At the age of 17, Sonia Agarwal had decided she would combine her keen interest for biotechnology with her passion for design and fashion. But when she spoke to her father about using a mineral composite to replace ivory, he dismissed the idea as being the stuff of science fiction.
Last November, though, the now 22-year-old managed to set up Whitenife – a social venture which uses a mineral-based composite elfh to create decorative products for the home as well as jewellery. “We have the exclusive patent rights for Elfh, which means no one else has access to it,” says Agarwal. Elph, she adds, is 89 per cent similar to genuine ivory.
In May 2012, she returned to Mumbai after graduating from Babson College in Boston and that’s when she decided to work towards creating an alternative to ivory. Despite her varied education – she studied art history, marketing, fashion and design — the one thing she had no official training in was polyscience.
“Believe me, there’s Google for all of that,” she exclaims. Her first attempt at creating the composite was with the assistance of experts at the Shriram Institute for Industrial Research (SIIR) in Delhi, who were surprised at the ease with which she “spoke their language.”
When she found out that someone else had already come up with a product similar to what SIIR was working on, she decided to approach a European institute. “I worked with them in the final stages of the creation of elfh,” she adds.
A self-proclaimed animal lover, Agarwal says she chose to protect elephants because they’re an integral part of India. Apart from discouraging elephant poaching, the young entrepreneur hopes to give a boost to the ivory craftsmen in the country too. “These craftsmen continue to work with ivory, even though it has been banned for 40 years, because they have no other option. Using elfh offers them a more ethical, moral and sustainable way of making a living,” she says. If elfh successfully replaces ivory, Agarwal believes it will also lead to a more secure environment in poaching zones.
Agarwal, who has been recognised as one of the ‘Top 50 most innovative student entrepreneurs in the world’ by Kairos Society (an international student run organisation of entrepreneurs and innovators), claims she loves to work and held her first job when she was barely 13. “Yes, it was illegal for me to work then,” she says with a laugh, “My dad was the only one who’d hire me.”
Whitenife’s collection of products (which include a 60 cm hand-carved elfh tusk) will be up for auction within the next quarter, promises Agarwal. But in the meantime, you can submit your designs on her website and she will create the product for you.