By Bindi Shah
Neha Juneja and Ankit Mathur opted out of high profile placements upon graduation from reputed Indian MBA institutes and became famous overnight in 2008 for doing so. But that fame was not to last. Their first startup idea, aisapaisa.com, a futures and options portal offering insight and advice to retail investors failed completely. “Our portal had no revenue model. And there was no accountability or defined division of responsibilities,” says Juneja, now Co-Founder and CEO, Greenway Grameen Infra (GGI).
Mathur and Juneja were a part of a larger team of four. Over time, the other two partners moved away while this duo stayed on to form a new company catering to rural infrastructure needs through innovative, holistic and sustainable products and services.
Greenway Grameen Infra currently “works on products that have an immediate and high positive impact on rural lifestyles,” says Juneja. Its flagship product is the Greenway smart stove in rural markets that is helping to enhance the health, lifestyle and productivity standards of rural households, especially its women.
Post aisapaisa.com, the duo started a firm called Greenway Ecodevelopment where they offered consultancy for projects related to carbon finance and carbon credits. “We wanted to do something that would create an impact,” says Mathur, GGI’s Co-Founder and COO. It was their work with Greenway Ecodevelopment that gave them a lot of exposure to rural households. They realized that many households had a cable connection, a motorbike, and, of course, mobile phones. However, their women were still cooking on traditional mitti ka chulhas (mud stoves) with fuel emissions harming everyone, including young children.
The smart stove
The 27-year-olds found the chulhas were highly inefficient due to improper combustion and heat transfer. The thermal efficiency of traditional mitti ka chulhas is often as low as 6 to 8 percent. The Greenway smart stove consumes only one-third the amount of fuel that a traditional chulha does.
Above all, health benefits such as reduced infant mortality, premature deaths and lung disease occurrence due to low carbon emissions and high thermal efficiency of the stove outweigh everything else.
According to statistics offered by the company, over 2.84 billion people worldwide still cook on biomass i.e. wood, dung and agricultural waste. This includes over 70 percent of India’s population i.e. over 145 million households. Talking about market potential, Juneja says, “Even if one were to assume that the entire below-poverty-line population is within this 70 percent, that still leaves us with over 100 million households that have the purchasing capacity and need for improved cooking methods.”
Cause selling is the tougher bit
GGI worked on eight prototypes before finalizing the current design. The income that came from Greenway Ecodevelopment cross-subsidized the travel and product development cost for GGI. Carbon consultancy is non-functional now as the market for carbon credits sank in 2010.
The team was sure that it wanted to directly sell to the customer without being a part of any subsidy-linked scheme. They knew that their product would have to fare high on the user desirability index if they had to achieve this and build a brand from scratch.
For this, GGI adopted a strategy of co-creation. They organized several design camps in rural India, where users were invited to give inputs. “Initially, only the men folk would turn up for the design camps and offer irrelevant inputs. Later, we ensured the women came in too,” says Juneja.
A tough village road
Among the main challenges the founders faced were building a strong distribution network and overcoming registration and paper complexities for smooth inter-state trade within the country. On the distribution front, the company sells its products through grocery and kirana shops, retail outlets, utensil stores, and hardware shops in addition to putting up independent booths and doing live selling.
The Greenway smart stove today enjoys Bureau of Indian Standards (BIS) recognition for its safety, stability and emission standards. Muneer Alvi, Co-Founder and Programme Coordinator, Rural Communes, says, “GGI came to Khopoli for a demo. We bought 20 stoves from them and our tribal users were delighted. They all wanted to use them.”
Alvi remarks that he has seen more than 1,000 different types of chulhas in the entire span of his career as he works with a lot of IIT students and designers, but the GGI stove is one of the best models he has come across so far, though the tribals may not be able to pay the maximum retail price of Rs. 1,250 in one go.
New products to lead the way
GGI’s pipeline of innovations includes a product called ‘Jugnu’ that will convert waste heat generated during cooking into electricity. “Jugnu will capture this heat and transfer it as electric charge to a battery. Essentially, the device will act as a battery charger,” says Juneja.
This product has got recognition from the Swedish government under its Innovations Against Poverty (IAP) Programme. The Swedish International Development Cooperation Agency (Sida) has given GGI a grant of 11,000 euros (Rs. 6.5 lakh) for travel to Africa and test the product there. GGI plans to launch a higher-end version of the stove with a fan attachment whose cooking flame will be cleaner.
Sunder Hemrajani, MD, Times Innovative Media Ltd (TIML) taught Juneja during her MBA and has gone on to become a mentor and angel investor for the founding team of GGI. He says the GGI product performs its primary role of a stove, which is cooking, but simultaneously reduces carbon emissions to a large extent and expenses as well, adding value to the lives of rural people. “GGI needs to build an inexpensive distribution network, scale it up and get good people on board if it really aims to grow,” he adds.
Juneja and Mathur are aware of this. For now, though, they are happy that they are not stuck in boring corporate jobs and are enjoying real value with their venture.
This story appeared in the July 2012 issue of Entrepreneur.