Greenway: Bringing cleaner cooking to rural India

Neha Juneja, Co-founder, Greenway

Location: Mumbai, India

“If you don’t experience a problem yourself, it’s not easy to solve it”

There was a year in the early days of Greenway in India, where Neha Juneja and her two-co-founders were eating everything they were cooking on a traditional cookstove that each of them kept in their apartments in Mumbai. Juneja, Ankit Mathur and Shoeb Kazi were designing a clean cookstove, and the result was an inevitable cook-off. Whilst they did not adjust their diets – for example, they were cooking instant noodles on the traditional stove – Juneja perfected the art of two dishes that year, including kaali daal (black lentils) and besan ka pura (gramflour pancakes).

Calories aside, Juneja points to the importance of learning a first business lesson. “If you don’t experience a problem yourself, it’s not easy to solve it,” she says. Factors included the density of the smoke or having to go out to gather wood, which bothered the cook, the fact that it was time-consuming in general. “Put simply, a mud stove (‘miti ka chulha’) just presented sheer inconvenience,” says Juneja, who says the consumer was looking for the ease of cooking rather than reduced carbon emissions in the first instance. The design objective was set: make something that people would use, and which did not pollute. It took 8 months to find a vendor to make an air-inducted stove which reduced 65% of fuel costs and 70% of emissions, and another two years before sales started.

Today, Greenway is India’s largest clean cookstove seller and has sold around 550,000 biomass stoves. The market is so big, says Juneja, that competition does not enter her mind. Greenway employs almost 170 employees all over India, including 7 people in Bangalore, 11 people in Mumbai, and 60 people at Greenway’s own factory in Vadodara, Gujarat, around six hours north of Mumbai. “I don’t know everyone’s name!” exclaims Juneja, and you sense she really wishes she did.

Cooking on the Greenway stove

The 2008 economic crisis put an end to an earlier startup created by the trio behind Greenway, which was an enterprise in the financial services space. Whilst the team were making money, they worried that they were working on a project which did not create a “net positive activity”. The win-win business that they eventually started to work on, two years later, focussed on bringing carbon finance into rural energy projects, including solar and biogas. In this way the team of five, which transitioned over from the previous startup, stumbled across the issue of polluting cookstoves in India; according to a 2011 census, two-thirds of the population were still using mud cookstoves or ‘chulhas’.

A production and manufacturing engineer herself (her co-founders are chemical and mechanical engineers), Juneja finds herself along with the majority of her employees working in sales. This, she says, is not a difficult ask in itself – it’s more the fact that the company has to constantly be on the ground, because they target domestic households only. Community engagement with stakeholders remains a vital aspect of the business.

With a “shabby website” the only thing for customers to go on, Juneja says that sales began in 2012, in line with another business rule that the company cultivated; “when opportunity knocks, it works for us”. Plus, the team felt quite “clueless”. “It happens in a startup. Someone called us from Karnataka (in the south-west) and were interested in being a distributor.” Juneja jokes that the business model is adjusted “every two hours; we try everything”. Within a year of sales, the company was profitable. Greenway has also had an angel investor and done a round of funding. A standard cookstove costs 1500 rupees ($23), and the larger size costs 2500 rupees ($38).

Shoeb Kazi Neha Juneja and Ankit Mathur of Greenway Appliances with their clean cookstove

Juneja wishes more men were cooks to understand the problem well, although she notes women’s networks in southern India (which is a bit more developed) and eastern India (which is culturally a bit more different) are stronger. Women’s organisations and self-help groups are a useful gateway to talk to more women who are potential customers, particularly in group settings. “We spend four months putting in a lot of effort in a new market, constantly engaging with customers and proving it can help someone cook faster and be environmentally friendly,” says Juneja. Affordability is the main drawback for potential customers, although Greenway deals with the challenge by providing payments in instalments or in special cases, with extra support. Greenway has deliberately remained in its skin as a social enterprise, and so Juneja explains that it is even more important to provide warranties and show that, despite its non-flashy exterior and lack of a huge marketing budget, Greenway is a company to trust in.

Throughout, the co-founders have remained good friends, pulling the other up if pessimism ever sank in, and they continue to go on the ground – “we wouldn’t make any sales if we sat in the office! But India is like so many countries, it’s fun,” she says. Named ‘Brightest Young Climate Leader’ by the Hindustan Times & British Council, and an award-winner in the L’Oreal Paris Femina Women Award for Science and Innovation in 2013, she agrees at my suggestion that the accolades could have felt humbling for her, but, crucially, adds: “The awards do not filter down to our customers. We need to establish ourselves by being on the ground, and sometimes a customer has to meet a representative a few times before committing. People always buy a television before a toilet,” she laughs, about her comment in one forum that a rural household she came across owned the latest electronics and motorbikes, but still had an inefficient mud cookstove in the kitchen.

Juneja finds that Kerala is the easiest state to sell in, since women make the purchase very quickly. Further north, the team has to deal with more men who make purchases in their families, and so the marketing tack changes, with leaflets swapped out with images of ‘a responsible man’ on them. She is recently back from Nagaland, in the mountains of the north-east, where she found a lot of men were cooking domestically. In West Bengal and Assam, despite the poverty, she finds there is more consciousness about the environment and willingness to buy something new. Just like everywhere, she adds, across economic groups, environmental awareness is not usually the first impulse towards making a purchase.

As for other ways there has been impact, Juneja describes an “unintended positive” as having female staff in Karnataka,” says Juneja. “There is a stigma around hiring widows, can you imagine – and other women who come from a certain background where they were otherwise not being offered jobs.” Since  Greenway has a distribution chain across the country, the idea is to scale up cookstoves and also launch new products. This latest is a ‘direct-to-home’ (DTH) service, in partnership with two satellite companies. The set would screen educational channels as well as entertainment, reaching consumers for free after an initial payment. “This allows people to keep enjoying their boxsets without having to worry about keeping up with payments,” says Juneja. She insists on continuing to create change to add value in people’s lives – using a mudstove for an hour, according to the Greenway website, is the equivalent to smoking 20 cigarettes.

–Nabeelah Shabbir, @lahnabee

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