Pune-based Kashmiri social entrepreneur creates valuable fashion accessories from single-use plastic waste

A Kashmiri young man has carved a niche for himself by overcoming odds. Pune-based social entrepreneur Nandan Bhat creates valuable fashion accessories from single-use ‘plastic waste’. His company EcoKaari’s motto is ‘humanising fashion’.

EcoKaari produces bags, home décor items, table mats, cushion covers, laptop bags, etc.

Nandan’s passion for traditional handicraft of India and sustainable living has led to a successful venture, through which he has achieved multiple goals not only for his company but for society as well. He has been reaping rich dividends by following ‘Vocal about Local’. Charka (the swindle) and handloom are his companies two eco-friendly resources, which reduce carbon footprint.

The pandemic posed a challenge to his enterprise when he had to close it. However, he bounced back and put his company on a growth path again with determination. He is confident that EcoKaari’s turnover would be over Rs 1 crore by the end this financial year.

In 2013, he was a consultant for a CSR project of a company. He came in contact with some NGOs, where he got this idea of launching a social enterprise. “Initially, we were apprehensive whether people would buy our products because they are made from ‘waste’. Then we had to teach weaving to people. Traditionally, there are only two communities in Maharashtra which sustain on weaving. We did not know whether persons belonging to other communities would be willing to do this job.”

Nandan and his colleagues chose a couple of villages around Hinjawadi (the IT hub) near the Pavana dam in Pune after conducting a survey. They used to give villagers ready-to-weave waste plastic. They installed handloom units at villagers’ homes.

Narrating the initial hiccups his enterprise faced, Nandan said, “Trouble began after a couple of months when other villagers started raising objections against the villagers who were weaving, saying that how could they handle ‘garbage’ as the job is done by lower castes. Things went to such an extent that members belonging to these weavers’ communities started boycotting them and refused to have matrimonial alliances with them or their family members.” That project failed.

This did not deter him from going ahead. Nandan set up handlooms on his company premises and hired weavers, where nobody would object to doing any legitimate work. “Our operations are being conducted smoothly since then,” he said.

Initially, for a couple of years, he did not have to invest a lot of capital as only a handful of weavers were employed. His earlier unit closed down following the outbreak of Covid-19 last year. In September last, he started afresh with only a couple of employees. Today, his staff strength has grown to 21.

Explaining market dynamics, he said, “Since markets have opened and sales have gone up. We are getting orders from corporate organisations for gifting items. We hire artisans in proportion to our orders and sales. Usually, NGOs teach artisans to make certain products and then artisans or workers themselves have to sell them. We are not an NGO, we are a private limited company, where we develop the market so that we have a fair idea as to how many artisans we would require to complete those orders. We train only those many people.”

Giving details about sales, the entrepreneur said, “We make totes of export quality. We sell around 70 percent of our products in India while 30 percent are exported. Our fashion accessories go to mostly big cities such as Mumbai, Delhi, Kolkata, Chennai and other metros such as Hyderabad, Bangalore, Pune, Chandigarh, etc. Our buyers are aware about what and how we are manufacturing because prices are a bit on the higher side.”

Nandan is happy about his company doing well. “Since we began anew in September 2020, we have sold products worth Rs 15 lakhs. Sales are picking. It is estimated that we would do business of around Rs 1-1.5 crore.”

EcoKaari’s role in protecting the environment is praiseworthy. “We are upcycling 10,000-15,000 waste plastic bags per month, which is close to a tonne of waste plastic. Around 2,000-3,000 fashion accessories are manufactured from this material every month,” says Nandan.

Moreover, already used products, which their customers are likely to throw away, are taken back. “We appeal to our customers to give back those used products. We give them rebates on new purchases by taking back old ones, which are recycled. There is an NGO in Pune, Rudra, which takes our waste plastic generated during manufacturing and old used items, from which it produces fuel.”

EcoKaari’s sales channels include exports, corporates. They supply products for corporate gifting during Diwali or New Year. Awareness is growing and companies want to do something for a social cause. Orders are placed on the Eco-Kaari website. It participates in handicraft events. Small boutiques and stores selling small organic or eco-friendly products also buy fashion accessories.

Nandan advises aspiring entrepreneurs not to get stuck in the planning phase. “Start working on your plans. Only then you would learn. There is no particular age that you can start on your own. In fact, those who have already spent several years in a profession bring with them experience, which may be useful in a new enterprise. Businesses which have environment protection as part of their ethics or products will do better henceforth. This awareness is growing even more after the pandemic.”

He says that young people who start early on their own have a better chance to become entrepreneurs. “Youths who step out of their homes have a broader purview. They learn to be self-sufficient. They learn how to manage expenses in their meagre monthly budget. This experience is good when you start any new business. You have to learn to run it with limited resources. An entrepreneur may have to sweep the shop floor or serve tea to employees. You learn all these things. Never be afraid of trying out new things,” he says.