Sunny Rajopadhyaya thinks he has lived through American rapper will.i.am’s famous quote: “Waste is not waste until we waste it.”
Following these words, Rajopadhyaya has been converting elephant dung, which is waste in general, into usable paper products. His startup ‘Ecoorb Ventures’ has been an example of sustainable waste management and entrepreneurship.
Rajopadhyaya, 29, who currently works as the CEO of this company today, shares it all began in 2015 during his frequent visits to Chitwan. “During one of my visits to Sauraha, we went to the Elephant Breeding Centre in Chitwan National Park to see the baby elephants. There, I happened to see heaps of elephant dung lying around,” he says.
That scene made him curious and he asked the staff what they would do with these dungs. In response, the staff told him that the centre would produce around 20 tons of dung every day, and most of the dung would be burned. “But still, managing elephant dung was a huge problem there,” shares Rajopadhyaya.
In the meantime, Rajopadhyaya came across a video produced by Nas Daily, in which elephant dung is used to make papers and paper products in Sri Lanka. Then, he vowed to do a similar business in Nepal also.
Rajopadhyaya was working in an IT firm at that time. “I felt like why I am doing this (9-5 job) and wanted to do something on my own that would give me inner satisfaction,” he says, “But, I did not have money for that.”
On the other hand, he was unwilling to beg for money from his parents, but he did not have any option either. Hence, he just waited for possible investors while further concretising his idea.
In 2018, he landed a grant of Rs 50,000 from Nepal Communitere, an innovation supporting organisation supporting Nepali startups. It proved crucial for executing his plan.
Hence, Rajopadhyaya thought to give it a try and started developing some prototypes. He experimented with different models of converting waste into paper.
It was when he thought of the current name for his enterprise. “I coined this name, combining two words: ‘eco’ that stands for ‘ecological’ and ‘orb’ meaning objects having a spherical structure, which also stands for the earth.”
In the meantime, his friend Jonej Shakya also expressed his interest in the work and invested Rs 50,000 in the business, which Rajpapadhyaya says solidified his thought.
“After prototyping, the Nepal Communitere took us under their umbrella around 2018. They supported us with incubation plans for nine months in the following year,” Rajopadhyaya informs, “It was only in 2020 that we registered our startup as a company.”
Rajopadhyaya then went to Sauraha again and began studying as well as working.
While researching deeper, he came to know about Green Society Nepal, which was producing similar papers from elephant dungs. He then contacted the society and went there. He says, “The papers they were producing were not up to the mark, meaning the usability of the paper was very less.” This inspired him to focus on quality production.
“At that time, I thought only the lokta paper, the handmade Nepali paper, would have quality and it is a quality paper. But later, I realised we could improve the quality if we worked together to make our products worthy for the market.”
Then, Green Society also became a part of the Ecoorb Ventures.
The enterprise, since its early days, focused on producing paper boxes and paper bags for packaging purposes from the early days. Later, it added other items to its production list such as visiting cards, photo frames, and notebooks, among others.
According to Rajopadhyaya, it takes around five to seven days to convert elephant dung into pulp or usable fibre. This is done in Sauraha by a team of four local women and the pulp is brought to Kathmandu and processed further to make the paper and, therefore, the final products.
“We started with bringing 10-15 kg of pulp every month, but last month we used about 800 kgs,” says Rajopadhyaya, “And, in the last fiscal year before the Covid-19 pandemic, we recorded transactions of around 3 million rupees.”
Major clients of this startup are other startups like Nuga, and Naturo Earth. Meanwhile, the company has been exporting its products to countries like Costa Rica, France, and China.
Rajopadhyaya adds, “Word of mouth has helped attract the clients to Ecoorb Ventures.” This experience has given him a lot of hopes for the further growth of the business.
“But, sometimes, I feel we are in a death zone now. We are in a stage of scaling up, for which we need a lot of money,” he says, “But, that is the most challenging part.”
Because most of the startups fail in this stage, he says investors are not easily convinced. But, he claims he is working on attracting funds.
Meanwhile, Ecoorb Ventures is planning to launch two new types of eco-friendly products from hemp and banana stems within the next two to three months. Rajopadhyaya hopes his startup will be able to produce such newer items using different alternatives and produce varieties that could meet the need for different purposes.