As environmental awareness rises, Leaf Plus is playing its part in contributing towards a plastic-free future.
--BY MUNA SUNUWAR
The recent years have seen an explosion in the use of leaf plates to serve food by street vendors around Kathmandu. These plates, which are generally made out of Sal leaves, are preferred over the plastic ones due to the fact that they are disposable, biodegradable and are well perceived by Nepalis. Three Golden Gate International College alumni and co-founders at Leaf Plus, Swaviman Acharya, Kobit Singh Baniya, Bidhan Pokhrel thought of improvising on the existing leaf plates when they noticed that such tradition leaf plates had leaking problem. They started some research and found that areca leaf could be used to make such plates. After four months of research, Leaf Plus, a socio-economic enterprise, was registered in 2017. Hari Dahal, a co-founder of Leaf Plus, joined the team assuring the trio that the business could be commercially viable.
Biodegradable Areca Leaf Plates
The disposable areca leaf plates are biodegradable, chemical free, leakage proof and microwavable. The company has created leaf collection centres where the leaves that fall off the trees are collected. The leaves are sun-dried by farmers before collection centre representatives buy it from them. The leaves are heat pressed to obtain the desired shapes. There are thirteen varieties of Leaf Plus products including spoons, bowls and plates of different sizes. The products are priced at a minimum of Rs 2.2 for a spoon and a maximum of Rs 16 for a partition plate. “Each plate is unique for the texture of the leaves is different, and it takes 60 to 90 days for the plates to turn into compost,” says CEO and Co-founder Swaviman Acharya, adding that the quality of the products being lightweight but durable, rigid, water resistant, fungus proof is better than any other disposable plate available in the market. The product line is expected to play a vital role in pollution reduction and environmental preservation.
Then and Now
Though the co-founders were engaged in different fields, they had one similar concept- that they had to work for social impact. As the co-founders put it, the manufacturing capacity of Leaf Plus was minimal; it was developed as a research unit. However, the response they got during the testing phase from the market was positive. After launching the products, their focus was inclined towards expansion rather than marketing. “If the demand was not met, there was a risk of losing credibility,” informs Acharya.
According to Acharya, the new plant of Leaf Plus in Jhapa has good production capacity to meet the market demand. To bring out harmony in the production and demand, the company needed to expand. Now, the company is confident that it can actively maintain the supply chain. The company’s monthly production capacity was 15,000 to 20,000 pieces during the initial phase of the company’s inception. Now, it has upgraded to 200,000 to 250,000 pieces per month.
As the manufacturing capacity of the company has increased along with the increase in consumer interest regarding the products, the co-founders say they have decided to make more easily accessible to the masses . The products were made available at One Stop Mart, a grocery and departmental store in April and are scheduled to be available in Bhat-Bhateni Supermarket and Departmental Store sometime in May. Before this, the company was providing a B2B service and used to make deliveries in response to individual orders. Apart from individual orders from people, the company has served clients like Soaltee Crowne Plaza, American Mission Association, Baan Thai, Flat Iron, Lakpa’s, Prime Minister’s Residence and US Ambassador’s Residence.
When they first started, there were concerns regarding the identification of the client base in Nepal because of which the business was export-oriented. Their acuity changed after the response they got from the local market. “Although, our factory is not located in a convenient place, people visit our office to buy our products. We realised that our products had potential in the local market,” Acharya explains.
The company employs 19 people. Acharya thinks this is the best time to establish a startup business in Nepal because of the current political stability. “We received financial support from family and friends which is an indication that the scene is headed towards an improved social mindset. The availability of equity investors, venture capitalists, is a plus point for startups to flourish,” he further adds.
The company also participated in the Enterprise Business Acceleration Programme, the flagship accelerator programme of One to Watch (OTW) – a fund management company, in 2019. He says this allowed them to interact with like-minded people, industrialists and global mentors and benefitted in terms of strategic business management along with creating an essential list of networks.
As a labour intensive industry, competing with plastic is not easy given its price. Nevertheless, with the emerging issue of reducing single-use plastics in Nepal, the co-founders are confident that Leaf Plus can be the alternative to plastic plates in Nepal. “We have signed a contract with an Australian company, BuyEcoGreen and sent the first lot of our products. We are negotiating with other companies from different countries,” he adds. The company hopes to be a leader in the domestic and international market in a few years. Similarly, Kobit states, products like these have strong future prospects as people are becoming aware of the need to promote and use environment-friendly products.
In the last fiscal year, the annual turnover of the company was Rs 800,000. The company claims that it has entered the sales booming period and aims at securing Rs 25 million in annual revenues in the coming year.
Having studied engineering but dipping their hands in a completely different sector, the trio were perceived differently in the beginning. People found it difficult to believe that an engineer would go around collecting leaves. This scepticism made it hard for the co-founders to start the work in a comfortable manner. “They thought either we were fakes or had an ulterior motive and were trying to manipulate them,” remembers Acharya. Now, the farmers collect the leaves and bring them to leaf collection centres. They have felt the change in the mindset over the years as the locals now appreciate and actively participate in the venture.
Being a manufacturing business, the company faced some problems in capital management as it started becoming capital intensive. Baniya says, “You can either stop the production or continue with the capital injection. We were engaged in other fields as professionals; we contributed capital to the company whenever needed.”
Legal ambiguities are also standing in the way of the company’s growth. The company is seeking certification that states that its products are consumption safe. “We approached the Nepal Bureau of Standards and Metrology but they said there was no reference on the basis of which our products could be certified,” Acharya says, adding, “Despite being competent in every aspect, as a land-locked country, the shipping cost is relatively expensive and it’s difficult to compete with the price of similar Indian products.”
The company intends to increase the production capacity by three to four times creating more entrepreneurs and job opportunities. The company is on the lookout for other biodegradables from raw materials and the co-founders are ready to support anyone who wants to start production. “We want to establish our products as a notable category in the list of exports from Nepal,” says Acharya.