Malai, created by Zuzana Gombosova and Susmith CS, is a sustainable alternative to leather that will delight environmentally conscious manufacturers and consumers alike
What is ‘Malai’?
SS: Malai is a newly developed biocomposite material made from entirely organic and sustainable bacterial cellulose, grown on agricultural waste sourced from the coconut industry in Southern India. It is a flexible, durable, water-resistant material with a feel comparable to leather or paper. A sustainable alternative to leather, it does not cause any allergies and is a completely vegan product.
How did you both team up?
SS: Zuzana is a material researcher and designer from Slovakia. I am a product designer and maker from Kerala. We met in Mumbai in 2015, by which time Zuzana had already been working for over three years on bacterial cellulose as a material. She was keen to explore the potential in India for employing a traditional bacterial-cellulose growth process used in the Philippines, where ‘nata de coco’ is an important part of the food industry.
Discovering that we shared the same values and concern for sustainability and the environment, we got together to start Malai Biomaterials Design Pvt. Ltd. We work with the local farmers and processing units, collecting their waste coconut water (which would otherwise be dumped, causing damage to the soil) and re-purposing it to feed the bacteria’s cellulose production. One small coconut-processing unit can collect 4,000 liters of water per day, which we can use to make 320 sq. mt. of Malai.
Why did you choose to call the product ‘Malai’?
ZG: When associated with coconuts, the word ‘Malai’ refers to the white flesh inside a tender coconut. It also means ‘cream’ in the context of ‘top notch’. In the Philippines bacterial cellulose is called nata de coco, meaning cream of coconut. This is why we call our material Malai. We believe that what is good will be always beautiful. Our products and processes are simple and low on resource consumption.
Zuzana, give us a little background on your work with bacterial cellulose.
ZG: I came across bacterial cellulose when I was researching grown materials during my Master’s studies at Central Saint Martin’s College of Arts and Design in London. I had to depend on room heating as I was growing the bacteria in my bedroom. I moved to India for a job, and soon realized that my bacteria would be so happy here and that they could certainly be grown on coconut water.
What is the process involved in making Malai?
SS: We feed coconut water to bacteria – this makes bacterial cellulose, which forms the matric part of the composite. The fiber part of the composite is formed by natural banana and sisal fibers. These two ingredients form the structure of Malai. We give this material special coatings to make it water resistant. We also have a special process called ‘massage’ to make the material softer. Currently the material variations are only in the form of grammage and color. We use only natural and safe dyes for Malai.
What are the design applications of Malai?
SS: Malai is currently in its version one. This is suitable for bags, wallets, backpacks, purses, etc. We are testing version two which could be used to make shoes. Version three would be more advanced and could be used for making jackets and clothing items.
How do market and distribute your products?
SS: We are primarily a materials company. Our intent is to develop new bio-based sustainable materials and take it to the market. Being inclined more towards sustainability, the brands with similar ethos are the ones that associate with us. The scenario in India is different from that in the EU or the US. Our traditional respect for the environment has not yet fully converted into consumer habits. What is needed in India is a better communication strategy and better pricing. The better pricing aspect is being taken care of at Malai and we are working with designers and institutions in India for better communication for India.
What are your plans for the future?
ZG: The obvious answer is to create a greater impact and have a larger material share in the domain of leather and its alternatives. We intend to grow horizontally and not vertically. We are looking forward to starting more Malai making units in locations where the raw materials (banana fiber and coconut water) are easily available.
This article was originally published in POOL 104.
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