Nachiket Kulkarni | January 22, 2015

Winds of change blowing through highway kitchens

It has taken me a while to write this piece. To understand oneself, one’s needs, likes, dislikes, to reboot life in a way takes some time, and that’s what has happened in my case. I had taken an oath, to my mind, to myself, to not write my next piece until I feel like I have done something substantial in somebody’s life as a result of my profession.

I left the corporate, travelled the rural, met inspirational similar-minded leaders, volunteered at an organisation, tried to understand the life of a rural entrepreneur (but failed), underwent a Fellowship to expose me to more such people, kept meeting more confused minds who made me realise I wasn’t alone, and finally landed in an organisation that has made me a morning person (partially, at least). In other words, I feel like getting up and doing whatever I am doing for a living.

Ever since I ate my first street-side paratha (North Indian bread) on a stark, cold Delhi morning two years ago and conversed with the migrant vendor, who used to wear the same thin grey sweater with a melting smile, something inside my mind began to move. I’ve befriended a lot of street vendors across Indian cities, and it is these Rajendrans, Ganeshs, Rajeev Pandeys or Rakammas that teach you how to run a business, while they struggle with a hand-to-mouth existence. Quite sadly, their situation remains the same for the whole of their lives, and gets passed on to the next generation who also take up to street vending.

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Keep in mind that there is nothing wrong with the profession. Street vendors contribute to 2% of global urban GDP and their families constitute close to 10% of global urban populations in developing countries. They are also huge providers of cheap goods and services to other urban poor, usually the informal sector, constituting more than 90% of the workforce in countries like India. What needs to change is – One, their extortion by civic urban authorities, and two, the economic upliftment of the next generation of vendors. In other words, since the former is going to take a while thanks to a lack of empathy by government bodies and policy makers, the latter is where the focus needs to be.

Enter innovation. Enter entrepreneurship. Enter Sustaintech, the organisation I am currently associated with. Where government does not end up doing much, at least in free market economies, a passionate entrepreneur can start making change happen. During my stint with Villgro, which incubates such social enterprises, I came across Sustaintech. Run by one inspiring woman, and managed by many other passionate men, this enterprise makes energy-efficient biomass cookstoves that are slowly and surely changing the lives of street and highway food vendors, predominantly in rural and semi-urban landscapes for now.

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Five million people all over the world die every year due to respiratory diseases thanks to smoke inhalation in kitchens. India contributes to 10% of those deaths. Sustaintech reduce that by making smokeless stoves that work only with renewable fuels. Three thousand stoves have already been sold in the southern state of Tamil Nadu, directly impacting not only the socio-economic conditions of cooks but also effecting huge cost savings for the owners of these commercial kitchens. As part of my work, which involves taking Sustaintech to other parts of India, I have already entered 100 jet-black smoke-filled highway kitchens, met some innovative kitchen entrepreneurs who use fuels like wasted wool from automobile factory workers, maize-n-cashew shells, and those that have managed to transition from two LPG cylinders a day to Sustaintech's biomass-based cookstoves. It is products like this that result in the economic upliftment of these vendors’ children and their employees, just by triggering savings that can be fed into education, healthcare and causes alike.

I am soon moving on to other puzzles in the stove supply chain like consumer financing, manufacturing, mobile payments and more. Whether this business manages to scale or not, I believe it has made a bold attempt to change lives of a certain section of society who probably did not know they were under health and hygiene risks (or if they did, could not afford to do anything about it). Moreover, through meeting various players in the ecosystem, from the government to WHO to other startups, I want to get completely soaked into the inspiration of it all.

All this may not be “my thing”, but in the process of self-discovery you are introduced to so many other things you never would have thought you would like. From planning data center resources to measuring the temperatures inside pathetically smoked-out kitchens, it’s a big change, and today I value both these phases of my life. As is famously quoted, “it is the journey that matters not the destination”. It is true that the winds of my change live inside kitchens and have exposed me to smoke.

Lastly, I feel that if a social enterprise is able to make money and its employees are able to see the impact on their customers’ lives, that is where one should sit back and appreciate the power of free-markets and innovations to create change and empowerment.


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