In 1997 Thusitha Ranasinghe a young Sri Lankan entrepreneur was looking for ways to expand his family printing business. A casual article about a Kenyan game ranger experimenting with elephant dung to make paper caught his attention, then. "This seemed a good idea and I worked on it," he says.
Now his company Maximus -- located at Pinnawela, some 80 kilometres northeast of Colombo -- has gone from strength to strength by using elephant dung. Its revenues last year were Sri Lankan Rs19 million (us $184 thousand) -- compared to Sri Lankan Rs 6.5 lakhs (us $6,300) in 1998. "90 per cent of our product is exported to corporates in Austrakia, Japan and the us," says this innovative entrepreneur. He adds that 10 kilogrammes (kg) of dung produces 120 sheets of A4 paper, and six sheets of such paper fetch 50 us cents.
Maximus does not have much difficulty in sourcing raw material, for Pinnawela also has the world's first elehant orphanage. The six elephants here supply the plant its daily requirement of 2 tonnes of dung.
According to Ranasinghe, "An elephant eats 200 kg of food and defecates 16 times every day. So there is enough dung for us." His company pays the orphanage Rs 8 for every kg of dung it takes from it.
At the Maximus plant, the dung is sun dried, boiled in large containers and mashed into pulp by a giant blender. The cellulose in the pulp helps to bind it -- just like the process used in turning wood chips to paper. The pulp is then hand-lifted from a papermaking vat to a couching table in the form of a thin sheet of pulp. While boiling, care is taken to disinfect the elephant droppings by adding a generous mixture of margosa leaves -- a natural disinfectant. This process takes around 13 days.
The Maximus plant employs 100 people. Ranasinghe now has plans to extend operations to other villages where elephants proliferate.