Lakshmi Menon believes that each one of us can make a difference in the world Image Credit: Supplied

What if the very pen you were writing with could sprout into a plant once the ink dried out? Rolapena is a wonder pen that when pushed into the soil after its ink has run out, does indeed grow into a plant after some days. It may be hard to fathom but it grows into an agastya tree, well known in Ayurveda for its medicinal properties.

The idea behind this unusual product is the brainchild of Lakshmi Menon, a Kerala-based designer. Rolapena costs Rs12 (about 67 fils) and what makes this pen unique is that its body is made of a biodegradable material, and at its base, it has an agastya seed

Rolapena is Menon’s innovative answer to stop adding to the growing plastic waste in the world. It grew from a small experiment at Menon’s ancestral home in Kanjiramattom in 2013 under a start-up venture called Pure (Products Upcycled Recyled and Economic) Living. With help from her grandmother, V.L Bhavani as CEO — she is now 94 years old — and her 70-year-old mother, B. Sreedevi, as quality supervisor, Menon took on the task of marketing Rolapena.

Menon’s first order of 500 pens for the Indian IT company Wipro in 2013 literally sowed the seeds to her journey as a social entrepreneur.

Today her client list includes the HDFC Bank, the Kotak Mahindra Bank and pharmaceutical companies. Rolapena pens are most popular in seminars and recently she sent a batch for an ISRO (Indian Space Research Organisation) conference.

In January last year, Menon coordinated Pen Drive, an initiative to collect used pens in Kerala to raise awareness and quantify the amount of plastic wasted in disposable pens.

“I was doubtful if we would count even 100,000 pens but to our surprise, we collected 650,000 discarded pens,” recalls the 43-year-old designer.

Interestingly, 45 cyclists rode all the way from Calicut to Kochi with 100,000 pens that they had collected. Kochi Beinnele Foundation, with whom Menon had teamed up for the initiative, are using the discarded pens to create a permanent installation in Kochi titled Immini Balya Onnu (A Big One).

Immini Balya Onnu is a phrase from legendary Malayalam writer Vaikkom Mohammed Basheer’s popular novel, Balyakalasakhi. The installation will be a replica of the number one. Imagine then, if these 650,000 discarded plastic pens had actually been Rolapenas?

A designer by profession, Menon was working at a San Francisco art gallery until 2008. She specialised in craft using paper and jewellery made from seeds, hay and glass. During a visit to Kerala where she conducted a workshop at an orphanage, she introduced the class to her paper pens.

“Being a designer, I am always looking at utilising every space I get. I found the space at the base of a paper pen apt to hold a seed,” she tells Weekend Review.

Initially she used vegetable seeds. After consulting with a friend who is an expert on medicinal trees, Menon decided on the agastya seed for her Rolapena pens.

As more orders flowed in from other companies Menon realised the need to step up production of Rolapena. Up until then, the pens were made manually. Necessity is the mother of invention as they say and, after months of research and experiments, she had a patent for a machine in 2013. The machine is simple but with the use of a pedal, it takes 10 seconds to roll out a Rolapena. The initial investment for her venture was small with raw material sourced from local waste paper markets. Now she procures waste paper from a local printing press.

Customised designs

Rolapenas can be customised. The Wisdom series carry Mahatma Gandhi’s quotes; the Akshara Tulika pens encourage learning of regional languages with alphabets in the chosen vernaculars. Inspired by the 16th century Malayalam poet, Poonthanam, the Jnanapena series of Rolapena convey verses from the Jnanapanna, the truths of life. Another series comes with jokes printed on them. Gift packs can be tailored with ethnic motifs or in the case of weddings, the names of the bride and groom is printed.

Menon insists the paper pen is sturdy, just like ones made of wood, as they are made with multiple layers of paper. She is not only making a difference to the environment but also in the lives of many. Menon employs women and physically challenged people at Pure Living.

Geetha, who has been working at Pure Living from the earliest days, is the sole bread winner for her family after her husband was diagnosed with heart trouble.

“Geetha’s husband also does work like fixing logos and stickers onto the pens. So, he also is earning while sitting at home,” adds Menon.

For Vijayamma, a widow with two children, her salary keeps the kitchen fires burning and supports her children’s education. Menon also outsources work to Swasraya Rehabilitation Centre, an NGO in Vettical, near Kochi, working with paraplegics. Wheelchair-bound patients there are involved in the pre- and post–rolling work that goes into making each Rolapena – tasks like making paper caps for pens and fixing logos for customised orders.

If Rolapena got Menon recognition as a social entrepreneur, her other venture, Ammoomathiri (Grandma’s wick) put her on a television show with Amitabh Bachchan, when she was featured on BBC World’s show, Aaj Ki Rath Hey Zindagi, shown on Star Plus in 2015.

Ammoomathiri is a project for elderly women in old-age homes where they roll lamp wicks out of cotton. The raw material is provided free and the wicks are sold to temples and for individual use. The tag line of Ammoomathiri is Chumma irukathe, chumma thirachathi (Not idling away but kneading away).

“Actually this idea of mine kept my Alzhiemer’s-afflicted grandmother engaged. She was happy gifting wicks that she made to relatives and friends when they visited us,” Menon says.

“With the distribution of wicks to temples, ammooma (grandma) found a meaning. Often the elderly women roll the wicks while chanting and that packs in positive energy.”

Menon believes that each one of us can make a difference in the world. She owes it to her father, from whom she has learnt good values.

“He always emphasised to me and my brother that having come from a well-to-do family, it’s our duty to give back to the community.”

Mythily Ramachandran is a writer based in Chennai, India.