How a noxious aquatic weed was used to make eco-friendly … – Down To Earth Magazine

Demand for woven baskets, cups, plates, boxes and other cottage industry products is high in the state, neighbouring areas

Water hyacinth, scientifically known as Eichhornia crassipes Mart. (Pontederiaceae), is an aquatic weed common in waterbodies across South Asia, including India. 
This is not an indigenous species but was introduced to India during the British colonial rule as an ornamental aquatic plant from South America. The plant produces beautiful purple flowers that have high aesthetic value. 
This simple, floating aquatic plant, unfortunately, is also an obnoxious weed that has been suffocating surface freshwater sources like rivers, rivulets, streams, ponds, dams, lakes and bogs, making the waterbodies unsuitable for commercial fishery, transportation and recreation.
The plant is a prolific vegetable matter-producer and has the ability to choke out any closed waterbody at an astonishing rate. This cuts off sunlight as well as reduces oxygen level in the water, making it unfit for commercial use. 

Water hyacinth seen in Burdwan, West Bengal. The gregariopus weed chokes water ways, deteriorates water quality, blocks sunlight, thus impacting freshwater aquatic ecosystems. Photo: Saikat Kumar Basu
It is an expensive and labour-intensive process to remove this weed from time to time. This water hyacinth has become a serious problem plant for the ecosystem. The plant has been used as a bio-fertiliser in some organic agriculture practises, but it is mostly a nuisance plant detrimental to both ecosystem and environment. 
However, it has been reported that this plant is a good phytoremediation species, suggesting it has the ability to trap and remove toxic metabolites and harmful heavy metals from water. But more research needs to be conducted to find suitable use for the notorious weed.
A stitch in time
Bikram Mitra from Kolkata, West Bengal has made an outstanding example by utilising this obnoxious aquatic weed plant to develop small-scale cottage industry that is both financially rewarding as well as environmentally friendly in approach. 
Mitra has always been passionate about working for the environment and has been an advertising and marketing executive by profession. But in 2011, he decided to leave his job and started working as an entrepreneur himself on environmental projects. 
His initial work has been on the reduce-reuse-recycle initiative on plastics in the environment. But over time, he became interested in working with environmentally friendly, biodegradable natural products. 
He meticulously studied and trained himself to use water hyacinth stems in preparing biodegradable paper. Slowly, he mastered the craft and started designing biodegradable cups, plates, boxes and other environmentally friendly daily-use products that are cheaper and can serve as an alternative for plastic and thermocol cups, plates, dishes and glasses. 
He has now successfully established his own, small cottage industry-based workshop in North Kolkata, along with his associates Abhijit Mandal and Sanjay Bose under an organization named Earth Trust. 

 Bikram Mitra, who set up the cottage industry, at Kuda village, Purulia, West Bengal. Photo: Saikat Kumar Basu
Although the techniques and protocols were initially developed at Jadavpur University, Kolkata, the lab-to-land transition has not been quite successful. Now, Mitra and his core team have been running a series of workshops and training programmes across West Bengal on making sustainable products from water hyacinth stems.
A large section of the students participating in these workshops are women representing various age groups. This is highly inspiring as several of the successful participants have become small-scale producers in their rural areas and running small units from their residences or under cooperatives. 
The self-employed rural women are not only earning extra money to support their families but are also serving as local trainers for Mitra. 
Thus, within the last five years, the network has developed strongly in rural Bengal and shows promises for rural employment in the not-so-distant future. 
The COVID-19 pandemic has disrupted both the business and training programs in the past two years. But it is catching up again as there is a lot of interest in the products among the public. 
The biggest advantage of the initiative is that the manufacturing units are located close to their raw material sources. The water hyacinth plants grow abundantly round the year in local fresh water bodies. They are also available free-of-cost to the producers. Transportation cost is also minimised due to close proximity of the manufacturing units to raw material sources.
Expanding cottage industry
Bulk orders of products were placed through his workshops not only from West Bengal but also from adjacent states, indicating future expansion of this cottage industry. There is a need for developing marketing strategies, development of local markets, pricing and proper distribution of such eco-friendly products, along with initial government and / or non-government funding support to make this enterprise reach a large number of producers as well as consumers. 
The producer can employ local highly skilled, well-trained labour to produce the biodegradable and environment-friendly products. These are then bought in bulk by retailers, who sell them to various distributors operating in various cities, towns, malls and markets. 
Thus, a dedicated network of business entrepreneurs have been developed for water hyacinth-based products, serving both economy and ecology together in an integrated fashion. Mitra has even moved his craft to a higher level by designing both hand- and machine-based manufacturing of water hyacinth stem ropes to make woven baskets, containers, bags, hats and caps. 
He is working hard to train more people in these areas so that they can become economically independent while helping the environment to thrive.
South Indian states (Andhra Pradesh, Tamil Nadu, Karnataka and Kerala) are now leaders in this area, Mitra said. Such entrepreneurial initiatives began in these states about three decades ago. 
In West Bengal, however, such initiatives were rolled out only in the last 8-10 years. But the enterprise now has immense potential for the state in the rural sector and can employ a number of rural youths, particularly women. 
Mitra had funding support from NABARD and Rural Innovative Fund when he started this environment-friendly initiative around 2011. The financial support has now increased substantially under various government schemes and hence, he emphasised that rural youths can now take advantage of these to set up small rural units, according to him.
He is looking for partners, collaborators and funding institutes to join his efforts. 
The biggest challenge for Mitra and other entrepreneurs has been getting adequate funding for running these programs and lack of opportunities for marketing these products, he said. 
Although the funding opportunities have improved to some extent over the last few years, the limitations of proper marketing restricted the reach of these excellent natural products. 
However, he is hopeful that the situation will improve opening this up as a stable cottage industry in future, competing with South Indian states that are miles ahead in production, circulation and marketing of various natural biodegradable products from plant-based sources such as coconut, jute and cotton. 
Views expressed are the author’s own and don’t necessarily reflect those of Down To Earth.

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