Exploiting Invaders

By Shanuka Kadupitiyage | Published: 2:00 AM Jul 11 2020
Echo Exploiting Invaders

By Shanuka Kadupitiyage

The midday heat shone bright; making the sparkling blue waters of Hikkaduwa seem even more inviting as we drove past the seashore. Situated close to the main town, we drove down a small byroad and reached our destination; the main office of Madhura Eco Craft.

The brain behind the operation is Madhura Nanayakkara, whom we were able to meet. With hard work, perseverance and ingenuity, he was able to raise his startup business from being a mere idea to a key player in the local market today. 

Madhura Eco Craft has been around since the year 2000. The company mainly gained a name for themselves by focusing on a niche market, catering to both tourists and corporate events. True to its name, the company is based on a green concept that Madhura hopes to spread among the people. 

He walked us into the front office. Pencils, notebooks and bags manufactured with recycled material decorated the room. Behind the scenes, the sound of people at work was audible.

“The environment is being severely affected,” he started when telling us of his story. “I have always been passionate about preserving the biodiversity of the nation. I started this business long before being eco-friendly was trendy.” 

 “The heat these days is unbearable and affecting us all. We are only now seeing the effects of what we have been doing over many years.” Madhura hopes that what he is doing now will help pass on a new idea to the masses. “More than a business, I want to sell a concept to people and encourage them to be more conscious of the impact that humans have on nature.”  

Humble beginnings

Madhura Eco Craft started as a paper recycling business which Madhura built up from the ground up.  He learnt the process of manufacturing recycled paper through an educational officer he was acquainted with who had travelled to India and learnt the process himself. “I started by using recycled paper and learnt the whole process. Money was short so I had to build the necessary machinery myself. They still work, even to this day.”

After succeeding in the process of recycling old paper into usable new ones, Madhura decided he needed to branch out. “Subsequent to a series of trial and error, I was able to create ways to incorporate using plant material into my paper products.” With that in mind, Madhura was able to think of an innovative way to address one of the biggest menaces to Sri Lankan ecosystems; invasive species.

“I thought of the destruction that invasive plant species have in the nation today. They harm the environment and cannot be naturally controlled because they are foreign plant species and have no natural predators. I wanted to make a way to use these plants which otherwise would have no profitable use for our country.”

Destroying alien invaders

Some of the invasive plants in Sri Lanka that are in Madhura’s crosshairs are Guinea grass (Megathyrsus maximus), water hyacinth (Eichhornia crassipes), and giant salvinia (Salvinia molesta). Through his research and experimentation, he now is able to harvest these plants and use them to create various paper products.

Guinea grass grows on land and is usually farmed for feeding livestock due to its fast growth rate and relatively low maintenance. However, it has become a weed and has spread all over the local countryside, overrunning the other plant life of Sri Lanka. 

Considered one of the most costly and damaging species in the world, the water hyacinth is a heavily destructible plant in any ecosystem. It is particularly hard to manage due to its fast reproductive speeds that double its biomass around every two weeks. It floats above the water and can completely cover the water surface, cutting off valuable sunlight for the freshwater creatures below and also helps provide breeding areas for mosquitoes. 

The giant salvinia is comparable to the water hyacinth and usually grows in stagnant water. It is capable of causing destruction to freshwater just as the water hyacinth does and causes much harm to the ecosystem. Originally brought for research purposes, it quickly became a malignant species that invaded a large part of freshwater ecosystems.

Madhura has been able to take these invasive plant species and use them as raw material in manufacturing his various paper products. He was enthusiastic in showing us the variety he had in hand. From notebooks, journals to notecards and envelopes, he has been able to place economic value to these plant species which are an environmental menace. 

More green ideas

Another invasive plant species that he has taken into good use is the acacia tree. Using the wood of harvested acacia trees, he has been able to make items such as key tags, candles and small items of jewellery.  Pencils made from throwaway twigs of cinnamon or tea, are available for purchase as well. He even was able to make a pencil with the body made from old newspapers.

The opportunity of having a commercially viable solution to make use of these plant species and removing them out of local ecosystems is really important for the protection of Sri Lanka’s biodiversity. In addition to that, they now have learnt how to use banana tree trunks and corn plants to make paper as well.

Madhura is very conscious as well about the environmental effect made during the manufacturing process. “We avoid the use of any harmful substances in all of our products, with most of the work done manually” said Madhura as he spoke about the procedures of manufacturing.

They have also come with an innovative new product which is called ‘plantable paper’. Madhura, through his experimentation and research has discovered how to infuse live seeds into a sheet of paper, which will take root and sprout when thrown away. At the moment, chilli pepper seeds sourced from the Sri Lankan Department of Agriculture are used for the paper.

Challenges overcome

Through 20 years of development, innovation and creativity, Madhura Eco Craft was able to make creative solutions to stay green and address various environmental concerns while making profit as well. However, things were not all smooth sailing. “The hardest moment I’ve faced was first, the devastating Tsunami that we faced on 26 December 2004. It was a huge setback and it wasn’t easy recovering. After which, the Easter Sunday bombings on 21 April 2019 was the biggest hurdle we had to face.”

Happily, Madhura persevered and adapted with the time which led him to his recent success. Currently he is highly sought after by many companies and individuals to provide office stationary and invitation cards. His products are also in good demand from tourists who look to take various souvenirs back home in remembrance of Sri Lanka. He also works with companies in Japan and the Czech Republic who are interested in his work as well.

“Trying for other markets so far has been challenging,” he said when we asked if he tried to expand his horizons within the local market. “Even if we increase production, there has to be a larger trend towards eco friendly products. We currently deliver our products which can be ordered online through our facebook page.”

A green hope

Madhura hopes that a green minded nation would use his concepts as inspiration and come up with new, green ideas that can contribute not only within the island, but internationally as well.

He also works to promote reforestation and to help the nation’s carbon footprint in the long run. With a larger scaled factory in Thelijjawilla, they are now working on using some of their profits and most of the land in their facility to reforest and provide new trees for the future of the nation. “Reducing the destruction of forests is not enough, we must look ahead and build new forests for the future,” he noted with a smile as he spoke of it.

As awareness of the importance of being environmentally conscious spreads among the public, we can expect more green innovators like Madhura to come up with more green concepts which hopefully will broaden the scale and make products which are found in Madhura Eco Craft more mainstream. This is Madhura’s hope for the future as well.

In closing, he shared with us his hopes for what may come because of his efforts.

“I hope that each and every one of us will become a little more environmentally aware one step at a time. We only have a short amount of time before the effects on the environment become irreversible. I hope that we can have a future where everyone is more responsible with their plastic usage, is more actively concerned about our natural forests and ecosystems and protects them. If using recycled products becomes the new trend and we all take part in it, we can hope for something good in our communities and our future.” 

(Pix by Dumindu Wanigasekara)

By Shanuka Kadupitiyage | Published: 2:00 AM Jul 11 2020

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