"Thenga", the inimitable storyteller in Malayalam Vaikom Muhammed Basheer said in a story, "is the moral of the story." Three years ago when the entrepreneurial bug bit Maria Kuriakose, 'Thenga' (Malayalam for coconut) was what she zeroed in on.
From her small firm in Palakkad, she turns the humble coconut shells into kitchenware, tableware and decor items. And three years after finding success in India, Thenga has gone global. Now international customers can order their favourite items from the company's website directly.
"A lot of uncertainties plagued me when I decided to quit my high-paying job in Mumbai and start a business in Kerala," Maria told Onmanorama.
"But I am happy and proud that Thenga has become a success and I can now say that I have fulfilled my dream of becoming an entrepreneur with eco-friendly products. This journey makes me more confident to fight against all odds," said Maria.
Eco-friendly products with zero toxins are the major attraction of Thenga. A team of 12 artisans are the soul of 'Thenga' as the products are completely hand-made.
When pursuing her dream of becoming an entrepreneur, Maria faced many challenges.
"I encountered too many questions from people about quitting the job. But I was devoted to my work as my parents offered their full support. They encouraged me to try my luck in business," she said.
"But, even then I did not have a cakewalk. Manufacturing of these completely hand-made products was a complex task. Initially, customers rejected our products due to size variations. They complained that the size of the products like kitchenware and tableware were not as per their specifications. But we managed to solve them with proper planning and a lot of effort," Maria explained.
Thenga's entry into the export sector was a big move and it marked the company's growth.
Along with exports, Thenga has also expanded its online sales through leading e-commerce marketplaces like Amazon, Jio Mart and First Cry, among others.
“The positive responses from customers are a big boost. Most of the customers are from Mumbai, Delhi, Bengaluru and foreign countries. They are interested in purchasing the product as they realise that the consumption never makes any environmental impact. Actually, the responses from the customers are beyond our expectations,” said Maria.
Recently, Thenga exported 40,000 pieces to Denmark. This small firm based at Sultanpet in Palakkad has been receiving queries from the Netherlands and Switzerland.
"Now, we are focusing on exports. The major share of the income is still the domestic market. During festival seasons like Diwali, we get orders from Bengaluru, Mumbai and Delhi. In the last annual year, our turnover touched Rs 1 crore. I'm very happy that my efforts have paid off," the young entrepreneur said.
When most youngsters look to migrate from India, Maria vowed that she would return after her studies and start a business here. It's her passion to promote an indigenous product of Kerala combined with the sense of responsibility to protect nature that led to the birth of 'Thenga'.
As coconut is the identity of Kerala, Maria wanted to explore the scope of a value-added product from it. Her research uncovered the huge possibility of utensils made from coconut shells.
“After quitting my corporate job, I completely dedicated myself to ‘Thenga’. However, the transition from an employee to a businesswoman was not easy. I faced too many questions about not continuing with my high-paying job after my MBA. However, I was focused on my passion for starting a business that would not hurt nature. At the same time, the promotion of a product from Kerala, and revenue generation were also important. Our economy will benefit from a business when we are generating value for an indigenous product. So, I'm very happy that I met my goals with 'Thenga',” she added.
For the nature
‘Thenga' marks a movement for environmental sustainability.
"I was not happy with the corporate life in Mumbai. I was eager to go back to Kerala. Actually, I wanted to do a business which fulfils my responsibility to protect nature. The manufacturing process is also simple and nature-friendly. We have around 40 products in kitchenware, tableware, garden and decor categories. None of these products pose any threat to the environment. When a customer replaces a product with a new one, neither the soil nor the air gets polluted," Maria said.
"No one can be 100 per cent eco-friendly. But when you take a step to purchase coconut shell products, you are making a big contribution to the protection of nature," she pointed out.
Health-conscious people focus on eating organically produced food items. But they ignore the effects of toxins they consume while using plastic or aluminium utensils. But products made of coconut shells never harm nature.
"Our products are completely toxin-free. We don't use colour or chemical varnish on our products. They retain the deep brown colour due to the sanding and buffing process. Only coconut oil is used to make the pieces lustrous. If the product loses its natural glow over time, one wipe with coconut oil will bring back the colour," said Maria.
She pointed out that the health benefits of having food on coconut shell products are not scientifically proven. But compared to plastic and other materials containing chemicals, 'Thenga' products are a safe bet.
Why coconut shells?
Though all parts of a coconut tree can be used to make multiple byproducts, businesses focus on coconut oil and milk. And curios made from coconut shells are only seen in crafts stores or expos. Observing this fact, Maria researched products that can be manufactured from coconut shells, which are often used as a substitute for firewood or natural use-and-throw cups.
The research helped her envisage a perfect plan for making kitchenware from 'chiratta', Malayalam for coconut shells.
Maria said products made out of coconut shells last very long as it is very strong compared to other natural materials. "So it is the best product to replace plastic, steel or glass. In case you want to discard a product, you can simply break it into small pieces and mix it with the soil. Then it will go back to the earth without making any environmental impact," she added.
A strong team of women employees is another highlight of this business venture. Among the 12 artisans, seven are women. Operations, social media, and customer relations departments are all handled by women.
"Most of our staff are women who had a career break due to family responsibilities. Flexible working hours are provided considering their multiple roles as a mother, wife and daughter. Most of them used to take their children to the office. I aim to make the office a support system for women employees," said Maria, who herself is a mother to an 11-month-old Rahel.
From the initial rejection, 'Thenga' has come a long way. Now, oil mills supply coconut shells to 'Thenga'. "Each product has a different size. So, mills will cut the shells as per our requirement and supply them to us," Maria said.
"As we are eying to woo foreign customers, we need to handle a lot of complicated procedures. As 'Thenga' is a small firm, we are only in the primary phase of learning the paperwork and formalities related to exporting," she added.
'Thenga' team has envisaged many plans including launching toys to replace plastic toys.
"Plastic toys are dangerous for babies. So, I'm planning to make toys out of coconut shells. The other category we are focusing on is jewellery. We had designed some for an exhibition. In future, I would like to make more efforts to craft more interesting products like toys, jewellery and package boxes," Maria said.
For Maria, 'Thenga' is a philosophy that encourages everyone to take a small step to protect nature as well as contribute to the growth of the country's economy.