Mentor Capital Network interviewed Monisha Narke, Founder and CEO of RUR GreenLife, a participant in the 2016 Sustainable Business Plan Collaboration in June of 2016. RUR GreenLife’s vision is to create eco-conscious citizens who make their waste worthwhile for the planet by adopting good green practices. The company designs and implements sustainable waste management solutions for safe and effective recycling. In the interview below, Ms. Narke shares what motivated her to start RUR Greenlife and the challenge of shifting mindsets to adopt more sustainable ways of living.
Tell me about your company and what you think makes it unique?
RUR’s main objective is to offer decentralized and sustainable waste management solutions to reduce the environmental harms of landfill and toxic waste. We are based in Mumbai and focus our work here. It’s a highly over-populated city. Recent studies have shown we have almost 10,000 metric tons of waste per day, all which is managed in non-sustainable and harmful ways and has a huge environmental impact.
RUR was started from a serious need to manage waste in Mumbai more effectivity. We have developed a solution that is innovative, easy and affordable. One of its major advantages is that it’s compact and manages 60 % of the waste on-site, which is really necessary for a city that is as cramped up as Mumbai. Overall RUR’s solution recycles 90 percent and only dumps 10 percent. In the last year and a half we have developed a new bio-composting product and have applied for a patent. We have just finished a six-month beta trial with 100 families, during which we collected and processed their waste. The lab results came back and the product is perfect for terrace gardening. We are really excited about this because we can close the loop with our work.
RUR Greenlife’s work has been pretty spread out over the past few years. So far we have had 10 projects running simultaneously, with many of them interacting with our community and conducting trainings on waste management and its importance for sustainability and livelihood. Our priority now is to focus our efforts and scale to increase our environmental impact by providing value added jobs for the workers who manage waste. I believe the challenge for us now is to get the community 100 percent on board towards green initiatives. Waste management is not really a priority in India. This is why we have done so much community outreach to begin building a base of supporters and customers who are willing to pay. Moreover the lack of strong government regulation for recycling or waste management doesn’t play to our advantage.
One of the things that we really gained from participating in the Mentor Capital Network’s program and writing the business plan is that we realized the value that we were adding. The process pushed us to focus more on specific value chains. We were doing everything all at once but since then we have been mulling over the feedback and the questions the reviewers presented to us trying to find answers to them.
How would you characterize your growth over the past few years and what factors have influenced it?
Our growth has been steady. We have grown in incremental stages primarily because we are in a new niche industry, at least in India, and our requirements are quite different. We have spent a lot of time learning and developing systems, prototyping to make sure they work from a client’s perspective. Our partnership with Tetra Pak & Reliance Retail on recycling empty Tetra Pak cartons in retail, which is in its sixth year now, has been really great in supporting our growth. The program has given us great experience to reach out to educating citizen on recycling. Now, what we really need is to streamline operations and focus on financials and the possibilities of scale. I am happy that our model has been recognized by local governments as a role model project in waste management. We have media endorsements and we are at a juncture where if we get things right we can really move our company forward.
RUR offers a range of products and services. Has this diversification been beneficial?
We have a lot of activities going on. I think it has done us good and made us appear larger than life and help build and strengthen the RUR brand. We have always been more invested in two core services (bio composting, dry waste recycling and environment education). All our marketing research and financial effort will be focused on these programs in an effort to increase environmental and financial value to the organization. We won’t stop offering our other services all together but they won’t be a priority for us and probably won’t be advertised as much.
What successes that have your company accomplished that you would like to share with us?
Go Green with Tetra Pak is a collaborative initiative which was used by the Limca Book of Records in India, so we were recognized nationwide as a great recycling idea and we are very happy with that. Our E-2-E decentralized and sustainable waste management project was also recognized by the local government and it was featured in the news. Moreover is it rewarding for me to see people respond well to our trainings and engage with our projects. It is also rewarding to see people see a picture of a pumpkin being grown in someone’s back yard because of our work. Our research and development efforts and filing of patent for a zero energy aerobic bio composter has been most exciting.
Moreover our volunteer program has been very useful for recent graduates and has become very popular. Finally I would say one big accomplishment is our team. We have six permanent employees and we just moved into a new office. I am very proud of them and I know I can look to them for excellent work to grow the company.
What challenges did you face in launching the company?
The biggest challenge was basically developing the right system for our kind of environment. We had to go through a bunch of them, and this was hard not only because it was frustrating but also because the process takes financial investment from our side. We have overcome that challenge now and we are pretty happy with our product thus far. Of course we will keep innovating.
Another challenge was also offering our services for free many times. I am constantly investing my time and energy to help people adopt recycling in their homes and work, and that came from my passion to save the environment, but is obviously not a good business decision. . A final challenge is that we have attempted to replicate nature and our process is slow. It takes about 10 to 12 weeks to see results and people want to see results fast. Convincing them to be patient with the process is not easy
How are you doing in terms of sales and revenue?
We have a service-based revenue model at the moment where we charge for the services we offer that are calculated based on raw material, labor and overhead costs. Right now for the ten projects that we charge for we also have education workshops for schools. I am very grateful for the Go Green with Tetra Pak program that gives us fixed revenue. We are not looking at grants and loans at the moment as we are satisfied with our model as it is, but we just want to make sure it is self sustaining. Hopefully we won’t need to, but if we feel like people are still not willing to pay then we may consider grants or CSR funding. We want to have ownership over the project and we want to give customers ownership and having them own it is the best way to do this.
How much is your revenue?
Annually, $60,000 US dollars.
How many customers have you served so far?
150 customers have paid for our product. But our service has educated and connected about 100,000 people across Mumbai.
Which parts of your company would you focus on if you had more time?
Researching and innovating better solutions for waste management is the key area of focus. Constantly coming up with more ideas to make our product very robust. I think that is my personal strength but running a startup doesn’t always allow time for ‘creativity’. I am fully invested in this company – it is my heart and soul, and that is why I really want us to stand out and get the recognition we deserve. Moreover I want to spend more time strategizing and streamlining our processes.
One of the things we want our entrepreneurs to think about is the distinction between customers and beneficiaries. Customers are those who pay and beneficiaries are those whose lives are made better because your company exists. Who would you identify as your company’s beneficiaries?
Well for our company there is a huge ecological benefit. Moreover when I think about all of the people who are involved in the project, I know they’ll all be educated about the importance of waste management. I believe the biggest achievement for RUR Greenlife would be if made the community see the value in adopting environmentally friendly behaviour.
What are your plans for the future of RUR Greenlife?
I really want us to be able to sustain our model and scale our projects. I want to continue to build our customer base to a stage where in 5 years we would have twenty projects and 100 working models around the city consistently recycling waste in large quantities. I also want us to a have a stronger back up of waste so we can reach out to under privileged communities. We really want to start quantifying our impact to see exactly what we have accomplished so far.
How has your participation with the MCN helped your company?
I’m very grateful to have worked with the Mentor Capital Network. It helped me as an entrepreneur take some time away from the details of the operation and come back and think about where we are and where the company is headed. The reviewer feedback was very insightful and I was happy to see they really understood what the company is all about. I am still reading the feedback and looking forward to connecting with all of them further.
I also really appreciated how the program is structured. It hasn’t eaten our time. My experience with some other competitions is that you end up leaving everything and just dealing with their requirements.
One last thing is the tag line ‘Mission Drives Margin.’ I didn’t really understand at first but as I moved through the program I realized that it wasn’t always easy convincing people that making profit and saving the environment aren’t mutually exclusive but are very much connected to one another.
Learn more about RUR Greenlife here.