March 2014

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Out there to disrupt the global ivory trade: Whitenife

Sonia Agarwal is in the business of saving elephants with her startup

Last year, the Supreme Court of India was called upon to look at a petition concerning the reintroduction of cheetahs to India. For those who do not know, India’s cheetahs were hunted down to extinction by its Maharajas and Colonialists. But our Ministry of Environment and Forests was convinced that the cheetah could have a second wind in India and proposed to import the African feline from Namibia to Kuno in Madhya Pradesh.

Saving jumbos: Sonia Agarwal

Thankfully, the Supreme Court put down this misconceived venture and issued a stay order against the move. The venerable court however did not use the word ‘misconceived’—we are using it.

We are a country that has not even been able to protect and conserve the fauna that holds a special place in our history, religion and society. The elephant, for example, is venerated as Lord Ganesha in India. But look beyond that and you will see how nature’s gentle giants are slowly being poached to extinction.

According to the Wildlife Protection Society of India (WPSI), the country incurred a loss of over 121 elephants due to poaching in a four-year period from 2008 to 2011. During the same period, WPSI recorded that 781 kg of ivory, 69 tusks, 31 cut pieces of ivory, 99 pieces of ivory carvings and 75 ivory bangles were seized from across the country.

The doppelganger

To curtail the poaching of elephants, an oft-taken route worldwide is to target the trade of ivory. But then there is the painful acknowledgement that governments can only do so much in this regard—it is the consumer who will have to say no to ivory for the trade to be really stamped out.

Whitenife, a business founded by 22-year old Mumbai-based Sonia Agarwal is a step in that direction. A student of business and fashion, Agarwal comes from a family that owns a textile business. And as a second-generation entrepreneur, she tried to stay within that realm.

After her higher studies in the US and Italy, Agarwal returned home to India and started looking at leather substitutes as a business opportunity. It is here that she came across Elforyn, a high-grade ivory substitute. “I have no formal education in biotechnology or poly-science. But I found a lot of information about this material online,” says Agarwal, who found that the composite called ‘Elfh’ had been created and patented by a European Institute.

Agarwal tells us that Elfh is a mineral with 89 percent properties similar to ivory and it can be used for carving and other design purposes just like it. The only difference is that Elfh can’t be dyed into different colors. With access to Elfh, Agarwal started Whitenife, a startup that makes ivory-like products, in late 2012 with nearly Rs. 30 lakh as startup capital sourced from her family. These products are far cheaper than their ivory counterparts, according to Agarwal, who says that an ivory artefact worth $40,000 can be easily replicated for $4,000 when made in Elfh. She says that these products are being exclusively targeted at a luxury segment, to people who could afford ivory earlier but were well aware of the guilt attached to it.

Artists on board

Agarwal was always aware of how things can be held up in red tape in India. But she was still surprised to see that not much had changed in her time overseas when it came to the pains of doing business in the country. “Getting a payment gateway approval in India takes about 45 days as compared to two days in the US. The time taken for carrying out the procedures is so long that it automatically delays the entire process of starting up,” she says.

On an operational level, her first step was to look for traditional ivory and bone artisans who could carve designs on Elfh. “Getting the artisans was a very small part of the puzzle. I had to put in a lot of effort to bring about a sense of professionalism in them, to overcome language barriers, educate them about Elfh and how it is a better option for them,” says Agarwal.

It took a few months, but Agarwal finally managed to convert a fair number of these artisans. Today, she works with her band of about 45 artisans scattered over Kerala, Rajasthan and Uttar Pradesh. This is in addition to her team of 10 which includes two full-time designers. To communicate and collaborate with these artisans, Agarwal says that they all work on a cross-platform mobile messaging application.

For the artisans, Whitenife has been somewhat of a boon as their occupation has been under increasing threat in line with the increased intensity towards elephant conservation.

Rajkumar Soni, an artisan with the company, tells us that Whitenife has provided him with a better way to earn a livelihood and have an understanding and sensitivity towards elephant conservation. “Elfh allows me to craft with great precision in a similar comfort zone and without the guilt of killing animals.”

Homeward bound

According to Agarwal, she has exclusive rights for the use and distribution of Elfh for certain countries in Asia from the European Institute which does not work on Elfh with any other company. Whitenife’s initial set of products consisted of sculptures, artefacts and jewelry, which have been exported to international markets in the US and Australia. She is also now planning to expand the use of this material into a variety of new applications including apparel and cutlery.

Nadasha Zhang, a serial entrepreneur and director of Miss World Australia competition, says that Whitenife has immense potential and rides on many of the current global trends. “We are excited about launching Whitenife in Australia. The company is able to delight customers with high quality designs and also supports a great environmental cause.”

Agarwal is launching an e-store for Whitenife in November this year and will also be expanding to multi-retail stores in Delhi and Mumbai at that time. “Today, most of our products are sold in foreign markets. I am looking to strengthening the distribution channels and supply chain in India before taking a crack at this market.”  

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