Gross! This would be your first reaction at the sight of elephant poop. And now think of paper being made using it. At a time when everyone is exploring the green path, Mahima Mehra started her venture Haathi Chaap in 2003, which makes handmade paper by using elephant dung. Haathi Chaap literally means ‘Prints of Elephant’. It’s a brand of stationery products and handicrafts made of elephant dung. The venture was founded in Delhi, but at its initial stage the products were exported to Germany for the first four years, and then launched in India in 2007.
The idea was born when Mahima Mehra, who used to buy handmade paper from Jaipur, and her companion, Vijendra Shekhawat, a paper manufacture, went to Amber Fort, in Jaipur. Since the shrine sits on a hilltop, pilgrims are usually ferried on elephant backs. Instead of taking an elephant ride, they walked the steep stretch dotted with smelly, dried elephant dung. But that walk made them realise that the fibrous dung could be used to make paper.
“I was working in the paper recycling sector. I discovered that recycled paper could be made with elephant poo. It excited me, and it is a good raw material. Once we began experimenting and researching about elephant poo paper, then we discovered that this had already been done by others. The basic idea was to work with any kind of fiber which could be converted to paper; Haathi Chaap was born when we figured out that elephant poo worked well to make recycled paper,” says Mahima Mehra, founder of Haathi Chaap.
Despite their experience in paper making, they had to experiment for more than a year to produce their first paper sheet. But their most challenging task was to convince the Rajput villagers to help them in collecting elephant dung. But somehow Mehra was able to convince them by associating elephants with Lord Ganesha.“For start, cohering with local people and getting them to work at a pace you need them to is difficult. They don’t understand city pace, and to satisfy your customer base you need quick production. A big festival comes around, they take a leave to celebrate but you still need to meet weekly deadlines. You need to find a common understanding and, sometimes, you need to push people to work,” informs Mehra.
Haathi Chaap worked as a litmus test among rural folks; it generates huge employment opportunity for them. Apart from employment opportunity, she claims, there is an added advantage as manufacturing of this paper is environment friendly, and the effluence from boiling the dung acts as good fertiliser. Due to this reason, paper making is usually undertaken near cultivated land.
Elephants usually have a bad digestive system, due to it their dung is highly fibrous, which indirectly results in good quality paper. Another most interesting fact about the paper made out of elephant dung is that its color depends on what the mammal eats. The paper is darker during June to September, the time when they eat jowar and bajra, in place of sugarcane throughout the rest of the year.
“We tried feeding them with beetroot and turmeric to get naturally coloured paper, but it did not work. We use only natural or vegetable dyes to dye the paper,” explains Mehra.
Today, Haathi Chaap not only manufactures paper, it also manufactures various range of products like bags, photo frames, albums, stationery, cards and toys, and kinck-knacks.
Although the products are new in the Indian market, but the response of the customers “has been wonderful, and surprising enough more so in the Indian markets than the foreign markets,” says a proud Mehra. She claims that the paper is sold at 40 outlets within the country and even exported. The company, which was started with a loan of Rs 15,000, now has a turnover of over Rs 1 crore.
Now the company’s main focus is on catering to kids. It has started by promoting Pithoo game in villages with the requirements made with its paper. The game requires a tennis ball and set of seven stones which can be stacked up to form a small tower. The aim is to be able to break the tower and then rebuild it before getting hit by one of the opponents. “We want everybody to use these products. Now we want to make them available easily, and we’ve started selling them online at itokri.com and shopo.in. We plan to expand to 5 online stores soon,” says Mehra.