[Round Two Winner: 6/8] Mandeep Singh – Project LiFELiving Rise | February 3, 2012
Project LiFE ensures the right to education of children in rural India by providing them with solar lamps.
Vikrant and his brother Vishant started an NGO that helps underprivileged children. They then created a green business with a 500 crore potential. He is one of the winners for Spark the Rise Round 1.
As you read this, notice a few things:
What motivated you to start this NGO – Helping Hand Society?
The difficulty we have gone through during our college days and school days, financial crunch. We always wanted to help people, students, little privileged children who are not getting opportunity to study. That’s why in 2009 myself and my brother decided to start this NGO called Helping Hand Society
That is the motivation: if someone has helped me, then I should also return that to the society, that’s how we came up with this idea of starting an NGO.
What is the story behind Helping Hand Society?
My grandfather was the main leader of the family, complete joint family and he died. So after that the whole burden came on my father, and later on myself, my brother, my cousins, the whole family, so my father had to set a leash on anyone. That’s how the income and the expense on the education, the gap was too high. But still he managed to, he never compromised our study part, the rest everything we compromised.
When I went to college, I started taking tuitions just to support my father. My mother also started earning something. So that everybody was trying to generate some revenue just to support our education part. When I entered into the college, and afterward I got a job, then things started coming up to line. The complete process was a nightmarish kind of experience, every day, every week, every month, not for me only but for all of us. So the whole motivation actually came from that perspective: if we cannot help underprivileged children for all his life, at least to support his basic education, and momentarily support. For example, if he wants some admission in college and he is falling short on money. Those little things actually define a career path for that particular guy. In fact, in my case as well, it’s not only me or my parents or my friends who have helped me out, there were many people who have come across to help me out in a smaller or bigger way. So it was a whole effort taken by the whole society. That is the motivation: if someone has helped me, then I should also return that to the society, that’s how we came up with this idea of starting an NGO.
What were the goals of the NGO at the start?
At that time there was no other goal or objective for this NGO other than to help the children underprivileged children though our own arranged funds and through friends and relatives. So it was just the idea that came into our mind and we just started it. Finally, month by month we started realizing that the goal is too big, the objective has to be defined very clearly and then we have to work towards those objectives. The project we have put on Spark the Rise is the result of those thought processes, to make this initiative more successful.
My brother and I decided to generate a self-sustainable business idea which can give the base strength to the society and it can earn on itself, and that’s how the profit that we make some portion we can invest in the Society
From being an NGO, why did you and your brother decide to also turn it into a business venture?
The resources of the funds we were getting from our relatives and friends was very limited. In fact, if you see the balance sheet of last 2 years, we do not have 1 lakh. Still we were able to do a little. We realized at some point that this is not going to work this way. If we stared something it should actually serve the purpose of what we intended to. That’s when my brother and I decided to generate a self-sustainable business idea which can give the base strength to the society and it can earn on itself, and that’s how the profit that we came some portion we can invest in the society. So that’s why we were thinking socially relevant ideas, and that’s how we came up with this idea, alternative of the polythene bags. That’s how it turned into a business venture along with fulfilling the core purpose of our NGO.
This seems different from the usual way of developing a business idea…
You are right: the business idea normally happens that business houses earn profit and then they give back to the society whatever they can. Here, the things have happened just opposite; we have started one social initiative of educating the children and then we went back to make it a business idea, or to make something more sustainable in longer run so that we can support this initiative. I would say that this is not a very normal thing as a business phenomenon, but that is what is called social entrepreneurship: when you think about the society first and then derive some business idea, some really unique idea to attach to your social initiative. So this is a change in mindset that is happening in people’s minds. This is happening all across India and all across the world. I think the world is changing; people are not looking at an initiative only from the profitable point of view, rather they are looking at it from profitable and socially responsible point of view.
How did you come up with this business idea? Tell us the story.
Everybody is talking about removing polythene bags from society, but nobody is talking about providing an alternative to small shopkeepers. So the whole idea came from this need gap, that there is no alternative available to the polythene bags yet we are talking of banning the polythene bags. So if we are talking about banning the polythene bags, that is not going to be enough. We have to provide an affordable alternative of that, and that’s how we started this initiative.
We identified this need. I’ll tell you the story of how this happened. My brother Vishant was just standing at a small retailers shop and the shopkeeper was paying a bribe to government official because polythene bags are basically banned in that area in Varanasi. He just thought that shopkeepers have no alternative, because polythene bags are very cheap, they cost around 15-25 paise per bag, so he could afford to give it to customer for free. Now since these are banned, the closest alternative costs around 2 rupees per bag, but customer is not willing to pay him that amount. So the shopkeeper doesn’t have any alternative other than to shoo his customer away or if he has the polythene bags he has to pay bribes to the government officials.
So from all the angles the loser is the small retailer, so that’s how we came up with the idea of why not provide an alternative to this polythene bags. The nearest alternative available were cloth bags, which are very costly 5-6 rupees per bag. Then there was the idea of a non-woven bag, which costs around 2 rupees per bag. So that’s how when a problem comes, you find many solutions, and the best solution is called innovation, basically. So he came up with the solution: why not print advertisements on these bags? Because anyway shopkeepers do that in their own capacity: they print names and advertisements and they circulate this through their own shop. Then why not generalize it? Why not take advertisement of shops and put it on the bag because the bags are going into the customers’ house? He discussed this idea with me, and that sounds good to me. So the financial assistance and that sort of thing we figured out, and we launched it on 15th of August this year.
So he came up with the solution: why not print advertisements on these bags? Because anyway shopkeepers do that in their own capacity: they print names and advertisements and they circulate this through their own shop. Then why not generalize it?
What was the response to the new bags? Have they been successful?
The response was huge, much beyond our expectation. We could circulate around 6000-7000 bags, and already we had gotten sponsorship of around 10,000 bags. So looking at this pilot we decided to make it more serious and we have started our efforts to source the bags at cheaper costs, to source print houses at cheaper costs. And that’s how we started this business venture.
When we did this pilot, we tried to figure out how much is this going to cost, and how much profitability is it going to generate for us? And surprisingly, we found out that we can lend the spaces in the bags to as many as 6 brands, and that’s how we could still be cheaper for one particular brand to advertise, and yet on the whole we can cover the cost of the bag and generate some profit as well. So now we can provide these bags at the same cost of polythene bags, in some cases we can distribute it free of cost.
What was the biggest challenge when you were starting out?
The most challenging parts of starting were the raw material charges and the printing charges. Managing the quality of the prints was really challenging, still we are facing that challenge and we are working on so many options to overcome that challenge. Sourcing the supply of the raw material at an economical cost, as well as sourcing to the printing vendor so that it can convey the same brand message that the sponsors want.
How about in the future? What are the biggest challenges you anticipate?
Apart from that, managing the volume of this business is going to be a big challenge we face in coming years. As of now, our circulation is very low, it is around 35-40,000 a month. In the future, we are anticipating that it will be 30-40,000 a day. It is going to be a huge task to manage the volumes of this big circulation. Apart from that, like every starting phase, arranging for the funds but I hope that we will be overcoming that.
What are the short and long-term objectives of the business?
There is a huge potential of this business, we have calculated it in 10 cities in India and the business is 500-600 crore. So by 2015, my goal is to reach even just 10% of that. We want to provide 1 million bags per month. Short-term, we are looking for the circulation of 2 lakhs bags per month in Mumbai.
How about for the NGO? What are its objectives?
There is a need for good schools. Basic education is a huge concern for parents. We are already running a school. We intend to expand it once we receive some profitability from this business venture. So we want to make schools, give scholarships to people who are really needing it. We already have a plan under our NGO umbrella. Once this business initiative gets successful, we will start executing it. By 2020, we want to start 6-7 more schools.
How was Spark the Rise helped your project?
These kinds of initiatives need a platform where people can see them. And that’s how STR has helped us increasing our visibility to the masses and the people. During the process of voting, actually we have been marketing our project, we have been talking about our project, talking to volunteers. It was a complete marketing initiative for us. We have been covered in local media, at least 6 times in newspaper, 2 times in radio.
Visit http://www.sparktherise.com/projectdetail.php?pid=257 to learn more about the eco-friendly, affordable alternative of polythene bag.
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