From top left: Divya Rawat, Pradeep Sangwan, Bharat Gothoskar, Abhishek Raju, Vikash Das, Raja and Rahul Gayam Image Credit: Supplied

Mushrooms tackle job crisis
Divya Rawat, Soumya Foods

Solutions to big issues sometimes lie in the simplest of things,” says 27-year-old Divya Rawat. A mushroom cultivator from Dehradun in Uttarakhand, she has devised indigenous and innovative methods of growing a variety of mushrooms, making its farming cost effective. The social worker became an entrepreneur by launching Soumya Foods that promotes her methods of cultivation, thus providing means of livelihood to people in rural areas of her state.

Rawat saw people leaving the villages in search of jobs in cities, as they had no fixed source of income. “The traditional farming of paddy and vegetables did not give sufficient dividends to farmers to run their families,” she says. “The floods of 2013 added to their woes.” 

Rawat, on completing her post-graduation, had been associated with an NGO in New Delhi. She quit her job and returned to Dehradun. “I wanted people to find employment and lead a dignified life within the state. More importantly, I wanted those who had left for the cities to come back home. The idea was to instill in them the confidence that unemployment had to be solved using the strength that lies in farming.” 

On visiting the wholesale vegetable market Rawat found mushrooms priced much higher than other vegetables. She trained herself on mushroom farming from the Indian Council of Agricultural Research, Solan in Himachal Pradesh and started her own mushroom cultivation unit. She hit the jackpot by making few changes and turned the entire process cost-effective. Steel and aluminum racks were replaced with bamboo racks for vertical mushroom cultivation and nylon ropes for growing mushroom via the hanging method. Thus, the capital investment that was earlier over Rs200,000 (Dh10,696), came down to less than Rs50,000. 

Today, Soumya Foods produces over 12 tonnes of spawns every month. Packed in 1kg packs, these are sold at nominal prices, exclusively to the farmers. She provides guidance to them on mushroom cultivation and over 10,000 people are connected with this project — many of whom have set up mushroom farms in the hills. “Another change I implemented was growing three different mushroom varieties — milky in summer, oyster post-summer and button in winter,” she says. “Thus, even under a thatched roof, one could grow mushrooms in a small space, throughout the year.” 

Rawat has brought life back in Uttarakhand villages, which is witnessing reverse migration. But that’s not all. She is now geared to make the state the mushroom capital of India.

— By Nilima Pathak

The 400,000kg clean-up campaign
Pradeep Sangwan, Healing Himalayas Foundation

As you read this, a small band of volunteers will be gathering in Manali, the Northern Indian resort town high in the Himalayas. Equipped with gloves and jute sacks, they’re on a mission to clean up the world’s tallest mountains — also one of the planet’s biggest rubbish dumps.

“Just follow the garbage and you will reach the destination, such has become the definition of all the Himalayan treks,” says Pradeep Sangwan, who heads the non-profit Healing Himalayas Foundation to restore the natural beauty of the area through awareness and a comprehensive waste management programme. The 33-year-old explains how years of publicity by tourism boards brought hordes of visitors — as well as pilgrims visiting some of Hinduism’s holiest sites.

“But they forgot to promote sustainable and eco-friendly ways of doing so — or maybe India wasn’t ready for the boom in trekking routes. That’s why I started my organisation,” the 33-year-old tells GN Focus in India. Moving from Haryana to Manali in neighbouring Himachal Pradesh in 2009, Sangwan observed the scale in waste mismanagement deterioration, inspiring him in 2011 to pick up non-biodegradable waste at Hamta pass, with the help of friends and family. 

Operations received funding from the proceeds of a home stay he ran as well as from CSR funds from various corporates. Healing Himalayas, he says collected more than 400,000 kilos of mostly non-biodegradable waste, which is diverted to electricity plants. 

He now hopes to set up two small processing units: one to turn single-use plastic waste into fuel to power 10 nearby villages, and another to manufacture biodegradable cutlery, replacing plastic spoons and forks. 

— By Keith J. Fernandez

The Heritage Evangelist
Bharat Gothoskar, Khaki Tours

"We cater to travellers, not tourists. We began as city walks with a passion for heritage, and have converted it into an experiential travel for-profit enterprise, with heritage as a hook,” says Bharat Gothoskar. 

Gothoskar, a former corporate man who worked with giants such as Godrej, Mahindra and Pidilite, threw it all up to follow his calling. Through Khaki Tours he offers an opportunity to explore and discover Mumbai as a city with a vast diversity of communities and cultures. “Mumbai encompasses several cities in one: there is the Jewish city, there is a Bohri Mohalla, there is Dadar, the Maharashtrian bastion, and Matunga, a fount of culture from the south of India,” he says. 

Gothoskar, a heritage evangelist and now entrepreneur, is inspired by late Sharada Dwivedi, author, historian and researcher. “I began heritage walks on a whim and would have given up after my third walk had it not been for a fan mail from an urban planner, who is now part of Khaki.”

His first paid walk was in 2015. One led to another, one idea to the next. Soon, Gothoskar had quit his job to turn Khaki into a full-time business and a foundation that offers heritage cruises, corporate walks, customised walks, jeep tours, food walks and much more. Soon, they will add on nature walks, outbound heritage travel and suburban Mumbai explorations. 

“We have divided the business into a not-for-profit foundation that will document, conserve and archive through multi-media projects, books and much more, and a for-profit experiential heritage travel company. Conserving heritage should be a people’s movement.” Gothoskar has taken a slow road to success. “I could have taken an investor, but Khaki is not a tour company. It is our commitment to heritage.”

— By Deepali Nandwani

Making farming efficient
Abhishek Raju, SatSure

For the tens of millions of farmers in India facing agrarian distress, things are likely to get worse over the next few decades as weather patterns, available water and growing seasons shift further due to climate change. Against this backdrop, big data analytics is being seen as a solution for agrarian crisis.

"If agriculture is to have any chance of answering these challenges, new and improved satellite technology to address all micro and macroeconomic problems is crucial,” says Abhishek Raju, founder of SatSure, an agritech platform using powerful algorithms that combine satellite imagery with weather and location data and IoT analytics to boost crop yields, cut costs and make farming efficient.

“The information about what crop to grow, when to sow, weather and harvesting predictions and how much will be the productivity is helping the stakeholders assess the agricultural risks better and in a timely manner, improving their efficiency of operations, and minimising losses,” says the 34-year-old entrepreneur, who started SatSure with former scientists of Indian space agency, ISRO, in 2015. By providing access to practical, reliable and trusted information in a sector that is a main source of livelihood of more than 50 per cent of India’s population, SatSure is making a huge difference. 

The agritech firm shares its data and technology-based solutions with banks, insurers and the government to better plan their operations for lending, insurance administration and resource allocation, who then provides advisory services to benefit farmers. Recently, it partnered with NITI Aayog, the Indian government’s policy think tank, to improve agricultural management practices as part of the government’s aim to double farmers’ income by 2020.

The non-performing assets in the agriculture sector are as high as 30 per cent. “Such an unfavourable business environment had reduced the appetite of banks to invest further in the rural sector, leaving 80 per cent of farmers without access to institutional credit,” says Raju. “Satsure is addressing this problem by providing financial institutions with data-driven portfolio risk management for crop-wise loan allocation to various regions.”

— By Suparna Dutt D’ Cunha

A ticket out of poverty for tribal artisans
Vikash Das, Vat Vrikshya

Handmade arts and crafts have formed the basis of many a successful cottage industry, but for thousands of tribal female artisans living in the conflict-ridden forested heart of the eastern Indian state of Odisha, one of the poorest parts in the country, the challenge lies in fair access to the market.

“There is no shortage of talent and industriousness, but these female artisans have limited control over resources,” says Vikash Das, who started Vat Vrikshya, a non-profit marketplace providing tribal women with sustainable livelihood opportunities. “They are exploited by middle men, leaving them with minimal money for the work they create.”

Vat Vrikshya builds a supply chain that connects them to the companies who want to buy their products, keeping the traditional craftsmanship alive.  

Growing up in the tribal region, Das, a professional software developer, witnessed first-hand the hardships these women go through to make a living. “A self-replenishing social enterprise that could generate profit and utilise that profit to alleviate poverty is the only solution to their problems,” says the 29-year-old social entrepreneur. “We are giving these women the tools to do that and live a dignified life.”

Since 2013, Vat Vrikshya has been providing broad-based skill development training and soft loans to women, helping them with marketing and networking and organising product development workshops. In the past five years, Vat Vrikshya, which supports more than 2,300 women, formed a partnership with design houses and retail platforms and created self-help groups.

“Nearly 18,500 tribal women with no formal education have been trained in new skills to manage their business efficiently,” says Das. Now, women are earning a significant income making everything from jewellery and brass artefacts to saris and paintings in their homes, and the welcome cash has brought them independence. Their earnings are important for their families, who rely on good harvests on their paddy farms for the rest of the year. 

“They use the money to send their children to school and take care of health needs,” he says. Das aims to reach out to 50,000 tribal families by 2030. “I want to make them business partners and create role models and change-makers.”

— S.D.D.C.

Greening the transport system
Raja and Rahul Gayam, Gayam Motor Works

Sustainability and clean energy are high on the agenda of young sibling entrepreneurs, Raja and Rahul Gayam. Leveraging IoT, cloud connectivity and in-house battery pack manufacturing, the Gayam brothers are rolling out electric auto rickshaws and bikes that produce less climate-warming carbon emissions.

"Today, 19 out of the 35 most polluted cities in the world are in India, and transport sector is a major consumer of oil, causing 50 per cent of carbon pollution in the country,” says Rahul. “Switching to an electric fleet can help reduce 1 gigatonne of carbon emissions and save India $330 billion by not purchasing 876 million metric tonnes of oil.”

Set up in 2015, Hyderabad-based Gayam Motor Works’ SmartAuto is world’s first electric three-wheeler with Li-ion battery to be developed with a battery swapping system. The battery swapping technology reduces the vehicle refuelling time from hours to less than a minute, can go up to a maximum speed of 55km/h, and are as easy to use as regular vehicles for urban mobility. Its SmartAutos are being used by logistics companies such as Flipkart, Gati, BigBasket and Grofers for last-mile deliveries, while Andhra Pradesh and Telangana are using them for waste pick-up and disposal.

The company has also been identified by the Asian Development Bank as a partner to introduce its electric three-wheelers for public transportation in Afghanistan and Nepal. “We also have countries such as Lebanon, Portugal, Sri Lanka, Vietnam in our order pipeline,” adds Raja.

The shift to electric vehicles has caught the imagination of policymakers and industry, as India plans for a massive shift to EVs by 2030, but speed bumps remain. There are positive signs, says Raja. However, to replace the 230-million vehicles on roads is a mighty challenge, as India lacks charging infrastructure.

“The Indian government must take concrete steps, as enabling systematic adoption of EVs requires coordination among urban planning, transportation and power sectors.” Innovators, suppliers and regulators must also work together to evolve new business models for successful adoption, adds Raja. “This will help in bringing about a paradigm shift in how people in India perceive and use transportation.”

— S.D.D.C.

Bridging the blood donation gap in India
Kiran Verma, Change With One Foundation

More than 3,500 people from 22 countries have received blood transfusions over the past 18 months, thanks to the efforts of Kiran Verma and the Change With One Foundation.

“In India, more than 12,000 people die every day because they don’t have access to blood,” he says, quoting statistics from India’s National Aids Control Organisation. “I wanted to drive a movement to encourage people to donate blood to fill this gap by 2025.” The foundation hopes to eventually be able to provide blood support to anyone who needs it within 30 minutes.

Last January, Verma launched Simply Blood, an app that connects those in need of blood with registered donors, who can then head to a nearby location to give blood. Over 4,000 people have donated blood via the platform, he says.  India fell short of 1.9 million units of blood in 2016-17 — or the equivalent of 60 tankers, according to official data. The sale of donated blood, often without the donor’s knowledge, compounds the problem and puts this life-saving fluid beyond the reach of the poor. In 2016, Verma was told an emotional tale of a poor family who needed blood, but the man who called him turned out to be a tout, who sold the blood to the family in question. When Verma later found out that the patient’s wife has taken up sex work to pay the Rs1,500, he decided he needed to do something about it. 

To raise awareness of blood donation and of his app the school dropout turned marketing professional turned social entrepreneur has just finished travelling 6,500 kilometres across the length and breadth of India — doing 2,600km on foot. Over a couple of months, he took his message from Srinagar in the northern state of Kashmir to Thiruvananthapuram, the capital of Kerala, and crossed over to the neighbouring countries of Nepal and Bhutan. “I have met with more than 600,000 people across India and hundreds of them took the pledge to donate blood. Ten donors per kilometre will be visible in next one or two years.” He himself has given blood 41 times in the past 15 years.

A request from Pakistan last year prompted Verma’s team to expand its reach. Following an article on a Bengaluru-based website, the organisation was able to connect patients with donor groups within Pakistan itself. 

So far, operations have been largely crowdfunded, with donations from all over, including a small amount from Gulf residents. In May this year, Change with One was among eight non-profits selected by the N/Core incubator to go through a six-month programme, run in partnership with Cisco. “Life is very short and blood is the only body part, which can be donated many times to save number of lives in your lifespan,” he says. 

— K.J.F.

Lessons under a flyover
Satyendra Pal, Teacher

A huge concrete slab meant for a flyover has been put to good use by Satyendra Pal, a 24-year-old BSc student residing in east Delhi’s Yamuna Khadar slum camp. Like others in the family, he worked in the fields, growing vegetables. But, on realising the importance of education, he enrolled himself in a college and also began teaching poor and underprivileged slum children. 

Cucumber means kheera, watermelon means turbooz — the sound reverberates every morning and evening from beneath a partly constructed flyover that works as an open classroom for scores of students. The space, providing shade and shelter from both sun and rain, is near a slum comprising over 2,500 families. Pal too lives here. 

“As I am one of them, I understand the children’s limitations,” says Pal. “They belong to parents of poor farmers or labourers and cannot afford school fees. I do not charge any specific fee; leaving it to the parents to pay whatever they can afford.” 

Pal takes classes in batches — from 3 to 13, all age groups are welcome. “The nearest government schools are far away, which not only means an hour’s walk, but also requires crossing the main road, where traffic is incessant,” he explains. “People residing here do not understand the value of education, nor have the time to drop or pick up children if they go to far off schools.” 

Recently, he received help from some generous people in the form of tables, chairs and blackboards and has set up a separate makeshift classroom in a tent. The meagre funds that come his way take care of his own education. “I recently joined a food delivery market place to sustain myself, as I do not like asking my parents for money,” says Pal. 

He aspires to be an Indian Administrative Services officer and spends his spare time studying. A native of Badaun in Uttar Pradesh, Pal says, “My ambition is to change lives.” He seems to be succeeding as some of his students are considering joining regular schools to better their lives.

— N.P.

A potter’s take on smart home
Mansukh Prajapati, Mitticool

The stakes were multifold — natural disasters, the near loss of an eye, business reputation in ruins and huge debts. Yet, 52-year-old Mansukh Prajapati, a traditional clay craftsman from Wankaner in Rajkot district, Gujarat is listed among Forbes’ seven most powerful rural Indian entrepreneurs, whose out-of-the-box inventions are changing lives of people across the country.

Prajapati has devised low-cost and eco-friendly kitchen products for the masses. Manufactured under the banner Mitticool Clay Creations, the inventions include a refrigerator that runs without electricity, water filters, hot plates and pressure cookers. All products are made of clay. “Observing my parents and subsequently working at a pottery unit taught me the nuances of production work,” Prajapati says. “At the age of 20, I set up my own enterprise, but got a jolt when things went wrong. 

“I invented the clay refrigerator, but had no means to pursue its manufacturing. I realised educating myself would have made life simpler, instead of spending months experimenting with proportions of varied kinds of clay and learning by trial and error. I was bankrupt.”

Hope came in the form of a professor and vice-president of the National Innovation Foundation, Ahmedabad, which discovers innovators and assists them financially. “My life changed,” Prajapati says. “The refrigerator I manufactured was an instant hit. Thereafter, I invented numerous products at the behest of my regular customers. People now want me to manufacture desert coolers, cooking gas stoves and ovens. I shall aspire to fulfil their dreams.”

The school dropout has been traversing the length and breadth of the country giving talks to inspire and instil confidence in new innovators. “My aim is to benefit those who cannot afford the exorbitantly priced luxury products,’ he says. “It bothered me to see [potter] families struggling to survive. 

“I trained more than 2,000 women in industrial pottery techniques and hired many of them to work in my factory. This led to a mini industrial revolution in the art of pottery and created jobs for hundreds of people. ”

— N.P.

The man who grows forests
Shubhendu Sharma, Founder, Afforestt

Shubhendu Sharma insists that Afforestt isn’t a Utopian community. “We live in cities, meet clients, work 9-to-5 jobs, and we are not a social venture but a for-profit company.” And yet, the work done by 32-years-old Sharma and his team of 13 is nothing short of idealistic. They create biodiversity-rich forests that once covered most of the world, but have been denuded due to human greed and growing population. “These forests require zero-maintenance after mere three years of existence, are wild and native,” he says.

Afforestt’s roster of clients spread across 38 cities in nine countries include a bevy of corporates such as Tata Chemicals, Bangalore Airport, Samsonite and Larsen and Toubro; hospitality majors such as Vay Retreats (for whom they created the largest forest spread over 25 acres) and Rajasthan’s MRS Group; and Non-Governmental Organisations such as Baba Amte’s Anandwan in Maharashtra and Alaap in Uttarakhand hills. His TED and INK talks have landed him projects globally, such as Singapore Zoo, and ventures across Pakistan, Iran, USA, and across most of Europe. His work has taken him to the impenetrable jungles of Uttarakhand and the desert of Rajasthan, from cities like Bangalore to New York. 

Sharma first encountered the fascinating idea of creating a forest at the Toyota plant in Bengaluru, where he volunteered with Japanese afforestation expert Akira Miyawaki on a project. “Everything we use in the car industry—from steel to rubber, comes from nature, but the manufacturing process is very linear. A tree becomes a tyre, but a tyre will never become a tree again. You realise nature is soon going to run out of resources,” he reflects. 

Sharma, who grew passionate about the idea of growing forests, set up Afforestt in January 2011 by bootstrapping the venture till he found clients to pay. “I documented Japanese botanist Akira Miyawaki’s technique to create a standard operating procedure. We have tweaked it by adding a layer of Subhash Palekar’s Jeevamruta, which helps nutrients-providing micro-organisms to thrive.” The forest they create has 30 times more green surface area, he says. “We plant at least 30 to 50 species of trees, which eventually attracts a wider range of birds and microbial life.” 

The Bangalore-based entrepreneur reports that there has been a paradigm shift in people’s understanding of benefits of a forest accrue, over manicured landscapes. “Initially, the corporates we approached were sceptical about paying for ‘planting trees’. But we are creating an entire eco-system.” 

— D.N.