Madurai Eco Tourism & Arola Bamboo – A Call for Sustainability from the Nilgiris

Presenting two enterprises that draw attention to Nilgiri’s rich ecosystem – Madurai Eco Tourism focusing on biodiversity & native culture and Arola Bamboo promoting sustainability. Both ventures were founded by the indomitable Suthagar Selvaraj from Madurai.

Suthagar Selvaraj, founder with daughter
Suthagar Selvaraj, founder with daughter

Story of a curious mind

It was an especially hot day in the Nilgiris forest when Suthagar Selvaraj, tired after a long trek, decided to rest awhile,. As he dropped off to sleep he wondered at the energy of the elephant calf playing at a distance with its mother. Amazed to see the calf still at play with the same enthusiasm after a hour he was curious to know more. He decided to test its droppings and discovered something that would change the course of his life. “The bamboo that elephants consume is rich in nutrition and fibre, resulting in stronger bones and overall good health, says Suthagar. He went on to make the most from this revelation by manufacturing bamboo tea and marketing it as a nutritional supplement. And that’s how his new enterprise, Arola Bamboo, was born. 

Wide product range
Wide product range

Learning the hard way

Suthagar’s entrepreneurial streak was obvious much before this venture. On failing his tenth standard exam, he ran away from home in Madurai fearing the wrath of his father. He struggled in Chennai for over 7 years doing menial jobs including selling sundal by the beach. When an opportunity came his way to be a part of housecleaning staff in Satyam Computers he took it. That led him to a meeting with Sridhar Lakshmanan, for whom he gathered bamboo. Inspired by a vision to start something of his own, he moved out after a couple of years and started an ecotourism company – Madurai Eco Tourism. The new enterprise did well and attracted customers from all over the world who were keen on experiencing village life in India. Suthagar went along with them providing interesting information on the ecosystem and facilitated interactions with tribal communities like the Paniyas, Irulas and Todas to create awareness. His close network in the forests of the western ghats in Tamil Nadu and neighboring Karnataka served him well in his new start up. 

Getting busy with bamboo

Once he understood how bamboo could help people, especially women, to improve their bone strength, Suthagar went all out with the support of Startup Tamil Nadu. “Sivarajah Ramanathan sir, the Chief Executive Officer of Startup Tamil Nadu and Innovation Mission, was a great source of motivation for me. He was the one who appreciated the work I did in ecotourism and encouraged me to start up a business in bamboo products. The team urged me to have the company registered, file for GST and patents and prepare a comprehensive pitch deck. Thanks to this work I was able to secure a seed funding of Rs.10 lakhs with which I could buy machines to make the products,” says Suthagar. Soon, through trial and error, Arola Bamboo had a whole host of products on its shelves from cups to toothbrushes, furniture to phone stands. Given the goodness of the plant, he ventured to source bamboo rice too. “The health benefits of bamboo have been certified by IIM Ahmedabad lab. Its nutritional value is also common knowledge now and that information is verifiable online too,” he adds. 

Looking for problems to solve

Given his habit of taking the road less travelled, it’s little wonder that Suthagar enjoys facing challenges. “I like to be innovative and enjoy solving problems, ”admits Suthagar. “Our furniture for example does not have nails and nuts but is held together through an interlocking system we’ve designed with our own effort, ” he says.  His approach to ecotourism has also been interesting with programs that help tourists appreciate local traditions and village living. “Visitors are keen to experience simple things like learning to wear a sari, making idlis and designing kolams. We make this experience possible and also help out marginalized communities by involving them, ” he says. By extending these programs to schools, colleges and corporate organizations, Madurai Eco Tourism has helped spread awareness about the region, its natural bounty and the richness of the culture among its many villages and communities.

Marketing – A tough challenge

Most of the work at Arola is done in-house. “We source the bamboo from the forests through my network. Villages plant bamboo around their homes and lands and once it’s overgrown we step in and harvest it. Curing it is a long process and we use only organic agents that kill the bugs that grow in bamboo. My wife Dharshana helps design the products which are then manufactured in-house. I have about 6 people helping out,”Suthagar explains. Though they have multiple products, Suthagar finds marketing them a huge challenge. Arola sells online and they have shipped orders to the US and Maldives. Yet when it comes to regular business, awareness seems to be a challenge. When we put up a stall, some people will stop by and listen to all that we have to say and move on without buying. Sure, some who are aware will pick up our products and keep coming back for more. We still find sustained sales a challenge,” he confesses.

Dharshana, co-founder and designer of Arola bamboo products
Dharshana, co-founder and designer of Arola bamboo products

Believing in the magic of crafting

“As part of Startup Tamil Nadu’s mandate I’ve had to train women from SHGs in and around this region. Unfortunately only around 5 in a batch really show interest in learning and work to take this to the next level. Many times we have women leaving midway to go cook and serve their husbands. Like they say in Tamil, pasiyulla kuzhandai paal kudikum, (a hungry child will drink milk). The ones who really want to get out and make something of themselves try harder,”  he says. “Society has done a lot for me, I want to do something in return. I’ve spoken to the collector to clear overgrown wastelands and use them to grow bamboo. I believe anyone who works on the craft will find peace and it’s so engaging that it will keep them away from mobile phones and timewasting serials. You can work hard and smart with bamboo. The work is educational and it can be developed into a skill. It will create awareness about sustainability and our environment!. Did you know a grove of bamboo releases 35% more oxygen than that of trees?” asks Suthagar passionately.

Suthagar speaks about Arola
Suthagar speaks about Arola

Whether he’s promoting ecotourism or the benefits of bamboo, Suthagar’s larger vision has been to sensitize people on the value of natural resources while finding ways to provide livelihood to the less privileged. Closer home, he encourages his little school-going daughter to help out with their business. “Begonia handles simple Whatsapp messaging to prospects and customers. In fact she’s bought herself a cycle through her own earnings! When children learn to create something by themselves they appreciate its value more and the seed for entrepreneurship is sown!” says Suthagar.

Training SHGs in making bamboo products
Training SHGs in making bamboo products

For more information visit maduraiecotourism.com and arola.in

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