Interview with Manigandan Kumarappan, Founder & CEO, Evlogia Eco Care Pvt. Ltd.

Q.1 You had worked for multinationals with the likes of Accenture, Samsung and Wipro before you took the entrepreneurial route which is a bold yet very risky move. What was it that inspired you to take that leap of faith? Was there a specific moment of realisation that motivated you to course correct your trajectory?

I am basically from an agricultural family and when I decided to venture into entrepreneurship after 20 years of a multinational corporate career, doing something related to agriculture and the environment was my natural preference. This is my second startup. We were supplying fresh tender coconuts in the semi-trimmed form to supermarkets and houses in my earlier startup when customers asked for a straw to be supplied with to sip the coconut water. We did not want to supply plastic straws and paper straws had quality issues. We started thinking about making an organic drinking straw and that's how the Leafy straws, also made out of coconut tree waste, started their journey. We soon found the potential to make more and more single-use cutlery to replace plastic from locally sourced Agri waste raw material and we are in line to introduce more products like cups, lids, wild grass straws, etc.

Q.2 For an entrepreneur, in order to run a successful entrepreneurial venture, it is extremely important to have a thorough understanding of the market and have that ability to identify potential gaps or as they say in marketing theory, “blue oceans” that have inherent market potential. What was that one key insight which convinced you that making straws out of fallen palm leaves is something that possesses the market potential and would you call it a blue ocean?

The total addressable market for single-use plastic straws alone is 2 billion USD worldwide and including other disposable cutlery, the market size is 15 billion USD annually. There are growing awareness and regulatory constraints against plastic use every day and this phenomenon creates a new market opportunity, especially for countries like India where raw material and labour availability is abundant. Lots of new products are coming to the market to fill this gap each day and our study showed Leafy straws are the most cost-effective organic plastic alternative and possess better quality than other competing alternatives including paper. The initial feedback and positive comments from our potential customers made us believe we made the right move.

Q.3 Coming to the story of Evlogia Eco Care, could you please walk us through the journey of the genesis of Evlogia Eco Care, the challenges that you had to face in this journey, and how the business model of Evlogia Eco Care was developed?

Evlogia was registered as a company in August 2018 and we applied for patents under the DPIIT startups fast track patent processing scheme and got the product and process patent awarded in a record time of 7 months from application filing. We started production in Jan 2019 with 3 employees, now our Bangalore unit alone employs 15 women staff all from local neighborhoods and poor backgrounds. We export Leafy straws to the US, Canada, Australia, UK, Germany, and UAE, the list continues to grow. Leafy straws have received very good customer appreciation and demand. Before Covid, we were receiving orders 15 times more than our production capacity. Evlogia has won many prestigious awards including Climate Launchpad social impact startup of the year award globally, CII top manufacturing startup of the year by CII startupreneurs, Big Leap 2020 winner of national business plan contest, and Circular Innovation Jam Global winner 2020 by The Incubation Network. We are facing cash flow issues as our revenue has significantly dropped due to the closure of business across the world due to the pandemic for the past 10 months. We are managing by following lean operations and effectively utilizing this time to prepare for future demand. Another issue we see especially in the Indian market is the cost of our product. The plastic ban remains in paper and cheap quality paper straws and cutlery imported from China are available much cheaper and convincing customers is a challenge. But I must say it is changing very fast and customers are becoming more and more aware and supportive of eco-friendly solutions.

Q.4 How would you compare the Leafy straw to a plastic/paper straw? I’m asking this because we, the city people, have become so accustomed to using plastic straws even if we know that these are very harmful to our planet.

With increasing awareness against plastic use, many governments started imposing bans on single-use plastic items including plastic drinking straws. Right now the closest plastic straw alternative is paper straw which is not 100% eco-friendly as it has petroleum wax coating and besides trees are being cut to make paper. The Paper straw market grew 5000% in the last year and is dominated by Chinese manufacturers. Other organic alternatives like Hay, Bamboo, and Edible straws are too costly and cannot be produced in huge volumes due to raw material limitations. On the other hand, our country faces severe air pollution due to the burning of agricultural and other plant waste generated in tons every day. Evlogia provides a solution in the form of Leafy Straws that are 100% organic drinking straws made out of fallen dried palm leaves. Evlogia has patented solutions for regular and tetra-pack forms or Leafy straws. By converting the fallen dried palm leaves waste to useful Leafy straws, Evlogia also helps reduce air pollution and also generates employment for rural women.

Q.5 Could you walk us through the research and development behind developing the Leafy organic single use drinking straw? And could you please tell us about the type of machinery used at Evlogia Eco Care for making the Leafy straw hygienic, safe and non- perishable at room temperature?

We are very particular about using fallen leaves, plucking live green leaves is a strict no-no. Once the leaves are collected, midribs are removed and made as brooms. The rest of the leaves are segregated width-wise and cleaned thoroughly after which they undergo high pressure and temperature steam sterilization. These leaves are then rolled spirally into tube form to make straws out of them. We process the leaves in their natural form without any chemical alteration, leaves being natural there will be variations in width, length, thickness, etc which have to be accommodated in the machinery design. We developed a set of machinery for rolling, drying, buffing, size cutting, and packing. All these machines were developed from scratch by our team in the past 2 years and they are all run with women staff.

Why I used the term “blue ocean” at the beginning was also because of another reason i.e. lack of aggressive competition. While the market for the Leafy straw is a blue ocean, there still might be some sharks out there i.e. competitors. So, what would you say is the USP of Evlogia Eco Care that makes it stand apart from existing players operating in that similar space, and what do you do to stay one step ahead of the competition? Or is competition something that bothers you at all?

‘It’s just a straw’, one might say, but hold on! Have you given it a thought? Ever wondered how the use of one straw, by one human, for one year straight, itself can yield such a huge pile of unwanted stash? With its highly scalable Leafy straws that are made out of plant waste, Evlogia aims to significantly contribute to eliminating single-use plastic menace while being a successful and profitable business enterprise across the global export of products made in India.

Leafy straws are the most cost-effective organic plastic alternative and possess better quality than other competing alternatives including paper. Leafy can stay intact in fluids for long hours without getting soggy and can be made in custom sizes. Leafy is the only plastic alternative that can function as tetra-pack straw with piercing strength. With the patented and simple production process and abundant zero cost raw material, we are at a good advantage to make it a very scalable and profitable business enterprise with worldwide export.

Q.6 Evlogia Eco Care is not only creating a unique product line that is environment friendly but it is also helping women who are coming from financially weaker backgrounds.  Could you please talk about how you have impacted the lives of these women that constitute your workforce? And how has helping them impacted you and your team, not just entrepreneurs but as human beings as well?

Evlogia started with a philosophy that we will involve the women workforce as much as possible in the production and we have stood by it by employing 15 women staff in our first production unit. This social angle further developed in recent months as we started engaging PWD (persons with disabilities) in our raw material collection process. We are now associated with an NGO that engages 5 PWD persons who collect, segregate and supply raw materials to us from their location in rural Tamilnadu.

Q.7 Proper training and capacity building of the workforce is crucial for any successful enterprise especially when it comes to operating machinery and taking proper safety/hygiene measures. What kind of training and capacity building activities are conducted at Evlogia Eco Care for the workforce? And is there any other type of support that is also provided to the women employees?

Our machinery is developed with 70% automation and 30% manual interventions keeping in mind high employability, productivity, and ease of operations by the women workforce. We generally provide one-month training in which most women will be able to become well versed in operating. We also arrange counselling and other motivational sessions for our women staff in association with other institutions.

Q.8 What are your thoughts on the importance of branding and marketing products for micro-entrepreneurs? How would you describe the branding and marketing of the Leafy straws? Also, could you please talk about designing and packaging the product?

Branding is very important for B2C and to stand out in the competition. Leafy products are mostly sold to b2b and being patent granted products we do not worry about competition. We work with distributors across the world and case to case we do dual branding with custom labels. Social media is the biggest and most cost-effective way of marketing today and any entrepreneur should look into maximizing the usage for all digital marketing in the current scenario. Post covid we have seen requirements for individual packaging or single straw in pouches and we have developed a machine that can do this. We generally pack the straws in boxes of 100 and then in master cartons for 5000 straws each. Both these boxes are branded with our logo and product details.

Q.9 Like branding and marketing, there is another aspect that is key to the foundationof many start-ups, which is the aspect of funding. Whether it is through personal savings, crowdfunding, angel investors, venture capitalists, or bank loans, raising funds is not only important but probably one of the toughest aspects that an entrepreneur has to work towards. Could you please walk us through the journey of the fundraising activities done for Evlogia Eco Care and the learnings along the way that aspiring entrepreneurs can benefit from?

We started with a bootstrapping round from friends and family. Soon we were supported by the Karnataka state government via the Elevate Idea-to-PoC grant scheme which was instrumental in moving from ideation to product stage. This was soon followed by seed investment from Hindustan Petroleum (HPCL) and the investment helps us with our automation efforts and production scale-up. We are looking for further funds to scale up production with multiple production units so that the demand generated can be supplied. Also, we are keen on doing active R&D in developing eco-friendlier solutions from agro-waste. We get very supportive feedback from our prospective investors especially those who are in the impact and clean tech sector. Since we want our next round to be bigger we are working on increasing revenues and we are very hopeful in succeeding this exercise once the hospitality and F&B industry returns to complete normalcy post-Covid.

Q.10 An important component of marketing is the distribution of products. Could you please tell us about the distribution model of Evlogia Eco Care? Are you selling your products over E-Commerce platforms and if yes, then how has been your experience with online marketing? Would you consider it an effective medium for aspiring entrepreneurs?

In India, we are available through e-commerce platforms including Amazon for b2c customers and it is going very well. Our major part of sales is in the B2B export market with very very high volumes. We have got all regulatory certifications to export to most countries of the world and we also have appointed resellers in the USA, UK, Australia, Malaysia, and Canada. Our products are sent via sea freight to these countries and each of these distributors has their website and marketing channels in their respective countries through which they perform the sales.

Q.11 Through the course of building Evlogia Eco Care from the ground up and even during your previous entrepreneurial ventures, you must have come across innovations in the food processing domain that are helping micro food processing enterprises. Could you please share some stories of such innovations and stories that you have been a part of?

I have witnessed myself there have been plenty of opportunities for India to scale up in the food processing domain and do much more export than what we do now. One example is packaged tender coconut water and coconut-related processed food products. Countries like Thailand that have 10% of India’s coconut cultivation export much more than us because of scientific methodology right from harvesting and most importantly advanced post-processing facilities and government support. This is now changing fast for good as Indian companies and government off late started making decent development to bridge this gap.

Q.12 The next question has two parts. From your experience, how would you describe the scope for an aspiring entrepreneur in the micro food processing sector in today’s time when it comes to i) Coconut based products and ii) making waste to wealth products?

Both these sectors have tremendous potential for Indian entrepreneurs. India is now one of the most coconut cultivation geographies in the world and fortunately, countries like China cannot compete in this. With vegan and other similar concepts catching up in the food consumption patent, coconut-based products demand to increase day by day. For waste to wealth products we mainly need two things, raw material mostly from agricultural activities and cheap labour to turn them into wealth. Both these are available in India and it is high time we make most of them.

Q.13 A strong team is what ultimately decides the fate of a start-up. Your team has a talented set of individuals. Could you please tell us about how they have helped to build Evlogia Eco Care?

There are plenty of young people now wanting to venture into non-traditional and upcoming sectors like Agri tech, clean energy, waste management, etc. and this change in mentality is a welcome move. We had 3 interns (Leo, Joshy, and David) who came for a 6 months’ internship as part of their final year Mechanical Engineering degree. These 3 got attracted by our product/potential and became part of our core team leaving lucrative campus offers they received from corporate companies. Social media connects and associating with platforms related to our sector and startups is the best way to attract talent.

Q.14 What is your vision with Evlogia Eco Care and how far would you say you have come in fulfilling that vision?

Evlogia eco care's single focus is replacing plastic and developing the rural economy with global export of Make-in-India products made circularly. Our contribution to society is 3 fold - waste-to-wealth, rural women empowerment, and reducing plastic pollution.

Q.15 What are your future plans for Evlogia Eco Care? Are you looking forward to expanding into other markets and developing new products?

We are soon introducing other plastic alternatives like single-use cutlery including organic lids for coffee cups, wild grass straws, and take away container boxes. We are in line to grow 10 times by mid-2021 as single-use cutlery demand and plastic ban are in favour of our growth. We aim to employ a minimum of 150 women from poor rural India in two years by starting multiple production units.

Q.16 What are some of the learnings/insights from the corporate world that you have incorporated in your ongoing entrepreneurial venture because the companies that you worked for in the past were not operating in the food processing domain?

The corporate world and entrepreneurial world are very different, especially from the resource angle. Generally, corporates have well-trained, experienced resources for every specific part of the business whereas an entrepreneur should be able to ace in every aspect of his/her business. Two important things I learned in my corporate experience that are now very useful are presentation skills to put together our point of view to any kind of audience and delegation skills.

Q.17 What would be your advice to aspiring entrepreneurs who are thinking of taking that leap of faith into the entrepreneurial world?

There are also a lot of frequent highs and lows in an entrepreneur’s life. So passion and perseverance are two major factors that will make a successful entrepreneur. Stay lean during your formative years and have a clear-cut plan on your margins and profits to make a sustainable venture.

Q.18 Sir, any concluding remarks?

Our measure of success is the return that we can provide to all our stakeholders and the expected return varies for every stakeholder. Increasing revenue with a healthy top line is the return we want for our investors, a safe and happy workplace coupled with job security is what we aim to provide to our women staff, reducing the maximum amount of plastic and exporting more and more make in India products worldwide is my measure of success.

About Evlogia Eco Care Pvt. Ltd.

Evlogia Eco Care is a Bangalore based startup, founded in 2018, comes up with eco-friendly and healthy innovations meant for daily use by common people. The company believes that the earth is not just our home but a boon granted to humans by creation. Evlogia’s goal is to provide the world with alternatives to plastic. They believe in working towards a sustainable world. They have already come up with their first product - Leafy organic single use drinking straws. These straws are patented, 100 % biodegradable, and organic straws are made from fallen down dried palm leaves.

(Content shared by Evlogia Eco Care Pvt. Ltd.)