How these Pune sanipreneurs are writing a new script of ‘toilet, ek prem katha’
You must have heard of finding a pot of gold at the end of the rainbow. But it would seem Rajeev Kher has found his gold in the pot.
Rajeev Kher and Ulka Sadalkar
Rajeev’s company Saraplast Enterprises, which manufactures and distributes portable eco-friendly toilets, recorded a turnover of Rs 30 crore this financial year, and he claims that in the next couple of years, they will hit the Rs 100 crore mark.
Now, why would a “respectable, educated, and foreign-returned” man want anything to do with toilet business? This was a question he heard multiple times not only from people around him but also from banks and financiers.
This public ridicule did not stop him from quitting a cushy job in Canada and become a sanipreneur, as he calls it. “I am in the sanitation business, hence a sanipreneur,” he says.
A loo story
The idea to start the toilet business came to him during his travels to the US. “After my MBA from Symbiosis in Pune, I moved to Canada to work there. During my visits to the US, I came across a portable toilet for the homeless. I thought this portable sanitation concept should work well in India. One fine day, I quit and thought of starting a business in sanitation,” says Rajeev.
Stating that this is where he found the purpose of his life, Rajeev started by importing plastic toilets from a friend in Germany. “I took it around road shows for people to see. First it was very expensive. Eventually, I lent it for a wedding in Pune. A lot of my friends were at the wedding and thought it was funny that I was a janitor at a toilet,” reveals Rajeev, adding, “Yes, it was not a glamorous job and not on everyone’s wishlist.”
In 1999, he set up 3S and continued to bootstrap as no banks were ready to bet on a toilet business. Ulka Sadalkar, Director at Saraplast, who joined the business in 2006, says,
“Banks could not understand what these portable toilets are and how is that going to be a collateral for so much money. We approached a lot of banks and they all said they could not guarantee against plastic toilets.”
However, in 2009, venture capital fund Aavishkaar picked up a 21 percent stake in Saraplast for Rs 3 crore. In 2013, they also raised funding from responsAbility, and Rajeev says they have received interest from a few institutional investors too.
“In 2006, I realised that it did not make sense to just import the portable toilets, for in the end we were basically importing air, as these were just empty tanks,” says Rajeev. He then decided that he will manufacture the tanks, and finally merged 3S and Saraplast.
Later, he was joined by his brother Ranjeet and Ulka. While Ulka looks after the design and manufacturing process, Ranjeet looks after the operation side of the business. Rajeev, on the other hand, manages business strategy, finance, marketing, expansion, and dreaming up a larger vision for the company.
Toilet economy potential
Today, Saraplast’s manufacturing facility in Sanaswadi near Pune has the capacity to make 10,000 eco-friendly toilets a year. Says Rajeev,
“All the plastic toilets that we do can be recycled hundred percent, and our factories are zero waste."
The toilet economy (toilet construction, operations, and maintenance) in India is a $14 billion market today, and is estimated to more than double to $31 billion per year by 2021, according to the report, ‘The Sanitation Economy in India’ by the Toilet Board Coalition (TBC).
Founded in 2014, the TBC is a unique business-led partnership to address the global sanitation crisis by accelerating the sanitation economy. It runs the Toilet Accelerator, world’s first accelerator programme dedicated to sanitation entrepreneurs in low-income markets.
Having persisted for 20 years, Rajeev’s business has today caught the public eye when they first launched a mobile pink toilet for women in Pune some years ago. Called T-bus, it is a women’s toilet that has been refurbished from an old bus.
The T-bus is clean and hygienic and has three private toilet cubicals. There’s a neat little snack counter at the entrance of the bus with a smiling woman attendant ready to help any customer.
The capital for the T-bus came from CSR funding from corporates. Rajeev's Saraplast works with the Toilet Board Coalition, which has members like the Unilever and Tata Trust, and it is helping them to come up with a revenue model that works best.
The unique T-bus
At present, the revenue for the T-bus business is being generated through pay-per-use (Rs 5) and through the cafe. “We are trying different revenue bundles and once we know this is what works, we can expand,” says Ulka.
They have received queries from Bengaluru municipality, Indore municipality, the Railways, and more. “We want that tomorrow if we do 1,000 toilets it can be a sustainable model. We are also open to supporting any sanipreneurs who want to buy the T-bus from us and run and maintain it,” she adds.
Though it was a challenging initiative, especially since everyone has an opinion on women’s public toilets, Ulka says they managed to break the perception of portable public toilets.
Ulka and Ranjeet at the factory.
“Every woman, urban and rural, has a toilet story. There were suggestions to place the T-bus in a secluded corner. I said women will never use it then. The whole idea was to change the perception of a public toilet, especially for women. It was not something that should be hidden. Rather use it in a dignified way. Even the idea of having a woman attendant in charge of the toilet and the cafe was to give dignity to her job. We wanted it to be a positive story for people using it as well as those working there,” says Ulka.
Giving me a tour of the T-bus parked inside the Sambaji Park in Pune, Rajeev says, “Conceptually, the T-bus has done spectacularly in terms of innovation. We have added a small cafe inside. We’ve perceived it as a Starbucks or a McDonald's. Many people go there when they have to use the toilet because it is clean, and then end up having a burger or a coffee. Now, move this concept to the end of the pyramid and apply this same logic. Everyone thinks the same way, only the price points are different. You can call our T-bus a ladies room or a lounge where women can freshen up and pick up a kokum sherbet on her way out.”
A smart toilet
In keeping with the integrated and smart toilet concept, there’s a lot of technology in use in this humble toilet. “We have a sensor provided by MIT Labs in the US for humidity and moisture control. When their levels go up, it is an indicator that the toilet may start smelling. The system sends out an SMS alert on the attendant’s phone that the toilet cubicle needs cleaning,” informs Rajeev.
The Saraplast portable toilets at an event.
Other information like water usage and footfalls in a day are sent to the Smart City nerve centre in Pune. And this is what makes it a smart toilet.
Rajeev adds that in the near future he sees the toilet more as a preventive health initiative where tech solutions will be provided for self-check up of blood sugar, urinary tract infections, and so on.
In India, where you find men pissing everywhere in public and women holding on to their bladders till they reach home or their workplace, clean, safe, and hygienic public toilets are the need of the hour.
In fact, according to the World Health Organization, more than 600 million Indians still defecate in the open. And you already know that we have more mobile phones than toilets. In such a situation, the toilet economy is a good place for entrepreneurs and investors to make their gold here.