World Environment Day: How driving past a landfill inspired the brother-duo to found this unique brand
The Bhalswa landfill on the GT-Karnal road is one of Delhi’s largest dumping grounds. Spread over 70 acres and more than 65 metres high, it has been in operation for over three decades.
Ankit Tripathi would pass the festering mass of waste daily on his way to the Noida Institute of Engineering and Technology, where he was studying mechanical engineering. He wanted to do something that would prevent the creation of landfills in the future.
He decided to forgo his third-year placement interviews and follow his dream to be an entrepreneur.
“I needed to get my parents’ permission to skip the interviews. My mother initially refused because my father had invested a lot of money in my education. It took me two days to convince her,” Ankit shares with SocialStory.
Ankit’s older brother Atul also was a mechanical engineer and working as a consultant in a manufacturing company, offering design solutions.
But, like Ankit, he too wanted to do something to create social change, and so it took very little convincing for him to quit his job and join his younger brother.
Uneako is focused on growing its B2B business while witnessing organic B2C growth on its website, which has everything from stationery to personal care products.
“We discussed this one night and decided to tell our parents. Subah, humne ek aur bomb phoda ki bhaiya ka naukri chudva do (The next day, we dropped another bomb that my brother also wanted their permission to quit his job). My parents were upset and said that both of us had lost our minds. It’s easy to convince the world, but convincing your own parents can be a challenge,” says Ankit.
However, they finally relented and told Ankit and Atul to put in their best effort to realise their dreams. That’s how Uneako (a portmanteau of unique and eco) was born.
The first thing the duo realised was that there was very little awareness among the average consumer about sustainable products, and those who knew a little assumed that they were very expensive.
Ankit and Atul decided they would only upcycle waste products to create new ones. However, with the cost of setting up a printing press, ranging from Rs 30-40 lakh, the brothers decided to outsource their printing process.
“We were approached by a man called Sonu who could do the printing for us. He had polio and lived in a single room with his family and a small printing machine. He was ready to work with us for Rs 6,000 a month,” says Ankit.
Unsure if their business idea would take off, the brothers told him they could not guarantee that much money and gave him an order for recycled paper folders, promising him a portion of every folder they sold.
“That first month, we handed him a cheque for Rs 17,000, and he has been working with us ever since,” says Ankit, adding that ‘Sonu bhaiya’s’ faith in them led to another key business decision.
“People living with disabilities and other marginalised groups in India are not given a fair chance at employment. We decided that we would hire only from communities who faced discrimination.”
But this decision has not always gone down well with prospective buyers. Ankit tells SocialStory how his business card was returned to him by a senior person at a big company when he found out that Uneako had plans to employ former sex workers and people from the transgender community.
“We are not discouraged because you will always meet people like this, but that should not change who you are,” says Ankit.
Since it was founded in 2019, the bootstrapped company has seen steady growth. “Our first online order was for Rs 100, and it was a stationery set that we couriered to Tamil Nadu. Today, we have over Rs 40 lakh in revenue,” he adds.
Uneako has also partnered with the World Wide Fund to be the exclusive supplier of gifts and stationery at their shops in India. “We also have tie-ups with the National Geographic and Organic India, and will be working with United Nations Development Programme and United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organisation going forward,” says Ankit.
He explains that the company is focused on growing its B2B business while witnessing organic B2C growth on its website, which has everything from stationery to personal care products.
Recently, Ankit and Atul were awarded a Rs 21.25 lakh grant from HDFC. The duo also received grants from Global Changemakers and Facebook.
“We will be investing the funds in improving our products and in developing sales. We are also keen on continuing to hire and empower more people from marginalised communities,” Ankit shares.
At present, Uneako has a team of 22 people, including people like Sonu bhaiya and interns, who support them in various capacities.
Despite the growth that Uneako has seen, the pandemic took its toll.
“We had Rs 7-8 lakh worth of orders tied with events that got cancelled. We had created an eco-friendly alternative for everything from the stationery to the lanyards and name tags. Everything was cancelled. But, rather than give up hope, we decided to adapt and sat at home and made face shields, which the UP Police bought. We made Rs 2 lakh from that sale, which helped sustain the business,” says Ankit.
He shares that Uneako has also developed an organic sanitiser that the company will sell in eco-friendly packaging. “What makes our products unique is that the packaging is a product in itself. So you get two products for the price of one, and it becomes zero-waste because you don’t throw away anything,” says Ankit.
He also shares an idea for a limited edition shawl that will have handicrafts from all 28 states in India on it. “It will be a great gift for visiting dignitaries as it will truly represent the country. We are planning to make only 100 of these shawls, which we can then auction,” he adds.
Finally, Ankit explains Uneako’s unique logo – Polu, the polar bear. “Did you know that polar bears are the first to suffer the effects of climate change? If our lifestyle remains unchanged, Polu's family would be the first to disappear forever. So, we ask people to shift to a sustainable lifestyle and choose a more responsible lifestyle for Polu’s sake,” he concludes.