India is grappling with a pollution crisis that shows no signs of abating. According to the World Air Quality Report 2021 by the Swiss company IQAir, India is home to 63 of the world’s 100 most polluted places. Land and water are not spared either as plastic waste chokes both.
Governments have tried to tackle this escalating issue. For instance, last year, Indian media reported that the Delhi government notified a scheme to replace commercial vehicles owned by all aggregators, delivery service providers and e-commerce companies in Delhi with electric vehicles (EVs) by 2030. In 2022, a nationwide ban was imposed on certain single use plastic items, and the country has set ambitious targets to boost renewable energy. But the citizenry has called for better strategies to enforce such policies on the ground.
Meanwhile, several start-up entrepreneurs have launched sustainable businesses to try and ensure that sustainability doesn’t remain a mere buzzword. Here are a few of them.
Amit Gupta, co-founder and CEO, Yulu
Amit Gupta aims for the sky — and while he is at it, he wants to try and ensure that it’s a clean one. With the launch of Yulu, a shared electric mobility company, this goal might well be within grasp.
The 47-year-old resides in Bengaluru. The Silicon Valley of India is so infamous for its traffic that it’s launched a thousand memes. On his trips abroad to places in Europe and China, he used to notice people travelling on electric vehicles, especially two wheelers. “I used to wonder why this is not happening in India, where we also have problems of mobility and affordability,” says Gupta. Also, he was about to turn 40. “I thought, let me pick up a social problem; maybe we could come up with a solution where we can certainly solve the traffic problem and also make a positive impact on the air pollution.” With the core team in place, Yulu was founded in 2017.
When they first started to pivot from their initial products, from bicycles to e-bikes, they received pushback, particularly from the investor community. “They asked, where is the ecosystem, who will make the bike for you, where do you have the battery and the charging system,” recalls Gupta. So he and the team went about building a system to help make electric mobility a reality in India.
They’ve partnered with delivery platforms Zomato and Zepto and according to Gupta, delivery partners from several e-commerce and last-mile delivery companies use their EVs to deliver close to 8 million packets every month. According to numbers shared by the company, they have facilitated over 80 million eco-friendly rides. And their joint venture with Magna International, called Yuma Energy, operates more than 100 battery charging and swapping stations across the country.
Vaibhav Anant, founder & CEO at Bambrew, and advisor to National Bamboo Mission
In 2017, Vaibhav Anant watched a video where a tortoise struggled as people tried to extract a plastic straw that was lodged in its nostrils. It was a wake-up call. He tried to come up with an impactful but cost-efficient alternative to single-use plastics in the packaging space and zeroed in on the versatile bamboo. “Also, India is the second largest producer of bamboo in the world,” he adds.
Today, the Bengaluru-based start-up also uses raw materials like banana fibres, seaweed and sugar cane and has products like mailer bags, paper carry bags and paper tapes. Their clients include companies like Amazon, Nykaa and Big Basket. Anant says that they have replaced more than 25,000 tons of single use plastic. “More than 1.5 million tons of Co2 have been saved by Bambrew’s alternatives,” he says, adding that the entire production process, from using the right raw materials to using solar energy and making the end product recyclable, is sustainable.
As an advisor to the National Bamboo Mission by the government of India, Anant discusses policies around bamboo with them to help the sector grow. For instance, he explains, the process of taking bamboo from the forests used to be a cumbersome one, which involved applying for a transit pass. But on his suggestion, says Anant, they were able to abolish the process of getting the pass. “We are working with the government to develop a bamboo pulping and paper-making facility in the north of Andhra Pradesh. That’s around Rs1.8– 2 billion project, in which the government is looking to fund Rs1.35 billion and the rest will be done by us, to set up the unit.”
Shreyans Kokra, founder, CanvaLoop
Shreyans Kokra’s family is into textile manufacturing but eager to chart his own path, the 30-year-old decided to study finance.
While pursuing a master’s programme at Babson College, he realised how polluting the textile industry was. “Almost 10 per cent of the global wastewater is generated by processing textiles,” he points out.
He worked on the topic of sustainable textiles for a college project and was even able to garner interest from companies in the US but decided to return to his hometown Surat, a bustling city and textile hub in Gujarat.
After facing several roadblocks, he launched CanvaLoop in December 2019. The start-up initially used hemp as the only raw material but Shreyans fine-tuned the process until they were able to use agri-waste of banana, pineapple and oilseed directly procured from farmers, thus providing the farmers with monetary benefits while also reducing crop residue burning. Also, he says, no coal, hazardous solvents or chemicals are used and all the water that’s used is recycled.
“We got a life cycle analysis done so we have the precise numbers. On an average, we save around 300,000 litres of water daily, 500kg CO2 equivalent per day and a similar amount of energy emissions,” says Kokra.
Today, he says, they have clients like Levi’s and Target among others. “The challenge in India is that anyone can claim to be sustainable. We see brands using very negative practices call themselves sustainable because there’s no regulation or awareness,” he says.
But things are changing especially post-Covid as it drove people to embrace sustainable practices. “People are more aware and systems are getting more refined.”
Vivek Subramanian, co-founder, Fourth Partner Energy
Having studied and worked abroad in cities like London and Dubai more than a decade ago, Hyderabad-based Vivek Subramanian knows what clean air feels like. “Even back then, India had some of the most polluted cities in the world,” he recalls. The 49-year old, who was working in finance, itched to test himself as an entrepreneur. So he moved back to India from Dubai in 2005.
India relies very heavily on fossil fuels like coal for its energy needs. And 50 per cent of power, Subramanian says, is consumed by corporates. So he, Saif Dhorajiwala and Vikas Saluguti got together to launch renewable energy company Fourth Partner Energy in 2010 to help corporates make that crucial shift to green energy. They provide solutions to meet their energy needs — one of the many ways they do this is by installing wind and solar projects, like rooftop solar power plants.
Today, they have about 300 clients including Coca Cola, Unilever and Ultratech cement. “The green energy space has transformed completely and my customers are being forced to go down the sustainable route by their customers,” says Subramanian. “They cannot bid for certain projects if they do not have operations that are fuelled by renewable energy.”
He points out that carbon emissions are swanky words which the lay person may not understand. “So, instead, we have quantified that every megawatt of a solar project we build or install is the equivalent of planting 60,000 trees.” And their total estimated impact? “75 million trees!” he says.