For Svati Bhogle the story of a woman in a village, struggling with hardship yet hopeful and positive that life will change for the better, is someone to look up to. “They are inspiring enough for me to come out of challenges that life might have posed at that point in time for me,” she says. Svati Bhogle is the Founder, Promoter and Managing Director of SustainTech, an organization which looks at making sustainable technologies widely available in rural India.
SustainTech is on a mission. As is evident from their homepage which states – ‘With a population of 1 .2 billion, India’s effect on the environment is significant, but SustainTech believes it can moderate this impact’. SustainTech is into designing and manufacturing the Pyro line of environmentally friendly fuel-efficient and smokeless commercial cookstove and Svati is the brain behind it.
“I had an inclination towards this kind of work application of Science and Technology for development as a post graduate student at IIT Bombay. But conviction and long term commitment happened a bit later, when I was in my early 30s. I got into this field starting from academic research into combustion and heat transfer and its field application initially when I was working at the Karnataka State Council for Science and Technology. I went to rural areas often and interacted with villagers, learnt about their problems and was convinced that this is what I should be doing,” says Svati.
Svati was recently conferred with the prestigious Ashoka Fellowship for being a leader at at SustainTech. Earlier in her career, she was bestowed the Ashden Energy Champion Award 2008 and has also been the recipient of the Outstanding Social Entrepreneur of the Year award, given out by the World Economic Forum at the 2007 India Economic Summit.
The family support
“I would always be grateful to them because there was never any resistance or opposition from anyone in my unconventional choice of a career,” says Svati. Her family background has largely been academic, research oriented with focus on learning and pursuit of knowledge. “Perhaps this kind of activity with research and its application is an extension of the same pursuit,” says Svati, the elder sister of popular cricket commentator Harsha Bhogle.
She says her motivation to work does not come from seniors or peers. “It is rather our ability to address the need which is the biggest driver. If we are unable to rise to the challenge, we would be leading sub optimal lives. Later in life, we might even regret opportunities lost due to lack of courage,” says Svati.
The various challenges she faced
There were several challenges that came soon after she started believing in her idea. Each, as Svati says, was at a different stage of growth of the business.
Initially there was the credibility challenge, new idea, new product, new customer segment that has not been reached with technology before, not many people backing them financially or technically. As Svati says, they were convinced that this kind of service, with commerce as the institutional mechanism was the right way to go. “The sector needed us to put in work immediately and could not afford delays or further escalation of fuel prices. This motivated us to continue our efforts so we decided that we must overcome challenges,” says Svati.
Early into the business, they realized that the ecosystem for new product introduction especially to the street food vendors was not in place. The mindset among customers and supply chain elements were all adverse. But along their journey they were successful in breaking down resistance.
Challenges that are taking longer are largely financial. “We initially had problems with decision making for purchase of a consumer durable by a section that had not purchased consumer durables before. It was a tough decision to take because if the stove did not perform satisfactorily then their business would be threatened, but the fuel stress was also eroding their profitability,” says Svati. Decision making now is not as difficult with added numbers in the field. Svati says they are slowly overcoming the challenge of finding the money to pay, but the terms of repayment continue to be incompatible with user needs.
Svati’s area of work
The primary business of Sustaintech is to market fuel efficient stoves. They are currently catering to the needs of the commercial cooking segment that includes street food vendors, tea stalls, dhabas, messes, institutions etc. In course of time they hope to expand to a wider range of products like biogas plants, energy efficient lighting to the same segment with whom the company has now developed a relationship.
“The same incident time and again is always an eye opener. When we visit a prospective customer and see the working conditions, the heat, smoke it is unbearable. And thousands of cooks are cooking very tasty food in spite of working in such difficult conditions for long hours. We come away each time thinking that right to life is compromised in such conventional kitchen,” says Svati adding that her social enterprise is a way to address that.
Her equation with brother, Harsha Bhogle
As individuals both brother and sister are largely self-driven and are committed to their work. “We share stories from our work when time permits and enjoy a good laugh,” says Svati saying there was never any comparison between her and Harsha in their growing up years.
“I think I should write about by experiences and think occasionally about doing so but there would always be time for that later,” says this dedicated social entrepreneur.