Published: 06th July 2021
Meet Maria Kuriakose, whose start-up Thenga fashions coconut shells into the perfect gift
Thenga was set up in 2020 when Maria Kuriakose discovered that she could reuse Kerala's favourite fruit while employing local artisans who are experts in the industry
A Keralite to the very core, Maria Kuriakose found her inspiration in the shell of a coconut or thenga, as it is called in the state. The Thrissur native who always had a flair for business completed her graduation in Economics from Mumbai before a stint in Spain where she earned her MBA. After a few years in an MNC as a leadership consultant, it dawned on her that it was time to do something more impactful.
“I wanted to come back to Kerala and work on an agricultural product,” says the 26-year-old, “That's how I came back in 2020 and founded Thenga. In Mumbai, I tried to live a sustainable lifestyle. I always tried to avoid creating plastic waste. And I have always been someone who wanted to start something of my own.”
She continues, “I have always felt very patriotic about Kerala and the agricultural products that we have. And coconut is a major crop in the state, we’re one of the major producers in the country. And from my observation, I saw that coconut oil was a major product but we weren’t really utilising any other part of it. In South East Asian countries, every part of the coconut is utilised. From the husk, shell, water and the flesh. So I was trying to see what waste product I could add value to.”
Now, Maria wanted to focus on the coconut because it is what many have dubbed the tree of life. Initially, she considered using coconut water, which is often wasted by vendors but she decided against it since it would have required a large-scale manufacturing plant. Then she saw the saw how the shells of coconuts were burnt as a waste product. While a very small per cent of them were converted and used as activated charcoal, a lot of it went to waste.
So she began her experiments when she was still working part-time in Mumbai in 2019. Less than a year later, she decided to move back home to devote herself to the project. “In Kerala, we did have a tradition of reusing the shells for cutlery, but it was lost when we modernised. I thought I could revive the traditional product and give it a new style.”
With her father’s help, she created a few sample coconut bowls, engraved them with the names of eco-friendly businesses and sent them around. In no time, she got her first order of 100 bowls for two businesses. In those first few days, Maria and her mother personally went through the shells, found the perfectly sized ones of 300-500 ml with a flat surface that would be ideal for the purpose it was meant to serve.
BOWLED AWAY: The products encourage healthy food habits
“It’s not an easy process,” she says. “You have to go through a heap of shells to find the first one. This first set we made was very personal and we got a great response for their quality and sturdiness. And it helped that the product itself inspired people to eat healthy. Who wants to eat junk food in the shell of a coconut? A salad or a smoothie just feels better!”
As time went on, Maria decided to spread the work around. She met a coconut shell artisan, one of many who had their artwork displayed at state exhibitions. Usually, people don’t glance twice at these coconut masterpieces but having worked with it for years, they know each crook and bump on a coconut like the back of their hand. She integrated 12 artisans into the manufacturing process in their first unit in Thrissur. Now, they have 5 manufacturing units across the state.
Thenga has introduced new products like candles made of coconut gelatine, teacups and serving spoons. The perfect sustainable gift that she is now hoping to introduce are toys and containers. She is confident that parents would choose a coconut-based toy over plastic any day thanks to the safety of the material itself.