Maria Kuriakose sources raw material for her business — coconut shells — from mills that extract the oil from the mature kernel (copra) and discard the exocarp. At the hands of artisans from across Kerala, these shells are sandpapered, varnished and transformed into designer smoothie bowls, planters, candle holders, cups and even cutlery.
Keen on working with natural products sourced from Kerala that would also help the agriculture sector, Maria zeroed in on coconut and also named her brand Thenga in honour of the State’s native crop — thenga means coconut in Malayalam.
“I thought of using coconut water and husk before deciding on the shell. A small fraction was being used to make activated charcoal, but most of it was burnt as fuel in oil mills. Every part of the coconut is useful but making value-added items out of coconut shells is limited here, unlike in Southeast Asian countries,” she says.
Working with coconut shell artisans in Kottayam, Kodungallur and Wayanad, she has given the craft a contemporary take. Traditionally, their market is confined to craft bazaars and fairs, but takers have been few due to limited product options.
Maria quit her corporate job in Mumbai in 2020 and returned to Kerala to focus on Thenga, which she had launched the year before. Her father, a retired engineer, helped her set up the manufacturing unit in her hometown Thrissur, where she made samples of coconut bowls with her mother. She then reached out to stores specialising in eco-friendly items. Now she divides her time between Thrissur and Palakkad, where she is based.
With orders trickling in, she started making small batches at the unit. Selling on e-commerce sites such as Amazon and Flipkart widened her customer base, forcing her to consider expansion. “I wasn’t thinking of artisans until then because I was not sure whether there would be a market for shell products. Once I started getting orders, I brought artisans into the picture. After all, it would not have made sense to get them involved at the get-go and then have no work for them,” she says. She also sells her products via Instagram [@thenga_coco].
Coconut shell ladles and spoons have long been used in Kerala kitchens; over time, though, as their popularity waned, artisans who made them have shifted to to manufacturing handicrafts and jewellery.
Normally these artisans don’t have enough orders , so they don’t rely on shell handicrafts for their income, says Maria. Working for Thenga, however, has brought about a positive change. “Though my orders are not large, I can give them work consistently. Thenga also helps them to market their products to new customers,” she says.
She works with the artisans in product development, keeping the designs simple enough for large volume production. “This is a time-consuming process as they are handmade and a lot of effort goes into each piece,” she adds.
Both Maria and the artisans take care of sourcing the raw material. Finding shells of the right dimension is not easy because it requires sifting through mountains of discarded coconut shells and paying for a ‘perfectly shaped’ one. Thenga also manufactures coconut wood cutlery.
Shell sizes vary depending on the season. An average-sized shell can hold 200 ml, while jumbo size [Kerala coconut] can hold 500-600 ml. For larger bowls (800-900ml), she imports the shells from Vietnam. Her plans include a large-scale manufacturing unit to cater to domestic and export orders.
In order to ensure a sustainable, zero-waste natural product, she does not use any artificial substance in the making of these bowls. “We have trained the artisans to keep the products completely natural, so they use coconut oil instead of varnish for the final coat of polish,” she says.