The loss of vegetation has been a growing concern to the island of Sri Lanka. Its forest coverage was studied to be 37% in the year 1990 – well above the global average of 31%. With time, this figure has dropped to a concerning 28% by early 2016. There have been numerous reasons behind this loss of greenery. Unless addressed appropriately, the floral ecosystem will reach a point of no return with a further drop of 3%.
To help combat this decline and help preserve Sri Lanka’s biodiversity is the mission of Thuru. With its name translating to “Trees” in Sinhalese, the initiative links the world of digital with conventional tree planting to accelerate reforestation on the island. During an interview to better understand the startup and its concept, cofounder Hasanka Padukka aptly describes it as “An Uber for Trees.”
Towards making its concept a reality, in 2020 Thuru was one of the startups that applied for and was accepted into Spiralation. Founded in 2010, Sprialation is a support programme for tech startups by the ICTA. It aims to promote, encourage, and support technology startups and innovation within Sri Lanka. The highlight of the programme is an LKR 1.5 million grant. But this is only scratching the surface of how the programme supports local startups.
Thuru – what is it?
In a nutshell, the team at Thuru has productized the tree planting industry. They provide the licensed expertise when it comes to planting trees around the island. For this, the platform has a variety of packages to choose from. They include the delivery of potted saplings, regular monitoring, and taking care of the plant well after it has been planted. Moreover, Thuru houses fully-fledged nurseries where plants are grown under optimum conditions before being sent out to their customers. The ‘Thuru Ecosystem’ is also has a network of volunteers that grow trees on their own initiative.
Thuru also launched an innovative ‘Seedpod’ product in partnership with Vibhave Solutions and the SLINTEC Startup Engine. You only need to place the pods under soil and water them for seeds to start germinating. “Thuru commercialized this product intending to create a customer-centric tree planting landscape,” expresses Hasanka. The pods can be generic seeds such as tamarind, soursop, chillies, beans, etc., or customizable to rare tree species.
Digitization of tree planting with Thuru
“We began our journey with only 8 species and now have nurseries with over 600 different plants,” states Hasanka. The company has anchored itself through their online store – thuru.lk. This multi-function online store provides its customers with access to its green solutions and related products. Furthermore, the platform’s free mobile application allows their customers to take pictures of trees planted through the platform and provide a ‘Facebook for trees’. Through the app, other users can view other trees in the area through unique tags. The team has also added features such as a points system, leaderboards, and medals to encourage increased customer engagement, ultimately resulting in more trees being planted.
Through Thuru, plants may be bought, gifted, or included as part of corporate CSR initiatives. Hasanka goes on to elaborate that client companies on the island have provided their customers with benefits courtesy of their use of the platform. For example, telecommunication providers have offered to plant a tree on behalf of the customer when a switch is made from paper bills to electronic versions.
Thuru’s biggest hurdle
Much like any E-commerce platform, Thuru’s most significant challenge came with its logistics arm. “Plants are sensitive and cannot be transported like normal courier packages. Therefore, choosing the right logistics solution was critical to the business,” emphasizes Hasanka. With this, he also adds that customers do not often purchase just one plant. This makes the delivery process extremely risk and cost-sensitive. However, the team has not let this issue hinder their operation. Enabling safer and more efficient delivery, the team has built its own logistics network.
Plans for the future
“Each person consumes 500lbs of oxygen per day. To fulfil our moral obligation for breathing, we at Thuru aim to plant a calculated number of 2 million trees in Sri Lanka. In doing so, we will not only raise awareness to 10% of the country’s population but also help to add this same number of trees to the country’s green cover,” says Hasanka. He admitted that it is not possible to achieve this target within the Colombo district alone. Therefore, the team is looking to expand operations by opening physical stores with designated representatives to other districts.
‘Thuru Manpeth’ is another work in progress by the platform. This will enable users to create a community-level impact for tree planting. Through this, users can upload pictures of trees in urban areas and help others identify patches in a city’s greenery. Thuru believes that this will create an enthusiastic mindset to offset deforestation by planting more trees in such areas. Thuru is also looking to improve its gifting arm and explore new avenues in hydroponics and vertical farming.
Alongside these efforts, Thuru has also signed an MoU with the Sri Lanka Scout Association to plant 100,000 plants and record their progress with the Thuru app. Hasanka shared that they’re also working with the government and has also assisted the Sri Lanka Navy in planting 2500 plants on the International Day of Forests. Further, Thuru is also conducting a pilot project at the Saravodya Institute of Higher Learning at Bandaragama to create a green canopy via the Miyawaki method.
“Ultimately, our biggest goal is to get more people, especially the young ones, interested in planting and taking care of trees. We hope to help them turn their home into a mini garden and eat what they grow,” Hasanka conveys. He believes that instilling passion in the youth for tree planting is the only way to create a greener future for Sri Lanka.