When Rhea Mazumdar Singhal moved to India in 2009 after spending most of her life in Dubai and London, she was taken aback by the rampant use of plastic in Delhi. Being a pharmacologist, Singhal knew all too well the effects of plastic on human health. She was also shocked to see that people threw their garbage without any segregation.
“I wanted to build something that is safe to eat out of and easy to dispose of. I wanted something that would not change the nutritional value of food, nor did I want this product to end up in yet another Ghazipur (landfill). I was very clear about this from the very beginning," says Singhal, founder and chief executive officer of Ecoware, a one-stop shop for eco-friendly tableware.
Singhal took help from her serial entrepreneur father-in-law, Sunil Singhal, to do research on different types of biomass. They zeroed in on sugarcane bagasse (a by-product of the sugar industry), which would get cleaned under hygienic conditions to manufacture cutlery and crockery for Ecoware.
These products can withstand temperatures ranging from -20 to 140°C, and biodegrade in soil in 90 days, without requiring involvement of any commercial facility for composting.
The challenges a decade ago were different from now, says Rhea Mazumdar Singhal. None of the stakeholders understood what it meant for a product to be biodegradable and compostable. “Our first step was to educate and build awareness. We had to teach them what biodegradable and compostable meant, why it is good for you, why it is good for the environment, etc. And this is why I am asking you to pay little bit extra compared to plastic," recalls the 39-year-old.
It was also difficult for Singhal, as a young woman with limited Hindi-speaking abilities, to go to local markets in Sadar Bazaar and Chandni Chowk and convince generational traders to switch to a new product which might disrupt the packaging industry. “There were no plastic bans that time, no one spoke about it. So most people would think ‘oh, she has no idea what she is talking about’. But we needed to have the conversation, because this would be the future," she says.
Ecoware did not completely reinvent the wheel. The R&D involved checking which designs were popular and makings similar shapes and sizes for Ecoware. This way, the caterers did not have to change the serving size to use the new products.
In 2010, Ecoware got its first big client, the Commonwealth Games, and the resulting exposure helped to set things in motion. They started building retail channels, starting from Delhi-NCR. At present, the company’s client list includes IRCTC, and quick-service restaurant chains such as Chaayos and Haldiram’s. Last year, Ecoware had a turnover of over $2million, and Singhal hopes to double it this year.
While starting with B2B to build economies of scale and drive down the price differential (Ecoware products sell at a 15% higher cost than plastic products) was the first step, the company has now launched a line range of retail packaging for B2C clients as well. “Yes, it is more expensive than regular plastic plates and bowls. But it is more versatile; they can be used in the freezer or the oven. And the conversation was around price maybe 10 years ago. Now it is more about how quickly can you get it to me, can you customize it for me, can we co-brand," says Singhal.
Singhal’s push-for-what-you-need attitude comes from her experience of working in Pfizer. “I am a really strong believer of transferable skills.I don’t think that if you start in one industry you have to keep working only in it.The sheer resilience that I learnt from Pfizer... we were taught that there is nothing like a no-see customer. So the drive and resilience I built up at Pfizer helps me to keep going."
The Green Brigade follows entrepreneurs who are building eco-friendly alternatives to plastic.