MBA graduate Mehul Shroff turns banana stems and waste into natural fibres to make different kinds of eco-friendly handicraft, earning lakhs per month and helping several farmers save money.
A major banana-growing district, Burhanpur in Madhya Pradesh has over 16,000 hectares of land dedicated solely to the cultivation of the fruit. The farmers here usually clear the stems and leaves of the banana trees from their fields before planting new crops, for which they hire extra labour. A large amount of banana waste is then dumped in pits or somewhere else, left to rot.
But one person to realise the potential of this supposed waste was Mehul Shroff, an MBA graduate from the same district. He decided to turn it into a viable business.
“From my childhood, I have seen the farmers in our area dumping the banana waste after the harvest. I, too, wasn’t aware of the huge potential it had as agricultural waste until I did some research. So I wanted to build a sustainable business and help farmers,” Mehul tells The Better India.
Started in 2018, Mehul’s sustainable startup makes banana fibre out of stems, which can be turned into useful products like handicrafts, textiles and paper. Today, he sells around three to five tonnes of banana fibre every month, earning a turnover of around Rs 30 lakh annually.
More than just waste
After completing his MBA in 2016, Mehul joined his family’s jewellery business. But he always nurtured a dream of starting a business of his own.
In an effort to fulfil this dream, he began researching to find a viable and socially responsible business idea. “That’s when I met the District Magistrate of Burhanpur. When I expressed my idea to start a unique business, he suggested that I start by thinking about what I can do in my own district. This, in fact, made me search for ideas within my region,” says the 20-year-old.
Mehul also attended a workshop organised by the district administration and Navsari Agricultural University in Burhanpur. “In the workshop, they talked about how fibres can be made from the banana stem and how it can be used in the textile, paper and handicraft industries,” he says, adding that he spent around two years on his research and finally came up with a solid business plan.
“Through my research, I understood that banana stems, though normally considered agri-waste, are rich in cellulose and natural fibre content. Therefore, they make for the perfect input to produce fibres that can be turned into fabrics,” he explains.
Before starting his business, Mehul made sure that he understood all the aspects of the trade, including the risks, challenges, and scope of the market. He also attended training from the ICAR-National Research Center for Banana, Tiruchirappalli, which is at the forefront of promoting banana fibre and its applications. He also interacted with the farmers of Burhanpur and shared his idea with them, garnering their support.
Mehul started his sustainable business, christened Shroff Industries, in 2018. He set up a processing unit in Burhanpur and started sourcing banana stems across the district from farmers.
Intricate works of art
Mehul says one of the main challenges he faced was finding a market for banana fibre.
“Our country is the largest producer of bananas in the world, but we are yet to explore the maximum potential of the crop. There is a need to spread awareness in this regard,” he says.
“Even while marketing, it was a bit difficult to convince those in the textile industry about the scope of banana fibre. They were hesitant to try something different and natural. So, I gave him the fibres at minimum cost and even below the margin. Once they found the result to be positive, they were convinced.”
He eventually moved on to explore the scope of making handicrafts from these fibres. He gave them out to women in the rural regions of Burhanpur to make different handicraft items.
“It was yet another challenge to train the artisans in making handicrafts, as they were not familiar with the raw material. At first, I used to help them with it, but now I have appointed a trainer who guides them in making banana fibre-based handicrafts,” says Mehul.
“Currently, we have around 40 women who make handicrafts for us. We also have 10 employees in our processing unit,” he adds.
These handicrafts include baskets, planters, ropes, bags, brooms for worship, yoga mats, worship mats, wall clocks, and so on. These products are priced between Rs 100 and Rs 2,000, depending on the size and work involved.
In 2020, the business hit a low when with the advent of the pandemic. “The sales went down and it was one of the most difficult times. Now that the situation has improved, we are on the path of recovery,” he says, adding that currently, they produce around three to five tonnes of fibres per month.
Other than handicrafts, fibres are a perfect alternative for making paper. “But the process of making paper out of the banana fibre is very labour-intensive. Therefore, we now outsource the processing work by providing the raw materials,” he adds.
Mehul says he has also introduced an organic liquid nutrient using banana waste as a base. “This was tested by Navsari Agricultural University in Burhanpur. The product contains not only essential plant nutrients but also growth regulators and waste-decomposing organisms. It will help improve soil fertility, thereby increasing productivity,” he elaborates.
A helping hand to banana farmers
Mehul’s initiative is a blessing to many banana farmers in the region, he says.
“When a farmer informs me when they need to clear the field post-harvest, we send our procurement team to the field. They cut and clear the agri-waste from the fields and transport it to our processing unit. This helps them save the cost of the labour involved in cutting the stems and clearing the field,” says Mehul, adding that currently, he sources stems regularly from around 50-100 farmers in the region.
A single banana stem gives around 200 grams of fibre.
Bhaulal Kushwaha, a banana farmer in Burhanpur, has been collaborating with Mehul for the past few years. He says clearing up his 3 hectares of the field after harvest was an expensive affair until Mehul came along.
“After the harvest, I had to hire labourers to cut the stems and clear up the field. They used to charge around Rs 3 per stem and it cost me around Rs 10,000 to Rs 12,000 in every harvest cycle. But now with Mehul’s initiative, I have been able to save more than I used to,” he elaborates.
Mehul currently works on a B2B model of marketing for his business. “Most of our sales happen through exhibitions. There is also demand for products through word of mouth,” he says.
He notes, “Banana fibre is an agri-waste and it doesn’t need to be cultivated for the purpose of procuring fibres, like cotton. It is a sustainable alternative to many energy-intensive oil-based fibres. It is also biodegradable and hence eco-friendly. Therefore, it is essential to spread awareness in this regard and more people should explore this business opportunity, thereby building a market for such sustainable products.”
For more information and enquiries, you can contact Mehul at email@example.com
Edited by Divya Sethu; Photo credits: Mehul Shroff