This eco-friendly company uses elephant dung to make paper & paper products

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You never know what adventure awaits you if you never step in a different route.

Likewise, the founder of Ecoorb- Sunny Rajopadhyaya never thought he’d be running a business someday until he traveled to Chitwan. There he saw how elephant dung, which is a great raw material for paper products, was being wasted. Knowing its useful properties and taking inspiration from already existing businesses in this field, Sunny immediately decided to do more research and start a social business.

We got to connect with Sunny at NEXT Growth Conclave 2019 which was held at Soaltee Hotel. After exchanging business cards and few emails, we were able to interview Sunny at Nepal Communitere where its office is located right now. Here’s what we talked about. 

1. What’s the backstory of Ecoorb? How was it started?
Ecoorb wasn’t something I had deliberately planned to start. I was a regular guy who completed his undergrad and then joined Master’s at King’s college and also did a 9-5 job at an IT company. I had a well-paying salary but the work never satisfied me. With a curious mind, I was always on the lookout for new ideas and innovations and had also seen videos of people turning elephant dung into paper products. Luckily while on a trip to Chitwan, I got to witness and realize the potentiality of elephant dung that was being wasted like anything. With that, I took some elephant dung and with the help of a blender, boiler and a used cloth, I made a prototype of the product which came out quite well. So, that was it! The idea of using this free raw material and turning it into something of use hit me and that’s how Ecoorb was initiated.
During my next visit to Sauraha, I found out that a few women groups were already doing this business with the help of an INGO- Green Society Nepal. They had provided the group with the necessary machines and training and left them on their own. So, the group was doing it very casually in their free time so even their income wasn’t steady. Thus. I partnered with this group and after several experiments, we finalized a standard product. They would send usable fiber converted from elephant dung which would later be converted into paper products here.

Now it has been 9-10 months since we started operations.

2. Since you’re helping the women supported by Green Society Nepal, are you getting paid from there?
No. See the thing is we do not have the required funds to get a machine for ourselves that turns raw fiber into usable fiber. So, we’re getting help from the women who have the machine and paying them for their service. It’s a win-win situation where we do not think we need to be paid by the INGO. Furthermore, we can’t bring the dung from Chitwan to Kathmandu because of the fear of losing its usable properties. So, the best option we have is to use their service.

3. What does your business model look like? How do you generate revenue?
We mostly deal with B2B for now, especially for those businesses that require packaging. We realized that convincing one customer at a time is a hard task and we don’t have the resources to do so for now. Sometimes when we tell people that our products are made from elephant dung, they throw the products out of surprise but there are also those people who choose our products over others because of eco-friendly reasons. We currently have 10-15 contracts to whom we sell around 100 products each. 

4. What was your initial investment like? Has the company reached the breakeven point?
It wasn’t much. I had just quit my job and only had that same month’s salary to begin with which wasn’t a lot. After returning from Chitwan with an idea in mind, I applied for a grant and fortunately got Rs. 50,000 to kickstart the business. 4 months into the business, everything had started to get too hectic for me alone to handle so while I was discussing this with a group of friends, Jonej showed interest to partner with me. At that time, we had no sales, just 5-7 sheets of paper and were running around convincing businesses to get our products.
Currently, we have already breakeven the 1 Lakh that we invested in the business. However, we never paid salaries to ourselves so we can’t say that we have actually reached break-even yet.

5. How many people are there in your team?
It’s just the two of us in the core team. Then there are 7 didis working in Chitwan who provide us with the usable fiber. We also have 60-70 women working indirectly with us in converting paper into different crafts. My mom is one of those women along with her group of neighbors and friends. They’re basically like freelancers whom we pay according to the products.

6. We hear that a lot of startups face a huge challenge while registering. What’s the legal status of Ecoorb?
We’re facing the same challenge currently. It has been around 5-6 that we had been trying to get Ecoorb registered. The main problem that the government has with us is our name. Someone has already registered a company named Eco Initiatives and since our names are similar (Ecoorb Initiatives), it’s difficult for them to manage the legalities of it. There’s a three-letter difference in the name and yet they’re making it difficult for us.

7. Do you feel like you are making an impact on these women’s lives?
Yes! When we first got to know them, they weren’t functioning systematically. Out of seven, two didis were irregular and one of them was handling the accounts. There was also a lot of communication gaps in them. After we partnered with them and made the process systematic, we saw that the two didis had started to become regular. So, although we don’t know our exact impact on figures, we can assume that they found value in the work.

8. What’s your view on mentorship programs? Did your education align with the information you were getting from mentorship?
I think mentorship programs are very beneficial, especially for startups. We’re in incubation here in Nepal Communitere where we get help from a lot of experienced and learned coaches. They helped us develop this business from scratch and have been helping us till now.
Well, yeah. While the college has more theories and case studies of existing businesses but here you get to practice the theories on your own business. Mentorship is very important for startups because we had almost done so many stupid things. For example, we were clueless about how to present our idea to an investor in a way that he/she’d be willing to fund us. Also, while I’m here talking to you, our mentors are working and constantly looking out for strategies or clients to help the business grow.

9. What do you think is the most important attribute that a business partner should have?
We hear a lot of people say that partners should complement each other’s skills but I believe that skills can be learned. The most important attribute should be trust. When responsibilities come, everybody becomes alert and then they learn along the way. If I had been in business for like 50 years and was seeking a partner then I would’ve looked for different aspects. But for startups, I think trust is important.

10. What is your goal for Ecoorb for the next 5 years? Are you ready for external investments?
We want to be able to supply 1000kgs of usable fiber to at least 9. Right now, we’re catering to only one business and are hardly giving 80-90 kgs because of a lack of resources. So, we want to grow and be able to cater to the demand of businesses before moving to B2C. This brings to investments so we’re very much ready for investments.

11. Does it get lonely as a startup founder? How does your day in a life look like?
No, not at all! Since I am a college-goer, a bit of socialization happens there. Then, I come here to Nepal Communitere which has a warm and vibrant community so you always get one or the other to talk to and share ideas. It’s pretty fun here. I’m also running around talking to clients and prospects so again, a tiny bit of socialization there. Plus, I have a business partner who knows and understands Ecoorb as much as I do so we get along a lot to talk about it. If our business had been located in a secluded place with just one room and no partner then it would’ve been lonely. So, I’d say no for now.

12. Would you like to give any advice to people who are trying to start a new business?
I’d say go for it. A lot of people have a lot of ideas but only those who have the courage to implement it get to experience its power. Also, keep an ear on what people talk at “Chiya Pasal”, you never know who might indirectly give you great business advice that they’re too lazy to actually use.

For more information, please check out their Facebook page- Ecoorb or connect with the Ecoorb team at ecoorb.initiatives@gmail.com

Interviewed and article by Yangzum Lama