Photo: Mint
Photo: Mint

A gutsy woman on e-drive

Provided with scooters equipped with a tablet and a mobile hotspot to offer digital literacy and digital services, women can be mentored to become entrepreneurs

Her name is Hemalatha Annamalai. I don’t know her age but she has two daughters, aged 19 and 16. Hemalatha, a computer science engineer, worked in Singapore for 18 years before moving back and settling down in Coimbatore. In the world of manufacturing, traditionally a man’s bastion, she runs Ampere Vehicles Pvt. Ltd, a company that manufactures electric cycles, scooters, tricycles and waste carriers. She has a support staff of 120 people, 40% of whom are women.

Hemalatha has a mission—she wants to enable mobility in the country because she believes that it empowers people to earn their own livelihood, make their own decisions, and serve others with a purpose.

I first met Hemalatha in Bengaluru a few months back when both us were invited to speak to 450 aspiring and practising entrepreneurs who were part of the popular Jagriti Yatra. For those who may not know, Jagriti Yatra is a journey by train of 450 to 500 youth who are driven by a passion for innovation and entrepreneurship.

They travel together for 12 days across different parts of the country and each day, they discuss a new case of a successful and inspiring enterprise or entrepreneur.

Hemalatha and I were impressed by each other’s passions and missions, and so we decided to connect. She invited me to Coimbatore, and I paid a visit to her manufacturing unit last month.

Ampere produces vehicles including bicycles and waste carriers-cum-rickshaws that are fitted with batteries which allow them to run at faster speeds with less manual energy.

“We will not stop until every scooter on the Indian roads is electric and we’ve created 500,000 jobs," I remember her telling me.

Ampere’s vehicles aren’t a mere means for transport; they give meaning to lives of their owners. The company claims to have sold more than 20,000 electric vehicles so far, and to have “saved more than 9 million litres of petrol and prevented almost 14 million kilogrammes of CO2 emissions".

Ampere is an eight-year-old company that is not yet profitable but that hasn’t dampened Hemalatha’s enthusiasm (which is infectious) or her energy (which is enviable). She talks animatedly and rapidly.

Her speed of delivery sounds as though someone has hit ‘fast forward’ on an advertisement for a financial service with an asterisk at the end — the kind you hear often on the radio. When one is talking to Hemalatha, it’s almost impossible to not feel inspired by her vision and enthusiasm.

Hemalatha sells ideas, innovations, dreams and a ready-made business and enterprise opportunity that she says can be opened through the mobility one gains from possessing an electric bicycle, scooter or tricycle. It is almost impossible to not buy her ideas and products if you have spent 10 minutes with her.

Take for example, the e-rickshaws that have been designed as waste carrying three-wheelers. Earlier, waste used to be carried on traditional hand-pulled rickshaws that could carry only up to 80-100kg of load that had to be pulled by two to three people. Ampere’s waste carriers can carry up to 300kg, and only require one human resource.

Ampere piloted this project in a panchayat in Tamil Nadu where it trained and mentored women to not just drive these waste carriers but also transform into entrepreneurs through the segregation of waste for recycling, reuse, selling as scrap and making compost. The initiative later spread to 40 villages where 200 people have become self-sustainable waste managers. Impressed with the success of the e-waste carriers, the District Rural Development Agency now wants to adopt the e-waste carriers across all the blocks in the state.

With instructions printed on its frame on how to collect garbage, segregate it and dispose of it, the e-rickshaw acts as a small-sized conscious business venture. The vehicle seems almost especially designed for the Swachh Bharat campaign, meant not only to keep the neighbourhood clean but also make a financial profit through waste collection and disposal.

A success story of this e-rickshaw is already visible at Kurudampalayam panchayat in Coimbatore, where women members of a self-help group are running a waste management enterprise by driving around a number of these three-wheelers.

A lot of research goes behind each of her products. In fact, the cost of each part of the vehicle or the vehicle itself is less than the cost of testing and research that goes into making each one of them better every time.

For example, the most unique and proud innovation to come out of Hemalatha’s unit is the Angel e-cycle. It looks very simple, but its manufacturing is not. Each of these e-cycles runs on a rechargeable battery that enables it to travel up to 50km and reach a maximum speed of 35km per hour—I test-drove it myself. It also has the ability to run on an auto-cruise mode, if you hold a small button on the cycle for eight seconds. Its dismountable battery can even be used as an inverter to run a fan or light up a room. Its headlight can also be used as a flashlight, as a study lamp and for earning a livelihood.

The scooter, on the other hand, allows two people to ride it for up to 60km after six-eight hours of charge. The Rs24,000 noise- and pollution-free vehicle requires no kick-start. While its light-weight model allows a load of up to 100kg, the heavier model takes up to 140kg.

In another first, 1,000 vehicles, especially designed for the differently-abled, have been given to people in the state through the State Commission for the Disabled in Tamil Nadu.

Ampere has the capacity to manufacture 6,000 vehicles annually, earning revenue about Rs50 crore. Her passion and initiative has been recognized by many and funded or mentored by the likes of Ratan Tata and Kris Gopalakrishnan, among others. She has sold a significant share of equity to speed up growth but the style, mission, integrity and purpose remain.

I’m thinking of an idea where we take about 100 scooters and train an equal number of women to ride these vehicles and mentor them to become entrepreneurs.

We can equip each scooter with a tablet and a mobile hotspot; these women can then go around offering digital literacy, digital services, Internet connections and other aligned services related to e-governance on a chargeable basis, and can even offer ferrying services.

Imagine the change that 100 women per block can bring if they are trained to become mobile entrepreneurs. It will not only boost their confidence, but also promote gender equality, and a self-sustainable, better local economy and, of course, cleaner energy.

Osama Manzar is founder-director of Digital Empowerment Foundation and chair of Manthan and mBillionth awards. He is member, advisory board, at Alliance for Affordable Internet and has co-authored NetCh@kra–15 Years of Internet in India and Internet Economy of India. He tweets @osamamanzar.

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