the environment and people around her. In 2018, she quit her high-paying job to join the Myna Mahila Foundation, which creates awareness about menstrual hygiene and provides low-cost sanitary napkins in the slums of Mumbai.

Thenga's products
Thenga products are handcrafted, durable, and eco-friendly. Pic: Thenga Coco

Social entrepreneurship

This grassroots experience strengthened Maria’s resolve and she began to look for ideas for an impactful business. The Eureka moment was the stroll in her backyard. After making the first few coconut bowls, she got the names of some eco-friendly brands engraved on them and shipped the samples to the respective brands. Her initial investment was Rs 4000. 

This landed her the first order for 100 bowls for Rs 6,000.

“Initially, I did not know much about bulk production. I went from house to house collecting the shells. When I was asked about the pricing, I had little idea as all I was investing were my efforts,” says the 28-year-old.

She grew the sustainable business by investing her savings and revenues into the company. As the number of orders increased, she tied up with local oil mills to procure shells of various sizes. Maria also began to look for coconut shell artisans in different parts of Kerala, who are well trained but only make a small living due to limited orders or take up alternative work as labourers. 

Also Read: Five environmental entrepreneurs making money sustainably

“Artisans and farmers are abandoning their crafts due to lack of opportunities. We are slowly losing the rich cultural heritage to the modern ways of living. I am doing my bit by providing stable income opportunities to our craftspeople,” Maria says.

Thenga sources around 20,000 coconut shells monthly for its products. Pic: Thenga Coco 

The business of recycling coconut shells

Thenga now has an established network of farmers and artisans across Kerala, including Kottayam, Kodungallur, Mettupalayam, and Alleppey. It employs over 30 people, 80 percent of them being women. The products are handcrafted by artisans who earn between Rs 20,000 and 25,000 monthly.

The company sources around 18,000-20,000 coconut shells monthly from farmers across Kerala and Tamil Nadu for Rs 6 to Rs 20 per shell. 

“Sorting of the shells takes time and effort hence we try to compensate the farmers by paying a premium. The farmers are surprised that these shells can be an additional source of income,” says Maria.

For recycling, the shells have to be selected carefully as the ones left under the sun for too long crack easily. Moreover, different shapes and sizes are used for various products. While the ones with a flat base are used for making bowls, the long ones are turned into cups and others are used for making spoons and ladles. 

The shells are soaked in water and brushed to remove the husk easily. Then sanding is done to even out any rough edges, and eventually, it is buffed with coconut oil to bring out the shine. “We don’t use any additional chemicals or lacquer throughout the process,” Maria says.

women at work
About 80% of Thenga staff comprises women. Pic: Thenga Coco

Over time, Thenga’s portfolio has expanded to over 25 products including mobile holders, soap dispensers, spoons, bowls, ladles, wine glasses, and candle holders, among others. 

The products, priced between Rs 250 and Rs 1,500, have a shelf life of 15-20 years. 

Thenga enjoys a strong international demand from Denmark, Spain, Australia, the UK, and Indian cities like Chennai, Hyderabad, Mumbai, Ahmedabad, Kolkata, and Delhi NCR. The international demand, however, overpowers the local orders.

Also Read: This Kashmiri man quit Sony India to upcycle plastic waste; clocks Rs 1 crore annual turnover through sustainable products

Maria says the revenues are good, but profitability can be better if people don’t bargain and stop complaining about overpricing. 

Social and environmental impact 

Although Kerala is one of the largest producers of coconuts in the world, farmers and middlemen receive low rates as several parts of the coconuts are disposed of in landfills or burnt. “Coconuts are not used to their full potential,” Maria says. 

Bengaluru alone is estimated to generate around 300 tonnes of coconut shells every summer. Coconut waste is not just a problem in India; it is also a major concern in other countries like Indonesia, Vietnam, and others.

Maria believes that billions of such shells end up in landfills every year apart from a small percentage that goes into coconut charcoal making. “Although coconut waste naturally decomposes within a few years, its disposal remains an issue as it consumes a lot of space and is often mixed with plastic,” she says. 

Thenga reduces the burden on landfills by recycling coconut shells. Pic: Thenga

Thenga has a strong social and environmental impact.

The startup helps the environment by recycling waste, replacing plastic and reducing the burden on landfills. 

It supplies products to zero-waste shops and websites. It is also helping artisans continue their craft by providing them with livelihood opportunities that generate stable income.

Maria says traditionally, the roots of coconut trees were used to make dyes and the leaves were used as brooms or roofing material. The husks were employed as scrubbers, and the trunks were used in construction. 

“Today, we are losing our rich cultural heritage to modern living. People prefer buying a product from the market rather than using traditional materials easily available at home,” says Maria, who is changing people’s mindset with eco-friendly products. 

(Riya Singh is a Ranchi-based journalist who writes on environment, farming, sustainability, startups, & women empowerment)

Also See: Five entrepreneurs making cash from trash

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