An Entrepreneur St...

Photo: Banana harvest into Silk FiberBanana harvest into Silk Fiber

An Entrepreneur Story - Turning Waste from Banana Harvests into Silk Fiber for the Textile Industry

The Banana Fiber Separator Machine - one of the innovative ventures incubated at TREC-STEP, India - uses the agriculture waste of banana harvests to produce silk grade fiber for the local handicrafts and textile industries. What was previously regarded as agricultural waste and a nuisance for farmers is now a raw material for good quality silk grade fiber yarn. TREC-STEP gives us an insight to this innovative venture.

The entrepreneur behind this venture, Mr. Murugan, a mechanical engineer by training, designed and produced the machine to extract valuable parts of the remaining pseudostem of banana harvests into a commercially viable product. Vegetarian silk fabric has very good market potential both in India and abroad.

Mr. Bindu, TREC-STEP's Deputy Manager, worked with Mr. Murugan to provide the following insights to this agribusiness success story.

Is this the first company that you have started, and what drove you towards it?

Yes, this is the first company that Mr. Murugan, the innovator behind the Banana Fiber Separator Machine started. He was born and raised in Tuticorin, a major trading port in Tamilnadu, and is a mechanical engineer by education. He was originally attracted by the shiny texture of the banana fiber that was left over after harvesting and began to wonder whether a refined form of this could replace the rich silk fabric his mother often used. With many trials and errors with his loyal resourceful mechanic, he developed a crude machine for extracting banana fiber and ended up with products such as silk yarn and silk zari - new and unrivaled products on the market. It took nearly 12 years of study and research, and 40 trials with various extraction machine models, before Mr. Murugan and his colleague managed to produce a successful prototype and arrive at the current version of the Banana Fiber Separator Machine.

How did you finance your start-up operations and how long did it/will it take for the company to become self-sustainable?
Once we learned about potential innovation fund support from the Department of Scientific and Industrial Research (DSIR) and the TREC-STEP Incubation System, we applied for this innovation fund and came into contact with TREC-STEP. TREC-STEP has supported us in getting a research grant from the DSIR, Government of India, and with this financial support we were able to produce an efficient silk grade banana fiber extraction machine. We also successfully applied for the Indian Institute of Technology Madras, L-Ramp Innovation Award and have been able to use that to further develop our business.  

In the mean time, the Chief Minister of Tamilnadu, Mr. M. Karunanidhi, heard about the IIT-Madras L-Ramp Innovation Award and our innovative product, and summoned us for a discussion. The Chief Minister was very keen and enquired many details about the product, since it could bring great benefits to the State's ailing weaving community. As a result, the Chief Minister also summoned the Chief of the Department of Handlooms, which in turn requested a sample piece of the banana silk fabric for testing. A detailed feasibility report is now being produced for the Chief Minister. 

In the mean time, the venture is flooded with orders from various machine manufacturers. TREC-STEP and the entrepreneurs are in the process of finalizing the business model for the venture and a suitable business and IPR strategy. Various opportunities and challenges of value chain entry at different stages such as machine supply, yarn supply and silk fabric supply are being explored. Furthermore, a suitable model of engagement with farmers and funding agencies is also under work.

What are your major products and services and how are they unique in your business sector? What is your competition?

Our product is the Micro Processor enabled Banana Fiber Separator Machine, which would extract silk grade quality banana fibers. The venture has no major competitors in India for this unique product.

How did you first launch your product/services? The product was discussed and showcased in many innovation camps and meetings organized by TREC-STEP and DSIR. Formally, the product was first launched by a renowned scientist, Dr. A. P. J. Abdul Kalam, in Chennai. We also won competitions organized by the National Research Centre for Banana and the Indian Institute of Technology Madras, and participated in several exhibitions.

How do you measure the success of the company?

The venture is looking for funding options to design an automated Banana Fiber Separator Machine and for scaling up the present operations to better cater to the growing demand for the machine. In addition to the home market, the Japanese market has shown great interest for this silk yarn and is ready to purchase and market the product as an eco-friendly organic fabric, biding with the new fashion trend. Furthermore, Mr. Murugan is working with a research assistant of the National Institute of Fashion Technology, as well as the Tirupur Export Association, to develop a sweater garment for export purposes. 

Who are your clients and how many do you have? How are you focusing on expanding your user community?

There are numerous potential clients for organic banana fabrics. The realization of this client potential depends on the market penetration strategy. Presently we are facing huge export potential and orders are available on hand.

What was the biggest challenge in starting an innovative business in your country and how did you overcome that?

Funding support was the most significant challenge for getting our venture started. With research grant support from the Department of Scientific and Industrial Research, Government of India, the venture was able to develop a successful banana fiber separator machine. The venture is looking for funding options for scaling up its operations and catering to the present demand for the machine. It is expected that both DSIR and the National Agricultural Bank for Rural Development may come together to provide support to support the venture in market entry. TREC-STEP is working on this along with the innovator.

How have you benefited from business incubation? (E.g. infrastructure, knowledge development, networking with other businesses/traders, other)

We learned about TREC-STEP's services through advertisements in local print media. TREC-STEP set up counseling sessions to discuss our innovative plans and offered product development facilities for manufacturing the machine. The innovator greatly benefited from TREC-STEP's one-week intensive training: the "New Venture Management Program" supported by infoDev. This has helped him to understand the basics of the business and linked him to TREC/STEP's resource team. TREC-STEP furthermore put the entrepreneur in contact with a mentor at the National Institute of Technology, Tiruchirappalli, to provide technology assistance. 

We are currently exploring various strategic business growth options with TREC-STEP, such as machine manufacture and supply, integrated silk zaree manufacturing, and silk woven fabric manufacturing.  The company receives virtual incubation support from TREC-STEP and had not taken up any physical incubation space at TREC-STEP. Mr. Murugan was given the opportunity to attend the "New Venture Management Program" organized by TREC-STEP, under the support of the infoDev program housed at The World Bank.  TREC-STEP has provided verious and significant opportunities for the company to interact and present before government officials as well as national and international experts on entrepreneurship and start-up development. 

With hindsight, are there any particular lessons or messages that you wish you would have known when you started up your company, and which you would like to share with fellow entrepreneurs? 
Earlier support from a business incubator like TREC-STEP would have helped us save a lot of time and would have made the process of innovation more productive and efficient. Scale-up funds should be available for taking the innovation to the market place more freely.

Do you feel that you had the necessary advisory and support network when you started your company?

After coming in contact with the TREC-STEP Business Incubator, the company was exposed to necessary support and guidance in several areas including technology development, funding support, training, IPR assistance and business planning. 

What is your message to supporters (financial or otherwise) and what is your message to the users of your product?

Unless financial innovation to help this type of socially relevant technology is developed, it will be difficult to create more value for everyone. Innovators should bootstrap with incubators for creating value and wealth more efficiently. More incubators should be promoted to help innovators and a freeflow Innovation Fund is a must. Special development organizations to support innovation can unearth latent innovation potential in the society and create a Innovation Economy.

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