For most developing countries, the need to evolve a system for the hygienic disposal of human waste is paramount. And for us Indians, the problem is all too familiar as even in cities, several pockets suffer from the lack of proper sanitation facilities.
Post his MBA, Rajeev Kher was on an internship in the U.S. in 1999, when he struck upon the idea to start a venture of his own that would generate employment and simultaneously serve a social need. He realised that providing sanitation solutions in India fit the bill, is non-seasonal and at the same time, would generate some revenues.
There is no glamour in our job and we find people from smaller towns are more open to join us. They think they can go back and do something for their regions too.
“Even today, it is a small business. Back then, I started with Rs. 5,000 in hand, which I used to buy two portable toilets,” recollects Kher, as he narrates how 3S Shramik (the service brand under Saraplast Pvt. Ltd.) came into being in Pune. It was as unlikely a business as any other considering his father was an army man and his mother, a lecturer. However, after the initial surprise wore off, both his parents were supportive of his aspirations.
On the first job he undertook, Kher was the only employee and personally took responsibility for the cleaning of the toilet at the wedding site he installed the toilets in. And even today, it is the cleaning and maintenance services of the portable toilets that 3S Shramik generates its revenues from. It serves a variety of areas – right from event locations and construction sites to slums and rural areas.
How it works
Typically, the company charges for maintenance, cleaning and repair of the toilets at the site. It operates a cleaning truck with a service technician to visit the sites. “The truck has suction equipment to evacuate the waste, since the toilets are drain free, and cleans the toilet for further use,” explains Kher. It could be daily or on alternate days, depending on the usage of the toilets and customer requirements.
In the west, the market is mature and estimated to be a US $7 billion business. In India, it is yet to be recognised as an industry. But most importantly, there is tremendous need for education and training, and that is also one of the focus areas of the company.
3S Shramik has offices across seven cities – including Mumbai, Pune, Bengaluru, Chennai, Puducherry and in Goa, and is planning to enter cities such as Hyderabad, Lucknow, Ahmedabad, Jaipur, Nasik, Nagpur, Kolhapur and Aurangabad. It also services refineries and has a few thousand toilets in Paradeep and Puducherry among others.
Bringing in the units
The company started by importing its units from Germany and the U.S. Kher states that these toilets are of very high quality and comparable to the best in the world. His thinking was, the better the toilet, the more people will be willing to use it. Having started with only Rs. 5,000, he had no bank loans or anyone to back him up as his idea did not seem profitable. Yet, one German company trusted him enough to lend him the unit and take the payment when he was able to make it.
The growth was slow till 2006 – 07 when Kher along with his brother Ranjeet and friend Ulka Sagalkar started manufacturing the toilet units in India and formed the company Saraplast. “We continue to source the raw material from our original supplier, which has now been taken over by an American company,” says Kher. Today, it is a small workshop that manufactures 10,000 parts per unit.
Witnessing the boom
In 2009, Shramik was funded by Aavishkaar, a social venture fund, to the tune of US $500,000 and since then, its story has changed dramatically. Currently, the company’s growth is pegged at 30 per cent, growing from revenues of Rs. 2 – 3 crore in 2009 to a projected Rs. 12 – 15 crore this fiscal.
3S Shramik now employs 200 people and has three levels of workforce – top management, the supervisors and the workers. The supervisory line has been trained to take independent decisions on daily operations to allow the top management to focus on strategic decisions. The profile of people includes ex-defence personnel, ACOs (authorised contracting officers) and officer cadres, young MBAs and graduates from smaller cities. “There is no glamour in our job and we find people from smaller towns are more open to join us. They think they can go back and do something for their regions too,” points out Kher.
Saraplast (3S Shramik)
Founder: Rajeev Kher
Focus: Portable sanitation units and maintenance services
Investor: Aavishkaar Venture
Investment: US $500,000
With 3S Shramik seeing fast-paced growth, Kher is more confident of achieving his vision of partnering with the government in raising the bar for sanitation in the country. He has been focusing on creating microenterprises, wherein local people are given these portable units, provided training and cleaning support on a revenue-sharing basis. “We cannot be everywhere, but this way, we will be able to create opportunities for local people as well as ensure a certain level of sanitation in slums, places of pilgrimage and locations where large events are held,” he points out.
For the company, construction sites will continue to be the main revenue generators. Working with non-governmental organisations for pay-and-use toilets will be another area of focus. Thirdly, like the kirana store, Shramik will create toilets that come with a range of associated products like soaps, condoms and sanitary napkins.
The company has created 15 to 20 micro-entrepreneurs and services about one lakh people everyday. By June 2012, many more are expected to become a part of the network.
Kher is a director and the only representative from a developing country of Portable Sanitation Association in the U.S. He calls it a great learning experience that enables him to design solutions for Indian needs. He is also working with the municipalities in Maharashtra to redefine the concept of a clean toilet to bring it to more acceptable levels and hopes to expand his reach. “Revenues will eventually flow but we are keener on seeing a transformation in the hygiene levels across the country,” says Kher. And all his energies are focused on just that.
Concept in brief
While working abroad, Rajeev Kher realised that portable sanitation units would have a huge demand in India because it was a woefully underserviced segment. He founded Saraplast (with product brand name 3S Shramik) in Pune and the initial going was tough as this was a business that hardly attracted investors or jobseekers. But Kher persisted, not flinching even when he had to personally maintain the toilets that he had installed at a wedding site.
In 2009, Aavishkaar’s investment gave it a new lease of life. As 3S Shramik ventured into manufacturing units, revenues have grown at a fast pace and this year, Kher’s company hopes to hit the Rs. 12 crore mark. Kher’s dream though is not just to generate big revenues, but also create microenterprises and improve the hygiene standards in the country. For this, he is training local entrepreneurs to hire his toilets and the services on a revenue-sharing basis. He is also engaging with local governments to implement better hygiene standards in public toilets.