Emerging Entrepreneurs

Fuelling kitchens, briquette by briquette

Meera Siva | Updated on January 13, 2018

S SURAJSAIRAM, Founder of Haritha Green Energy

Haritha Green Energy makes bio-mass briquettes and stoves

When travelling long distance by road, you would have stopped at roadside eateries for a quick bite. Their kitchens are hot and filled with smoke from the fire wood being used. Helping clear the smoke is S Surajsairam, founder of Haritha Green Energy, which makes bio-mass briquettes and stoves. The start-up was recognised as one among the Top 5 social start-ups by the Deshpande Foundation in its annual dialogue held at Hubbali in January.

Within a year of starting operations, Haritha has built a base of 25 customers for its commercial kitchen stoves and briquette fuel, along with five industrial clients. This is thanks to happy stakeholders — cooks who have a better working environment; owners who save a bundle on firewood or LPG purchases; less pollution and re-use of wasted material such as tree bark, saw dust, groundnut shell, waste from rice and wheat polishing that is not fit for cattle feed.

It was not on Surajsairam’s mind to enter the renewable energy space when he was working in the R&D department of Godrej Appliances. “I wanted to do a platform for healthcare professionals,” says 27-year-old Surajsairam, a mechanical engineering graduate. “My father has an auto component manufacturing plant in Nashik. When I quit my job in 2014 to do something on my own, he suggested that I look at all options including manufacturing,” he says.

After talking with many people and after doing a bit of ground-level research, Surajsairam felt bio-mass was a promising area. “Among the renewable energy sources, bio-mass is the one where the supply is in our control,” he notes.

The spark

He tried out different briquette-burning stoves, but they all had some issues. He worked on designing a more efficient stove with improved ease-of-use and life. The family also decided to buy land and build a briquette plant in Vikravandi, Villupuram district in Tamil Nadu. Agri input sourcing arrangements were made. When he got admission into an MBA programme in mid-2014, his father R Shivaraman advised Surajsairam to join the course while he got the plant operational. By September 2015, there was a robust order pipeline for industrial use and production started. But before the idea could catch on, the plant suffered heavy damage during the December 2015 flood and could not service orders.

They got things back on track, but were dealt another blow. “Crude prices had dropped dramatically to under $30 a barrel and companies found using furnace oil to be more economical than briquettes,” says Surajsairam. Orders were cancelled and there was no visibility on a recovery. Their bank loan EMI moratorium was ending soon.

The flame

Totally stressed, Surajsairam, however, went ahead with the idea of selling to commercial kitchens. There were concerns on stove service, fuel supply regularity and price stability. “Our stoves, made in our plant in Nashik, could run well for over six months before they needed to be serviced. And the master cook can replace the part himself easily,” he says.

Having a briquette plant close to where sales was happening helped provide fuel supply assurance. The ability to maintain prices was still a risk for customers. “We buy agro raw materials from agents who aggregate supply from myriad small producers. There is a risk that they will hike prices any time, especially when we start buying larger quantities,” says Surajsairam. Haritha decided to keep prices stable to buyers and handle any input price variations themselves. Addressing these critical customer concerns, along with word of mouth praise by cooks, aided sales. Higher crude prices brought back more industrial demand. The 700-tonne briquette plant employs 12 people and currently produces about 150 tonnes per month, with about a third for commercial kitchens.

The fire

Haritha is working on a model plantation to create agri raw material for its use. It plans to understand which plants work well and create a contract manufacturing model to ensure raw material supply. An acre of energy plantation can fetch farmers ₹75,000 to ₹1 lakh a year, says Surajsairam. The advantage is that it requires much less water and maintenance compared to other crops.

It is expanding its sales and distribution network. “We have interest from firewood vendors to sell briquettes,” he says. Besides eateries, they are also looking at snack makers and bakeries to expand their client base. Besides the stove, they are working on a dosa unit with a tava and stove, based on requests from existing clients. There is also interest in briquette-fired tea boilers.

Published on February 20, 2017

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