18 May 2015 13:51:27 IST

Making the world smoke-free, one chulha at a time

Neha Juneja, CEO of Greenway Gramin Infra, talks about being an entrepreneur catering to rural India

For this gritty daughter of an Indian Army officer, 2007 was a year of hope. India’s economy was ‘red hot; she and her three friends decided to startup to provide futures and options prices to retailers. They enlisted support from SEBI and tied up with the BSE and NSE. Just before the launch, the Great Crash of 2008 took place. In the following economic meltdown, their careers seemed to reach a dead-end. But the foursome were ready to dream again.

They toyed with various ideas, including renewable sources of energy, especially with the Government of India aggressively promoting alternate sources of energy as a sector. They undertook some energy projects for study. Soon, they discovered a viable business in biomass cook stove, and set up a factory at Vadodara in Gujarat, now India’s largest such factory with a manufacturing capacity of eight lakh pieces per annum.

Excerpts from an interview with Neha Juneja, 30, Co-Founder and Chief Executive Officer (CEO) of Greenway Gramin Infra, manufacturers of biomass cook stove that claims to produce 70 per cent less smoke and uses 65 per cent less fuel than traditional mud cook stoves.

What prompted you to set up this business, seen as rather unconventional for MBAs?

Well, our studies showed that nearly three billion people globally, out of a population of seven billion, have to depend on cooking with solid biomass fuels. In India, nearly 850 million people (165 million households), out of a population of 1.25 billion, depend on this traditional fuel. Even TV has penetrated thrice these numbers. LPG, on the other hand, has penetrated only 13 per cent households across India.

Globally, 1.4 billion people, including 400 million in India, lack access to dependable electricity.

Burning biomass fuel (wood, cow dung and agro-waste) in open fires or traditional mud chulhas (stoves) is very inefficient and lets off smoke and soot. Due to this indoor cooking, according to an OXFAM study, 70 per cent of women eventually develop lung cancer.

So, we thought we should do something about it, and found in it an opportunity for our career as well. Thus were born our cleaner and smarter biomass cook stoves.

How many employees you have at present?

In Vadodara, we have 62 and in Mumbai only 7 employees. But, by year-end we expect to have over a hundred.

How did you set up this factory at Vadodara?

My co-founder Ankit Mathur had studied at the Indian Institute of Management-Ahmedabad (IIM-A). We approached the IIM-A’s technology business incubator, the Centre for Innovation, Incubation and Entrepreneurship (CIIE) for help. We got seed funding of Rs 20 lakh each from CIIE and an angel investor. Subsequently, the Clinton Global Initiative, under its Global Alliance for Clean Cook Stoves, also infused a crore. We rented an industrial shed to set up our factory.

How do you intend to scale it up?

We are currently selling nearly 2.6 lakh stoves annually, using only about a fourth of the total manufacturing capacity of eight lakh stoves at Vadodara. Once we start using this capacity to the full, probably in 2017,we will think of any expansion.

What is the market you are targeting like?

In India, nearly 150 million households living below the poverty line (BPL) need such efficient and cheap cook stoves. Our two model stoves can be their ideal choices as they are priced at Rs 1,399 and Rs 2,499 apiece. In some states, we have tied up with banks, micro-financers and NGOs for penetration in rural areas. Some states also subsidise our stoves for tribal beneficiaries.

What are your future plans?

After the success of our biomass cook stoves, we are planning to introduce other appliances, mainly for the rural and poor masses. These include a stove-cum-inverter (power generator) and a water cooler.

What role has your education played in this entrepreneurial venture?

I graduated in Production and Industrial Engineering from the Delhi College of Engineering and then did my MBA from FMS, Delhi, which both have stood me in good stead in this venture. Co-Founder Ankit Mathur, who is also Chief Technology Officer (CTO), is a graduate in Mechanical Engineering from the same college as mine followed by an MBA from IIM-A. Our other team mates are also putting to good use their respective education and experience.

Any anecdotes about your entrepreneurial journey that you can share with us?

Plenty. But I would like to narrate one here: We struggled with various designs for our chulhas. In fact, we have created as many as 11 designs so far. Design number eight seemed perfect for launch, and is our most saleable now.

How has the market responded?

Very interestingly. In Kerala, for instance, many women bought our stoves by paying only Rs 65 per week to the micro-financing institutions. Somebody in Mexico read about us, and now we are selling about 2,000 units a month there. Interestingly, Karnataka, India’s technology capital, is our biggest market. Even a smaller state like Mizoram has a market of about 500 stoves. But in Bihar we find it difficult as the local fuel of rice husk burns faster in biomass stove and emits little energy.

Has your company won any awards?

Greenway was one of the two Indian companies to have won the Ashden Clean Energy for Women and Girls Award at the International Ashden Awards 2014.