Malai Biomaterials Design Pvt. Ltd. (Malai) was co-founded by Zuzana Gombosova, a material designer from Slovakia, and Susmith C. S., a product designer and mechanical engineer from India. Their initial focus on studying the sustainability of bacterial cellulose for commercial use led them to create a leather alternative called malai. Malai is a biocomposite made from organic and sustainable bacterial cellulose grown on agricultural waste sourced from the coconut industry in Southern India and natural fibers from banana stem, hemp, and sisal (agave) plants.
They successfully completed a crowdfunding campaign in November 2019 to raise funds for equipment and have since partnered with multiple designers and brands from Europe and the United States to find applications for their materials in fashion, accessories, and home goods. In February 2020, they won the Circular Design Challenge for sustainable and circular fashion projects during the Lakme Fashion Week in India.
Malai is a leather alternative made from bacterial cellulose grown on waste from the coconut processing industry in Southern India. Malai also contains natural fibers from banana stem, hemp, and sisal (agave leaves). It contains no petroleum-based polymers, and no harsh chemicals are used in the manufacturing process.
Production process: Microbial Cultivation
A bacterial culture feeds on sterilized waste coconut water and a cellulose jelly sheet is produced within 14 days. After fermentation is complete, this cellulose is enriched with plant fibers like banana stem fibers, gums, and resins to create a durable and flexible biomaterial. Malai is then formed into sheets in a range of thicknesses and textures or molded into 3D structures, based on the end product.
Malai is more sustainable than bovine leather and petroleum-based alternatives in a variety of measures. Not only is it completely biodegradable, the company states that their production process does not use or harm animals, uses less energy and water, and uses no toxic chemicals. Many of the primary raw ingredients come from agricultural waste streams that would otherwise be dumped, including water from mature coconuts and banana fibers. No trees are cut to produce this material.
Malai offers 3 types of material, according to weight and strength.
Malai soft - Smooth finish and soft feel. Suitable for fashion, although they recommend an adhesive lining to increase strength.
Malai medium - Textured finish, but flexible and medium soft. Suitable for fashion accessories, stationary, packaging, and furnishings. They recommend an adhesive lining for this as well.
Malai strong - Rougher, more rigid feel. Suitable for furnishing, interior surface design, and stationary.
All three types are offered in matt and semi-glossy finish and available in a range of colors, including: natural, madder red, dusty pink, dark indigo, cutch brown, cumin yellow, leafy green, light indigo, and dark grey. All colors come from plants local to India.
They are currently a team of 10 people consisting of labor staff, 2 directors, a sales representative, interns, and external consultants. Their current production capacity is 200 m² (239 yd²) per month in the form of a sheet or in 3-dimensional shapes.
Malai works with local coconut processing units to source their coconut water. One small coconut processing unit can collect 4000 liters (approximately 1057 gallons) of coconut water per day, which can be used to make 320 m² (approximately 380 yd²) of Malai. Although their material can be made in nearly any shape or size, they are currently limited to supplying 120×80 cm (about 4 x 2.5 ft) sheets. The company has launched its second phase of research in order to find ways to improve some of the mechanical properties of the material without adding synthetic binders or coatings.
ACCESSORIES, FOOTWEAR, HOME GOODS, UPHOLSTERY
Malai has partnered with designers and brands from Europe and the United States, including Eva Klabalova & Lucie Trejtnarova for sandals, Libena Rochova for a tote bag, Kazeto for briefcases, hat cases, and interior storage boxes, and TON for a bar stool using Malai as upholstery. The most suitable application at this stage is for accessories, bags, and wallets.
Collaboration with Eva Klabalova & Lucie Trejtnarova for sandals
Collaboration with Libena Rochova for a tote bag
Collaboration with Kazeto for briefcases
Collaboration with Kazeto for hot cases and storage boxes
Collaboration with TON for a leaf bar stool
Images from Malai.