Two months ago, Kailash Thate, a young man with 10 acres of farmland close to the Ujjani dam, set up an agro-processing unit to extract fibres from banana stems that is used to manufacture paper.
Thate had visited an agro-business convention where participants were encouraged to take up banana stem processing. Soon after he had set up his own unit, he found more than 400 banana growers, who were interested in the technology, visiting his farm to learn the basics. Now, at least 60 of these farmers have decided to set up similar units on their own farmlands.
The driving force behind the project is a Tamil Nadu-based paper manufacturing firm, Eco Green Unit, and a Pune-based NGO Chaitanya Mandal. Eco Green is buying the fibre directly from farmers for its two paper making units in Pondicherry and Chennai. The NGO is coordinating between the farm and the manufacturing unit.
“Three weeks ago, I sent the first consignment of one tonne banana fibre to Tamil Nadu. As per the contract, I will be paid Rs 40 per kg,” said Thate.
The NGO organises seminars across the state to make farmers aware of the economic benefits of processing banana stems — an agriculture waste. The farmers are very enthusiastic about this new venture, said Dileep Kulkarni of Chaitanya Mandal.
“Earlier the farmers had to pay Rs 3,000 per acre to get their fields cleared. Now, if they decide to supply banana stem to the processing units they would not only save on that amount but instead they would be paid well for it,” said Kulkarni.
According to Kulkarni, Maharashtra has over 75,000 hectares of banana plantation and they are hoping to tap these for the banana paper industry. “We are looking to set up one unit for every 100 acres of banana plantation. Sixty farmers from across the state have already paid the initial registration amount of Rs 5,000 to set up a unit. The total estimated cost of one unit would be about Rs 75,000,” said Kulkarni. A study by Eco Green has revealed that the quality of banana stem from the state, compared to those grown in Tamil Nadu or Gujarat, is far superior and is an ideal raw material for manufacturing paper.
“We have examined the fibre from the stems grown in Solapur, Satara, Sangli, Aurangabad, and Jalgaon. It is of far superior quality and has more brightness and shine when compared to the fibres from Tamil Nadu and Gujarat. We hope to have around 150 growers in this state processing stems for us. We want about 25 to 30 tonnes of fibre from Maharashtra,” S K Babu, project director, Eco Green.
Thate is confident his business would grow manifold but he would also have to pay growers from where he gets stems for free now. “It cost me Rs 20,000 to set up the unit but I have nothing to lose as the first consignment that I have already sent would get me Rs 40,000,” he said while supervising the unit.
Heaps of banana stems was piled up near at the unit and workers were seen slicing the banana stems into thin strands and then put through a machine that separate the adhesive and water content from it. The fibre is then cleaned and dried before being bundled of to the unit that makes notepads, stationery items, lampshades, and handicraft.
Eco Green exports its products to the US, Sweden, Norway, Holland and Germany. “This paper has huge export potential as people in Western countries are very keen on buying eco-friendly products. We need 50 to 60 tonnes of fibre each month to meet our export commitments. But, at present we are getting not more than 12 to 13 tonnes a month,” said Babu. He, however, said it would take time before it could be sold in Indian markets. “We are surviving because of exports. The production cost for banana paper is twice that of the paper we use in India, and is therefore less suitable for the domestic market.”