Saturday, June 25, 2011

Haathi Chaap: Mahima Mehra

Take one look at products from Haathi Chaap and you will never look at dung the same way again.

Delhi-based entrepreneur Mahima Mehra and her brainchild have made many an Indian shudder, smirk and express puzzlement over her creations. What she makes is a range of products from elephant dung - notebooks, photo albums, frames, bags, gift tags, stationery and tea coasters - all priced between Rs 10 and Rs 350.

Mehra and her business partner Vijendra Shekhawat, a handmade paper producer from Jaipur, first started testing elephant dung about five years ago, after stumbling upon hordes of fibrous dung near Jaipur’s Amber Fort.

For four years, they exported their paper to Germany. A year ago, they launched it in India. From that day, Mehra recounts, people have not stopped discussing and purchasing her products.

And the key factor for the high curiosity over such a product remains the fact that while Sri Lanka, Thailand and Germany have been making paper from animal dung for years, it is a comparatively new trend in India. The Haati Chaap business model is based on rural manufacturing. Mehra and Shekhawat work with nomadic tribes in Rajasthan that own buffaloes and camels. They are given material, machines and money to make Haati Chaap products.

A machine set up for handmade paper costs around Rs 10-12 lakh, but with dung costs as low as Rs 2 per kg or less, material costs are minimal. The dung is washed close to cultivated land, since the residue acts as fertiliser. Sometimes, the duo barters wheat and rice for dung from different stables.

Mehra is not resting on her laurels. She has since tested camel dung, rotten vegetables and vegetable waste to produce paper. “The results of these tests have not been too great, but with time, we will become better. We are even working with a couple of wildlife sanctuaries in the country towards this project, where we will train them on producing paper,” she says.

Ask Mehra about threat from other players entering her domain and she candidly says, “There are many handmade paper makers in the Indian market and if some of them start using elephant dung, it will be a step forward for the industry. But it will surely into our market.”

Haathi Chaap, which was started with a loan of Rs 15,000, now has a turnover of over Rs 1 crore. But Mehra refuses to go retail, preferring instead to work with non-governmental organisations (NGOs) and sanctuaries.

The company is now focusing on catering especially to kids, with the rural game Pithoo - in which players throw a ball or stone at a number of piled up stones to bring the tower down - as well as a slew of other games and toys made of dung. Mehra says this would also be a good marketing exercise. Her products already have an edge - they are too much of a novelty to be ignored.


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