The cruelty of the fashion and design industry propelled Zuzana Gombosova to delve into the world of bacteria and seek answers not popularly available in the human realm. Her passion led her to India where a chance encounter with wasted coconut water created a vegan-based alternative named Malai. The product Malai is produced from an organic compound synthesised by bacteria feeding on coconuts which is called cellulose.
A master’s thesis on Bacterial Cellulose had transfixed Zuzana Gumbosova’s mind and led her to India where a serendipitous encounter with co-founder Susmith Chempodil birthed Malai Biomaterials Design. The material feels and looks like leather but lacks the cruelty imposed on animals and nature by the industry. The main ingredient is sweet coconut water and lots of hungry bacteria.
Malai refers to the tender white flesh inside coconuts, which while young generate the crystal water used to feed the bacteria. Coconut water is rich in all the nutrients imperative for a healthy bacterial diet and the sweeter the water, the more nutrients present to speed the bacteria’s growth. The idea seeded itself when Susmith shared how coconut water was allowed to wreak havoc on slippers and insects in Kerala, the land of coconuts. Thus began the foundation of a unique product that rivals leather but comes with zero cruelty.
Process: The coconut water is sterilised and prepared for the fermentation process to which the bacterial culture is introduced, numbering around 12 to 14 days. The bacteria require a perfect cocktail to produce the cellulose and natural fibres from banana stem and hemp are added to strengthen the composition. The products are coloured with natural dyes like Turmeric, Indigo and Saffron before they are texturised and softened.
Malai refers to the tender, white, flesh inside coconuts, which while young generate the crystal water used to feed the bacteria. Coconut water contains all the nutrients imperative for a healthy bacterial diet and swifter processing of cellulose. The sweeter the water, the more nutrients present to speed the bacteria’s growth. The company drew into its green web several local farmers and processing units who have now have an alternative, guiltfree way of disposing their coconut water. The climate pulls the strings for the sheets, which depending on the weather take between three to five weeks. Malai products cause no environmental harm and break down naturally and faster if composted. Their water whirrs through the pumps and motors, and unlike the leather industry consists of zero chemicals which allows it to be reused for a long period of time.
A Sweet Solution: Their natural cravings led them to Channapatna in Karnataka, where they furthered and strengthened their material in a coconut processing unit that was delighted over their idea of generating bacterial cellulose from coconut waste. Bacteria Cellulose forms an integral part of the Philippines food industry and is the key ingredient for the famous dessert called Nata De Coco. One small coconut processing unit produces at least 4,000 litres of water every day which can be used to make 320.sq feet of Malai.
Today the duo run a completely energy-intensive, conscious unit in Cherrthala, Cochin, Kerala where they save coconut water from going waste or rogue, and turn it into sustainable products. Malai has captured quite a few eyes and was included in the Lakme Fashion Week Sustainable Summer Collection. Their primary focus is to generate and integrate this rare bacteria-driven process into mainstream fashion and design for a sweet, sustainable and humane future.