Crazy Coconut – Possibility of circular economy using coconut shells.

This is the story of a 25-year old engineer from Tirunelvi who has clawed his way to entrepreneurship through self-learning. From painstakingly handcrafting products such as cups and spoons from coconut shells, Arjun has today gained the expertise to use machines, SOPs and unit economics to fulfil orders from around the world. Coming from a family of carpenters, crafting and design came easily to Arjun Kannabiran and helped him kickstart the process of starting something of his own. Open to learning, he has internalised lessons shared by various people he’s met and jobs that he actively chose to work in. Right from college his struggle has been to apply concepts to real life, to his life, to make an actual difference. 

Arjun Kannabiran, founder of Crazy Coconut
Arjun Kannabiran, founder of Crazy Coconut

Concepts to practical applications

Arjun cites the example of using the energy generated by cycling to run a washing machine. “I watched this video of a lady doing this and it made so much sense to me! Concepts in isolation don’t excite me. When I tried to link a piezo electric generator to an actual application in college it failed badly and that’s when I realised I had a lot of work to do to realise my dream of inventing something of use!” Naturally when he heard about the IIT Research Park and the National Institute of Design where they are taught the application of concepts in detail, his thirst to learn more grew. But what really pushed him towards innovation was the movie Pad Man based on Padmashree Arunachalam Muruganantham, the social entrepreneur who made low cost sanitary pads for women in rural India.

Packed and ready for despatch
Packed and ready for despatch

First brush with sustainability

His experience with a bioplastics in the final year of college led Arjun to his first sustainability project – the making of bioplastic bags. “By mixing cassava starch with glycerine and corn starch we was able to create a sheet that could be shaped into a bag and sealed using plastic scotch. But trying to sell this was a challenge as people were not ready to spend more on this alternative when they could get a plastic bag for about a way less,” he says. Arun then decided to join a plastic company in Chennai to learn more about injection moulding. But the Covid lockdowns drove him back to his hometown. That’s when he saw his uncle working with coconut shells to make products. Having always been good at art, Arjun started designing few products and realised there was a market for it. By Aug 2021, Arjun had refined the products and with the help of his photographer friend, took pix to promote them.

Overcoming struggles to become proficient
Overcoming struggles to become proficient

A steep learning curve

Unfortunately, his uncle who was handcrafting products for him, went back to being a goldsmith and Arjun was left without a way to manufacture them. So he borrowed money to buy his first machine worth Rs.5000. After many tearful struggles to learn how to use it, Arjun slowly got a hang of it with help from friends who were working in other industries. To make ends meet Arjun joined a college as a lecturer. He used the evenings to work on his coconut shell products. He reached out to his network abroad and his products received a good response. But since his production capacity was low he couldn’t manage the orders.

The support of friends
The support of friends

Critical turning point

The turning point in Arjun’s search came when StartUp India visited Tirunelveli in September 2022. Participating in their event, Arjun was exposed to the cornerstones of entrepreneurship. He absorbed the Business Model Canvas with insights into value proposition, customer segmentation, unit economics and market value. “I realised I was working like a trader with no idea of marketing!” he observes. Attending the BrandLab conducted in November 2022, he learnt about solving problem statements and pitching to investors. Meanwhile he was also associated with Zoho, the company co-founded by Padmashri Sridhar Vembu which moved out software and product development functions from urban centres into rural India. “Though I couldn’t get a job with Zoho, I learnt how to design and assemble parts to achieve agility in business through my friends working there,” he admits.

Startup TN
Startup TN

Through the family’s lens

While Arjun was finding his footing as an entrepreneur, his family watched with mixed feelings. His brother who had finished his Masters in Biotechnology supported him when he could. His dad was a quiet force. “If I wanted 100 coconuts to be husked, he would do it without a word and keep going. When I started off he gifted me a plaque with Thirukural saying, தெய்வத்தான் ஆகா தெனினும் முயற்சிதன்மெய்வருத்தக் கூலி தரும் which means ‘If you completely immerse and exert yourself in a task, you’ll reap rewards beyond what even Gods can give’. To this day that’s been my source of strength.” It was a different story with his mother though, who supplements the family income by rolling tobacco leaves as beedis. She was anxious for her son and wanted to see him in a secure job that would also attract a good marriage alliance. His continuous struggle even for small things caused her great anguish. It took the visit of the then District Collector, Vishnu Venugopal Iyer to her son’s unit to make her see value in what he was doing.

Training women from neighbouring villages
Training women from neighbouring villages

Turning trash to treasure

A well-wisher from the word go, this Government officer expanded Arjun’s vision to include the cause of bidi workers in the region.  Just like his mother, many women in the area roll bidis for a living and of course the nature of work takes its toll. They earn a paltry Rs.200 for 1200 beedis packed into bundles of 25 each. The women end up with back pain, damaged nails and other health issues. “Vishnu sir’s idea was to engage these women in manufacturing Crazy Coconut products so that they could earn without a cost to their health. He connected me to the PMEGP (Prime Minister’s Employment Generation Program) to secure government aid. Unfortunately he was transferred to new position and things didn’t move forward. But he had ignited a spark in me. I was now keen to help this community while keeping in mind sustainability and the key act of turning ‘trash to treasure’.

Products from Crazy Coconut
Products from Crazy Coconut

The power of social entrepreneurship

When Arjun came to understand his intervention could bring about a change in society, it was a new Aha! moment. He started training women from self help groups in making coconut shell products. He also started spreading awareness among children on the importance of the environment so they could push the message through to their parents. Through the efforts of well wishers corporate orders started trickling in. “We’ve come a long way in just a year,” he shares. There are consumers who are looking for products that support sustainability. And we’re constantly designing new products to meet their needs while exploring more creative options like working with banana fibre. 

Spreading awareness.
Spreading awareness.

From an eager youth with a passion to invent practical products, to moving on to starting his own venture to now taking on the responsibility of social entrepreneurship championing a circular economy, Arjun K has come a long way through sheer grit, perseverance and a commitment to make a difference. After many years of denial, his mother is finally proud to share with family and friends that her son is heading a business called Crazy Coconut. “I couldn’t ask for more!” admits this brave young man as he plans for the future of his venture.

Sensitising children to the environment
Sensitising children to the environment

For more on Crazy Coconut 

Insta: crazycoconut.india

Linkedin: Arjun Kannabiran

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GOTN is a platform that aims to bring together entrepreneurs from around Tamil Nadu to form a creative community by offering inspiration, information and facilitating connects.