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Assam, a state known for its rich biodiversity, is home to two endangered species — the Asian elephant and the one-horned rhino. When Mahesh Bora, a mining engineer with Coal India, was wondering what to do after retirement, he decided to set up a factory to make animal poo paper. Not only would it be a challenge, it would also help to prevent the poaching of elephants and rhinos in the state in addition to ensuring employment for villagers. Elrhino, as his paper-making unit is called, uses rhino and elephant dung as raw material.
“The diet of elephants is all vegetarian,” says Bora. “So the excrement is essentially raw cellulose, the basic ingredient for making paper.” The dung is mixed with waste products like hosiery rags to make paper. Bora has a post-graduate diploma in ecology and says he has always been interested in conservation.
“The viability of our business depends mainly on access to dung in a large quantities, and cotton rags at affordable rates,” Bora explains. His supply network for rhino dung includes villagers who live outside the reserve forests, among other sources. Elephant dung, on the other hand, is more widely and easily available, given the many wild and domestic elephants in the region.
But sourcing cotton rags can be a challenge. “We have been getting high-quality cotton from north India, but the high cost of cotton, combined with cartage, makes the raw material very expensive. We are exploring options in eastern India, or better still, in the Northeast. But with the proliferation of synthetic materials from across the borders, cotton growing and weaving is fast disappearing in this region. We hope that by creating demand, we will be able to successfully motivate small farmers to revive their cotton farms,” Bora says.
The Elrhino factory was set up in December 2011; operations began by April 2012. Bora is yet to recover his investment in the enterprise, but he has already achieved breakeven in operations. “We need to sell around 750 kilogram of paper a month to break even on operating costs,” he informs.
At present, his factory has 15 employees, more than half of them women. Says Bora, “Located in a rural setting, we think it is important to have equal opportunity for women. In addition, we provide indirect livelihood to over 150 families — dung-suppliers, rope-makers, bamboo-cutters, etc. In the next 12 months, we intend to train over a hundred youth in the craft, and equip them with micro-entrepreneurial skills. This, we believe, will stimulate an entire eco-system of enterprise and craft at the grassroots level.”
In future, Bora plans to focus on diversification and cost reduction which, he feels, will also support his overall sustainability goals. “In keeping with our development goals, we are constantly exploring locally-sourced raw materials, ingredients and techniques,” he says. Elrhino has also diversified into paper products, which require more investment but also give higher margins. “Paper products like office stationery, lamp shades and lifestyle goods as well as paper embellished with Muga and Eri silk have brought us great returns. We have also developed organic paper, which is being used by food makers for packaging,” he adds.
At present, the paper is sold from the Elrhino factory in Assam, and through Bora’s Mumbai-based daughter and partner, Nisha. In future, adds Bora, Elrhino intends to work with institutional clients, especially companies and exporters. “On the retail front, we plan to roll out a few stores in urban centres later this year. But our product is so niche, we will need to be selective about where we sell and why. Online retailing will also be a key part of our strategy,” he concludes.