Mahindra Rise | 29 November 2012
In late 1997 Himanshu Sheth found himself waiting anxiously for the first batch of 100 wagons using Coir Atlas products – cost-effective and eco-friendly replacements for wooden scantlings and pallets – to arrive with their cargo safely unscathed on the other side of India.
Sheth had begun conceptualizing Coir Atlas earlier in the year, as a response to a call-to-action from India’s industry giant Tata Steel for a ‘green’ alternative to conventional timber packaging products – like wood separators or runners. The issue was (and remains) simple; wooden logs are used to support the steel during transportation, which directly contributes to the destruction of over 400,000 trees every year in India and beyond.
A marketing consultant with a Bachelor’s Degree in Science from Ranchi University, Sheth knew he had sufficient technical know-how and passion, to respond to Tata’s challenge.
Sheth began experimenting with several synthetic options that simulated wooden logs, only to wonder if perhaps bamboo was a more innovative and sustainable approach. After significant research Sheth learned that in addition to its strength, because bamboo grows up to six times faster than trees, it can be grown in higher concentrations with limited effects of deforestation when harvested.
With this breakthrough, Sheth combined the tensile strength of bamboo with coir – a natural fibre extracted from the husk of coconuts – and launched the first field test to identify if 100 wagons could cross India’s unpredictable landscape to deliver undamaged product. And arrive safely, they did – all 100 in fact.
His field test exceeded expectations. However, the coir, which was being sourced from Kerala, was expensive and financially unsustainable. Ever the responsive entrepreneur, Sheth modified the product by replacing coir with jute – a long, soft, shiny vegetable fibre that can be spun into coarse, strong threads. The jute was not only locally available but also reduced time and labor costs.
Over the next several years Sheth worked to further test and refine his breakthrough product. In 2002 Coir Atlas was further validated with 400 + wagon loads successfully arriving at their destination, in 2005 Kharagpur and Indian Value Engineering Society tested and certified the strength of the product and later in the year he was granted a patent for his innovation.
But more than just preserving India’s forests, Sheth saw the chance to integrate employment opportunities for rural women into his business model as Coir Atlas grew. He partnered with the All Indian Women’s Conference (AIWC) to employ women from the low-income rural areas to work on a daily basis supporting field tests – compensating them between Rs. 200 – Rs. 300 per day. This was three times what the women would normally make – the additional income, Sheth noted, would often be funnelled into school for their children.
Recognizing the continued potential of the business, Sheth wants Coir Atlas to expand across India, so the environmentally-friendly nature of his products can have a positive impact both on tropical forests and also the livelihoods of rural women. He is aiming to build business opportunities with most of India’s steel companies, so he can transition the country to a fully sustainable model of transportation.
Yet, despite the environmental and social benefits Sheth had integrated – by design – into the Coir Atlas business model, he requires the financial resources and capacity building opportunities to scale up his model and generate a more widespread impact.
This is why Sheth has recently joined Ennovent’s Global Network. While the directory provides him with access to investors, he is also able to collaborate with like-minded individuals and experts in technology and marketing to move his venture forward.
Now instead of looking back on how far Coir Atlas has come since that first testing day in 1997, Sheth is focused on the future. “The added visibility may help me persuade more and more companies to adopt the Coir Atlas product and make it an industry norm – saving several thousands of trees every year,” highlights Sheth.
The original article appeared on Mahindra Rise