From muck to riches

A growing group of green entrepreneurs is turning elephant dung into a valuable resource. Anna da Costa went to meet an Indian businessman making paper – and profits – from animal waste.

“Do you have something to wrap around your face?” asked Vijendra Singh Shekawat, my host for the afternoon, as he waited beside a sleek black Enfield that shone in the glaring sunlight. Rajasthani summer was in full force and anyone would be wise to protect themselves against it.

We set off, weaving our way past buses, cars, rickshaws and camels, over flyovers and along muddy lanes towards the outskirts of the city of Jaipur. The air blew hot like a hair dryer and was filled with a fine dust, coating us with a gritty layer. Forty minutes later, we reached a small plot of land close to the airport. Through a small doorway was a private compound where Shekawat and his six-member family live in a two-room house. In their concrete yard, they have set up a factory to manufacture paper. But not just any paper — paper made from elephant dung.

In recent years, elephant dung has grown in popularity as a niche substrate for paper that avoids the felling of trees. It is now used in a variety of countries, including Sri Lanka, Thailand, South Africa and India. Here in Delhi, I had seen the beautiful notebooks, bags and picture frames produced by Haathi Chaap (“Prints of the Elephant”) being sold to eco-conscious and artistic consumers as boutique items. But I wanted to find out where they had come from.

Shekawat didn’t always have a sleek black Enfield. Along with his younger brother Ram, and sisters Babita and Manju, he started life in poverty in Sarai, a small village 155 kilometres outside of Jaipur. His family struggled to bring in enough money throughout his childhood. “We were in very poor financial condition and there were insufficient work opportunities in the village,” he told me. “My father was a labourer in Jaipur but his income was not enough to survive. Some days I couldn’t find five rupees [11 US cents] for the bus.”

Taking a gamble in 1999, the family moved to the city to look for better work opportunities. Shekawat was 19 at the time and, as he finished his schooling, he took a part-time job at a local handmade-paper mill. Over the next two years, he perfected his skills. He managed to procure a small paper machine with the help of a friend and started manufacturing his own samples, first with cotton waste, then silk.

On a trip to Delhi to look for a distributor for his handicrafts, he met Mahima Mehra, a native of Jaipur who was working with organic food packaging at the time and liked his work. The story goes that one day, as Mehra and Shekawat made their way through town to a shrine, a bus ran over some dried elephant dung, throwing it up into Shekawat’s face. As he rubbed his eyes to see what had got into them, the pair noticed the fibrous nature of the dung, spotting its potential for use in paper making.

Shekawat laughed as he recalled the reaction of his family to bringing animal dung into the house. “They thought I had lost it,” he said. But after convincing his relatives of the connection between elephant dung and worship of the Hindu god Ganesh and 18 months of experimentation, he and Mehra had perfected an eco-friendly product: elephant-dung paper. Not only was it environmentally sound and based on a free material from Jaipur’s significantly sized elephant herd, but the paper could be sold at a premium.

The dung is collected from stables around Jaipur, where there are five particular elephants the Shekawats like to use. It is then washed thoroughly in a tank of water. The waste water from this stage is rich with nutrients, and goes to local farmers for use as an effective natural fertiliser. Meanwhile, the remaining fibre is cooked with salt for four to five hours to soften and clean it further and then washed in hydrogen peroxide to ensure that no bacteria remain. The dung is then dried in the sun and any non-usable fibre removed by hand. All of these steps take place at Shekawat’s house.

Once cleaned, softened and sorted, the elephant dung is mixed with water again and put in a beating machine for four hours, where it is pounded into a soft, sludgy pulp. Small quantities of this pulp are then placed into a vat of water, where they are thoroughly mixed before being carefully lifted out on a square wire mesh. Ram and Babita illustrated this expertly as we stood together in their small warehouse, sheets of finished brown paper drying over our heads. Later, the sheets are compressed to make them smooth enough to write on before being sent off to Mehra, in Delhi, to be turned into her beautiful array of products.

Today, it is not just elephant-dung paper that has made it onto the market. Mehra is experimenting with camel muck, while Scandinavians are well versed in the production of elk-dung paper and an Australian company is experimenting with kangaroo waste. Haathi Chaap, which Mehra believes was India’s first company to work with this kind of paper, is now supplying 200 stores in the country as well as wholesalers around the world.

Shekawat would not be described as rich by many standards. His family still lives in a two-room house in a poor area of Jaipur, earning 25,000 rupees (US$564) a month. But this innovative adventure has led to an almost 17-fold jump in salary from his days at the paper mill and the creation of a new family business. “We are OK now,” he said, smiling.

More broadly, Shekawat’s story is one of an increasing number around India inspiring hope in the potential for waste-chain innovation and the creation of green jobs. Waste and recycling are predicted to become two of the next economic-boom areas for India, and entrepreneurs like Mehra and Shekawat are the trailblazers to watch.

But doesn’t the paper smell? The answer is no. The thorough washing and cooking of the dung means the process is highly sanitised. I stuck my hand in the elephant-dung vat at Shekawat’s home and all that came out was a sweet-smelling, browny-gold fibre. As the sustainability manager of one of India’s largest hotel chains, ITC, once said: “Waste is simply wealth in the wrong place”.

Anna da Costa is based in New Delhi.

Homepage image by Sally London