Malai – (noun) 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. The makers 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 4000 litres of water per day, which we can use to grow 25kg of cellulose.
Malai is a flexible, durable biocomposite material comparable to leather or paper. It is water resistant and because it contains absolutely no artificial ‘nasties’ it will not cause any allergies, intolerances or illness. It is a completely vegan product and as such you could even eat it!*
*but it’s way too pretty for that…The minute we discovered ‘Malai’, we were intrigued. Everything from its name to the material, to the process and the people behind it, so we got talking with the one of the founders, Zuzana Gombosova, and boy! …did we have an amazing chat or what!
Go ahead and read this amazing interview!
Q. How was Malai born and why the name?
A. Malai as an idea was born sometime at the end of 2016 after I quit my job in Mumbai. Together with my partner Susmith, we were wondering what’s next. I really wanted to continue the research I initiated during my MA studies on growing biomaterials. I knew in some regions of Southeast Asia bacterial cellulose is grown on coconut water. India was full of coconuts and Susmith happened to be from Kerala – a land of coconuts. By that time we had already been working on the initial material experiments towards developing malai. We decided it was the right time to give it a go and direct our full time and attention towards developing the material. And so we followed the path towards coconuts to South India.
Why Malai? Malai refers to several things. Malai is what you call the white flesh of Coconut here in India and Bacterial Cellulose – the core ingredient of our materials – kind of looks like the malai from the coconuts. Also, we use water from mature coconuts as a nutrient for growing Bacterial Cellulose. Malai also indirectly points to the origins of Bacterial Cellulose production – Phillipines. This was the place where around 100 years ago somebody clever discovered how to grow Bacterial Cellulose on coconut water and called it: Nata de Coco, or: Cream of coconut. Malai refers to cream – cream is the top delicious layer on milk used for making many exquisite and delicious dishes. We want to use the best of what nature offers us and convert it to its best form.
Q. Can you break down ‘Bacterial Cellulose’ for a layman?
A. Yeah, sure I will try. Let’s describe Cellulose first – cellulose is present in all plant matter as its structural component, it is the most abundant organic polymer on Earth. We know it in form of paper, cotton fibres, viscose…etc. Now, Bacterial Cellulose is a kind of cellulose produced by microorganisms. Its advantage over the plant-derived cellulose is the fact that it grows in its pure form – it is not held together by lignin. Normally if you want to extract cellulose from let’s say a tree for making paper you need to subject it to series of chemical and mechanical processes which can be quite energy and water intensive plus they create environmental pollution.
Sorry, I am not sure if that sounds simple….The process of growing Bacterial Cellulose is very beautiful in its simplicity: you prepare a nice nutrient from coconut water for your bacteria and let them eat and replicate for about 14 days and in turn, they produce the sheet of cellulose on the surface of that nutrient for you. This material is very promising in various fields – it is used in cosmetic industry for making rejuvenating face masks, food industry as a thickener or a dessert or in the medical industry for developing biocompatible body implants. The age of Bacterial Cellulose has begun 😉
Q. What kind of well-known fabrics can Malai replace and what kind of products would it be best suited for?
A. Malai can replace leather in some of its applications, it can be an alternative to faux leather or PU and PVC fake leather. It is flexible, breathable and biodegradable which makes it more eco-friendly than plastic-based materials. We see it applied in fashion, accessories, bags, packaging, stationery, interior surfaces, furnishings… basically in many places where you currently see the use of leather or its alternatives.
Q. Will Malai impact the coconut farmers of Kerala in any way? Or will it only help with using the waste better?
A. It doesn’t have an impact on coconut farmers of Kerala directly yet. It certainly helps to reduce the processing waste at coconut processing units and provide additional income by adding value to water from mature coconuts. This water actually creates an environmental problem because it is often dumped in the environment where it acidifies the soil.
Q. Do you think the word ‘vegan’ is being exploited?
A. It’s not being exploited in India, quite on contrary. In the western world – yeah, a bit. Things that were never connected with animal origin suddenly have a proud label on packaging sayin’: vegan product. It has definitely become a bigger trend in past few years and maybe it’s not a bad thing. Meat and leather industry has a direct link to many environmental issues we are facing nowadays.
Q. How would you describe Malai in one sentence?
A. Malai reconciles a pure, simple philosophical approach to manufacturing with a sophisticated understanding of environmental science and technological processes resulting in a product that is unique.
Q. What are your future plans for Malai?
A. We are working on raising more funds in order to be able to scale up the production of Malai. We are planning to develop a range of materials from bacterial cellulose and other natural materials. We are planning to do some very interesting collaborations in order to show Malai’s potential in a wide range of products and enlarge our team with experts from different fields.
Q. How can each person make an impact in making Fashion truly sustainable?
A. I think there are many ways how to do it nowadays, each one of us can find and identify with at least one way to make a change. Whether it is buying fewer clothes, or questioning who and under what conditions made our clothes, or taking a close look at the label describing what are our garments made of. I think fashion is an industry driven by its consumers which is good because if we as consumers say that it’s not ok to buy what we buy now the industry will have to find a way how to change. Fashion is facing some very complex problems and I believe they don’t have one single solution.
Q. What would be your advice to the fashion & textile students, who’re dreaming of making it big in the industry?
A. Aaaah, maybe I’d say don’t dream of making it big just by yourself – as a one-man show. It’s never like that and you need to learn to understand and communicate with a lot of different people and see more than just your dream ahead. The world is a very complicated place and you need to learn how to gain perspective on a problem from many different angles in order to really make a change or solve a big problem.
You don’t always have to make it big, just make it meaningful.
Q. Tell us about ‘Coconut Karma’ and how does one make sure it doesn’t come back and bite one’s a#*?
A. Hahaha 😀 Coconut karma is our internal joke at Malai as a reaction to some incidents that happened to us in the past, but hey! It’s real. For further reading, you can look up how many recorded cases of a death by coconut there are on google. Coconuts are often associated with cleaning your karma or removing obstacles in Hindu mythology. I guess what we meant to say is that we believe that what goes around comes around. You ought to treat people you interact with fairly and with respect. And since our lives these days revolve around coconuts we think that this so-called ‘tree of life’ is a nice symbol of karma’s ways. So if it bites your a** you probably had it coming…