We mark Gandhi Jayanthi here with a compendium of 50 startups that manifest Gandhian ideals in today’s world. Sarvodaya, swadeshi and satyagraha find a resonance in entrepreneurship rooted in Bharat, ranging from agritech and social innovation to environmental sustainability. Here are the 50 startups that we felt are contributing to the idea of sarvodaya, or progress for all
We mark Gandhi Jayanthi here with a compendium of 50 startups that manifest Gandhian ideals in today’s world. Sarvodaya, swadeshi and satyagraha find a resonance in entrepreneurship rooted in Bharat, ranging from agritech and social innovation to environmental sustainability. This is an indicative list of the kinds of innovations we believe Gandhi would have held dear, not an exhaustive one. Impact on underserved communities, innovation with a social face and a startup ethos of scalability were some filters for selection. The agriculture sector, which employs over half the country’s workforce and contributes 20% of our GDP, crops up in good measure. Financial inclusion, digital enablement and access to healthcare and education are other key categories. Dignity of labour, close to Gandhi’s heart, finds a voice. A panel of experts drawn from institutions that nurture startups of this nature helped us in the process of selection: Manoj Kumar and Srikanth Prabhu of Social Alpha, Sushant Kumar of Omidyar Network, Abhilash Sethi of Omnivore and Mohammad Azhar of Villgro. From an Indian agritech VC to a global investor aiming for impact at scale and early stage social enterprise incubators, the jury members represent the huge variety of innovators who are holding Gandhian ideals aloft. Here are the 50 startups that we felt are contributing to the idea of sarvodaya, or progress for all.
iMerit: Roping in Bharat to feed AI engines across the world
Radha Basu founded one of Bengaluru’s first multinational software centres back in the eighties. She took a software company to the Nasdaq as its CEO at the turn of the millennium. Then, along with her husband Dipak, she set up a non-profit organization Anudip Foundation in India to train people for tech jobs in emerging fields like ecommerce. And eight years ago, she spun out iMerit, a startup that trains and employs a workforce drawn mainly from non-metro areas to annotate AI data for global clients in domains like autonomous vehicles and geospatial images.
“I ran a $1.2 billion business for HP, took a company public, but this is by far the most exciting thing I’ve done," says Basu. More than half the employees are women at iMerit’s nine centres, which are in places like Metiabruz and Baruipur near Kolkata. “It makes your eyes sparkle when you talk to them."
Over 80% of the 2,800 employees are from non-metro towns and their average age is 24. The popular perception of AI is that it takes away jobs. But iMerit, based in Kolkata and California, has turned that on its head by creating jobs in Tier-2 India to serve the growing global demand for AI data annotation.
What’s more, it turns out that women are particularly adept at this. Annotating images in geospatial images to spot crop diseases, for example, requires patience, precision and nuance, as well as an understanding of the taxonomy of plants. “It’s knowledge work, not rote work," says Basu, who is also happy to go beyond the urban-centric focus of IT services and BPO jobs.
DeHaat’s rural micro-preneurs are being the change they want to see
East India rarely comes up when we talk about fast-growing tech startups. DeHaat, founded in Patna in 2012, is an exception. It’s the only one among India’s top 20 funded agritech startups that’s in the east.
DeHaat serves over three lakh farmers in Bihar, Jharkhand, Odisha and UP. It uses a franchise model, working with over 1000 local micro-entrepreneurs, to work closely with farmers. The startup helps raise farm income by providing better access to markets and inputs, apart from advisory services.
Co-founder and CEO Shashank Kumar grew up in rural Bihar. “I was exposed from an early age to the pain and difficulties farmers face," he says.
“If we could change ourselves, the tendencies in the world would also change," wrote Gandhi in 1913. It has been modified and popularized in the quote: “Be the change you want to see."
“That’s the guiding principle in the journey of DeHaat which started with 14 farmers of Vaishali in Bihar nine years ago," says Kumar. The founders were the “local changemakers" then. Now the 1,021 micro-entrepreneurs DeHaat has trained take it forward.
One of them is Gautam Singh, who was a driver in Delhi, sending money back home to his wife and children in Jaitipur village near Vaishali. Four years ago, he returned to Jaitipur to start a DeHaat centre for farmers from his village and surrounding areas. He’s earning more than he did as a driver and lives with his family.
Apna: LinkedIn for blue-collar workers to find local jobs
While LinkedIn might have disrupted the way white-collared workers look for jobs and connect with other professionals, India’s blue and grey-collared workforce continues to lack the digital tools to advance their craft and careers. In fact, information asymmetry causes them to sometimes settle for lesser wages, leading to income loss.
This gap led to the inception of Apna.co, a vertical professional network for blue and grey-collared workers. It helps users reach out to peers in their field, get access to local jobs, as well as learn new skills through the power of “connections".
While signing up, the platform also creates a digital profile of the user and assigns them a visiting card. Similar to a LinkedIn feed, Apna users can post details of their work.
“There is so much potential in these workers, but life has always thrown oddballs at them, which leads to confidence and trust deficits. We believe that we can mitigate this by building a community," says the founder and CEO of Apna, Nirmit Parikh, who worked for Apple earlier in Cupertino, California.
Apna has garnered close to 2.2 million users and facilitated over five million job interviews since it was founded in December 2019.
The platform proved particularly helpful for migrant workers forced to return home since March due to the closures and lockdowns resulting from the covid-19 pandemic.
KamalKisan: Farm machines to suit the needs of small farmers
India is home to around 130 million farmers and their families. Agriculture is not always profitable for them as it requires varied resources. To survive, leave alone thrive, they need help on many fronts. KamalKisan, founded in 2013, attempts to help them by reducing barriers to adopt mechanisation.
It designs, develops and manufactures agricultural equipment that help small and marginal farmers save money, effort and time. “Traditionally, a farmer has to buy new machines to help with different aspects of farming like ploughing, planting, weeding, harvesting, and so on. We take a platform approach to doing that," says Devi Murthy, founder and MD of KamalKisan.
For example, the company has a three-in-one machinery option for tomato farmers, which helps with beds, mulching and weeding. “Machines for each would cost ₹1.5-2 lakh. Instead, we give you a single baseplate, and all these become accessories you plug and play as you do these different operations one after another. It doesn’t make sense to spend on multiple machines as capex is something farmers struggle with," Murthy explains. KamalKisan has been commercially selling its equipment since 2015. By bringing design thinking and innovation to them, she hopes to make India’s small farmers more resilient.
Eko: Digital tools to stop the bleeding in money transfers
Avast majority of the workforce in India get their income in cash. Many among them are workers migrating from central and eastern India to the west and south where employment opportunities are better. Put the two together and you can see why domestic money transfers amount to five trillion rupees a year, as workers send money to families back home. Mostly, it goes through agents who take out 5% in commissions.
Two brothers, Abhinav and Abhishek Sinha, exited a telecom value-added services business over a decade ago to focus on this problem. Their approach has been to use digital tools and partner with local kirana stores to bring the cost of money transfer down to 1%.
Thanks to initiatives like Jan Dhan, most Indians now have bank accounts, but many seldom use them. The Eko app helps them access banking indirectly, by simply handing cash over to a kirana store and taking cash out from a similar outlet at the other end, which is also on the platform. Eko also provides API access to its tool for any other tech platform to embed the service.
“We partnered with three lakh retail outlets to provide remittances amounting to ₹30,000 crore for two crore Indians last year," says Abhinav. “We need to increase the cash-in cash-out points 10x because 40 crore Indians need this service."
Farmveda: Amul model inspires cooperatives for peanut products
The story goes that when Lal Bahadur Shastri visited Anand in 1964 and met Verghese Kurien, he expressed surprise at the success of the milk cooperatives there, when farmers with bigger cows in Uttar Pradesh struggled to make ends meet. Kurien told the former prime minister it was because the farmers felt a sense of ownership in the Amul brand. This led to the spread of the milk revolution.
IIM-Bangalore professor Trilochan Sastry was similarly inspired by Amul. He formed an NGO to create a similar impact among marginal farmers growing pulses and peanuts in arid areas like Adilabad and Anantapur districts of Telangana and Andhra Pradesh. While the NGO organized the farmers into cooperatives for collective bargaining, they still lacked market linkages. So, four years ago, the professor spun out a private company and a brand called Farmveda, owned by the cooperatives, to invest in processing, packaging and marketing. Now it is spreading out to Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh, Jharkhand and Odisha, as peanut cheese takes the cue from Amul cheese. “Margins are higher in value-added products and shelf life is longer too," says Kaushalendra Yadav, Farmveda CEO. “Recently we got an export order from Australia for our peanut products from Anantapur district."
Camp K12: MIT alumnus takes coding classes to rural children
India’s new National Education Policy mandates the inclusion of coding in the school curriculum. But it’s hard for traditional schools to plug in a constantly evolving subject like coding. It’s harder still to find the teachers for it, especially in the hinterland.
This is where a digital coding school for children can come in. “It enables working professionals, tech students and stay-at-home parents become teachers of coding," says Anshul Bhagi, founder of Camp K12, who earlier developed a coding curriculum at MIT. “Why I chose to move back to India and focus on this is because I think it’s a very large unsolved problem. There’s nothing more gratifying than to take a stab at solving the problem of connecting every child to a good education experience that is relevant to their lives and in the process, also create opportunities for anybody to become a teacher. It’s inevitable that education will become a gig economy. What’s holding us back is we need platforms that make it possible in a way that does justice to all sides and creates a seamless experience at large scale. That’s a hard problem to solve."
After developing its platform in India, Camp K12 is pushing into markets in Singapore, Dubai and the US, which Bhagi believes will create new opportunities for Indian teachers of coding.
Krimanshi: A diet plan for cows
India is the world’s biggest milk producer with one-fifth of the global market share and an astounding bovine population of close to 300 million. But these animals don’t fare so well when it comes to nutrition. This, in turn, affects the milk quality and yield. Jodhpur-based Krimanshi attempts to solve this sustainably with its high nutrition feed, made of vegetable and fruit food surplus, residue and waste.
“We deploy huge land, water, and other resources to farm livestock. Meanwhile, we waste so much food that’s already been produced. So why not plough that food back to feed the livestock?" asks Nikhil Bohra, Krimanshi’s founder and CEO.
Krimanshi began by sourcing biomaterial from farms and forests in and around Jodhpur. Then it expanded to collecting vegetable and fruit waste from mandis, watermelon, pumpkin, other gourds, and herbal industrial waste, tulsi, jamun, amla and so on. “Now we are targeting APMCs and the larger food industry to source it," says Bohra. He is a biotech engineer who studied livestock nutrition and also worked with NGOs for five years before starting Krimanshi in 2015.
“Our users have up to 20% increase in milk yield, fat and SNF," Bohra says. Krimanshi is working with 1,500 farmers monthly, with an average of five cows per farmer. The company is hoping to launch feeds for fish and poultry as well by next year.
Blackboard Radio: Breaking the glass ceiling with English
With only 10% of India’s population speaking English, the language still continues to be a divisive factor in a multilingual nation like India. According to a Lok Foundation survey, last year, only 3% of the country’s rural respondents could speak English, as against 12% of urban dwellers. Further, enunciation of the language leads not only to a widening of this gap but is also associated, rightly or wrongly, with self-confidence of individuals.
Bengaluru-based edtech platform Blackboard Radio aims to address this divide by providing children between ages 6 and 14 a virtual environment to speak and practise English through online assignments. Close to 80% of BlackBoard’s users are children from towns outside the top 10 cities in India, with almost 90% of them not having access to a laptop.
During assignments, children are asked interactive questions, answers to which need to be recorded in English, after which a teacher hears the recording and gives feedback.
“Most people lack the privilege of learning how to speak proper English. And the harsh reality remains that individuals proficient in English are paid 30% more salaries than non-English speakers,“ says Vatsal Dusad, co-founder of BlackBoard Radio.
Upekkha: It takes a village to raise a SaaS startup ecosystem
The hunger to get ahead is usually the attribute we ascribe the most to an entrepreneur. But a group of SaaS (software-as-a-service) entrepreneurs in Bengaluru found another attribute within themselves after covid-19 struck: supporting each other during a difficult time. They call themselves the Upekkha Tribe because they function like a SaaS commune with a commitment to collective success. They are all early-stage founders. But the ones who were better off extended working capital credit, with minimal interest, to extend the runways of those who were in domains that were the hardest hit by the pandemic. Upekkha has a community model to help its cohorts of SaaS startups grow. As its co-founder-CEO Prasanna Krishnamoorthy likes to say: “It takes a village to raise a child."
Its own business model is tied to the success of its founders because the equity they give Upekkha is linked to revenue milestones. These startups, in turn, build local ecosystems while delivering value to customers globally. “We have founders who studied in Marathi medium in Amravati, who’ve built startups in Ranchi, or who’re employing people in villages in Rajasthan for remote tech jobs," he says. This unique catalyst for SaaS exemplifies how Gandhian ideals of trusteeship and cooperation can find modern expression.
Odaku: When artisanal fishing nets meet the internet
Far out there in the sea are beds of rocks that remain havens for sea creatures but are treacherous for fisherfolk who hope to net these fish and crustaceans. The fishing nets could easily get entangled in thorny outgrowths or tear on sharp edges, costing them tens of thousands of rupees. “Odaku!" fishermen from Kerala’s Thiruvananthapuram shout every time they feel that tug against their fishing net.
Xavier Lawrance has heard that cry since he was a child when he used to venture out to sea near Kanyakumari on his father’s fishing boat. Now his five-year-old startup Odaku has built a marine GPS navigation system and app that would alert fisherfolk about underwater protrusions that could be an “odaku", or an obstacle in their path.
The app also points to maritime borders and no-fishing zones, among others. The software platform connecting the fisherfolk to boat owners, buyers, and other stakeholders, including the fisheries department, can log the day’s catch, help with seafood traceability for buyers, and signal authorities on suspicious fishing vessels.
The impact of digital tools like Odaku can be huge as India has a 7,500-kilometre-long coastline with around 4,000 fishing villages. Nobody really listens to the fisherfolk, Lawrance says. “Their problems are ignored and they are voiceless. I have seen this and experienced it firsthand. That’s why I built Odaku for them."
Lal10: A lantern held high for 200 million rural artisans
India has around 200 million rural artisans, weavers and artists. Connecting them to global markets is Lal10, a fair trade-certified company founded two years ago by three engineers—Maneet Gohil, Sanchit Govil and Albin Jose—who met while working at Flipkart. Lal10 is positioned as an “ethical middleman".
“Traditionally, the mark-up in the sector has been 400%, involving layers of middlemen. But Lal10 becomes the single middleman and operates at 35-40% gross margin," says Gohil, co-founder and CEO. “We have given 1,800 artisans consistent demand through our network of 400 retailers across 18 countries. We have increased earnings of artisans by 23%." Lal10 reaches artisans through micro-entrepreneurs, or Cluster Champions who are hired on contract. They are upskilled and remotely trained to help artisans with contemporary designs. Lal10 gets inbound orders via marketplaces like IndiaMart and Alibaba and also generates outbound demand by reaching out to global brands like Zara. “Once we get an enquiry, we send enquiries to micro-entrepreneurs. They respond with lead time and prices and revert to the buyer. If the buyer confirms payment, the order is placed," explains Gohil. Gram Swaraj resonates with him. “Our focus is to regenerate the rural economy."
Niramai: Portable, tech-powered tools for breast cancer screening
Every four minutes, one woman in India is diagnosed with breast cancer. Worse, one in every two affected women dies. In 2018, there were 87,090 reported deaths due to breast cancer and 162,468 new registered cases.
The high mortality rate in India—much higher than the global average—is because most women are diagnosed only when they are at stage 3 or 4 of breast cancer. Lack of awareness and delay in screening and diagnosis are to blame. Bengaluru-headquartered Niramai has a thermal imaging tool powered by AI which does radiation-free, non-invasive, touch-free breast cancer screening for women of all ages.
The device is portable and Niramai has conducted over 1,000 screening camps in rural areas and corporate offices, besides deploying it at hospitals and diagnostic centres. Cancer screening is free at the rural camps. When abnormalities are spotted in the thermal images, the patient is sent for further diagnosis and treatment to government hospitals that Niramai has tied up with.
“India does have a digital divide and a healthcare divide. We need to bridge the gap in healthcare delivery and that can be done using AI-enabled point-of-care devices that can make smart decisions to identify people who need further care," says Geetha Manjunath, CEO and CTO of Niramai.
Qure: Tackling covid-19 in remote regions with artificial intelligence
Access to quality healthcare is a huge need in a country where specialists are in short supply, especially in rural areas. Mumbai-based startup Qure has been making a dent in one aspect of this challenge: diagnosis. Its AI-based analytics of medical images can provide fast diagnostic services where radiologists are overloaded or unavailable. One of the first applications of its technology was in tackling India’s tuberculosis epidemic.
A natural extension of that in 2020 has been to apply the technology to detect covid-19 in lungs. Qure has been working with government organizations to deploy its chest X-ray screening tool in isolated and resource-constrained regions. “In less than one minute, qXR generates the AI analysis of whether a patient’s lungs are infected and they need to go for confirmatory testing and subsequently be put on treatments," says Prashant Warier, Qure’s founder and CEO.
“As of now, we have deployed our technology across Maharashtra, Uttar Pradesh, Meghalaya, Nagaland, Assam, Bihar, Jharkhand and Madhya Pradesh. We have touched more than 30,000 lives and triaged people who needed to be isolated or treated. It is immensely gratifying to know that we have been able to provide quality diagnostics to people in rural and tribal parts of India, apart from the major cities."
Vahan: A career ladder for the grey-collar workforce
For founder Madhav Krishna, the question was: what happens to those who aren’t blessed with a formal education or born with the privilege of ‘equal opportunity’? The pursuit of these answers led him to start Vahan.co in 2016. However, Krishna realised that what started as a training company, and taught individuals to speak in English, still didn’t solve the problem of unemployment.
“We realised that teaching English for better employment opportunities was just a vitamin but not the painkiller. Hence, we started working towards assisting the blue and grey-collared workforce find the right jobs," adds Krishna, who has an MS in computer science from Columbia University.
Two years ago, Vahan began to leverage artificial intelligence to match available jobs with the right candidates. Operating in five metros in India, and with four million users, the platform has helped 70,000 people land jobs across fast-growing fields like ecommerce, delivery, and logistics. But Krishna believes that it has just scratched the surface. “Vahan is running a lot of experiments to see how else we can add value. People look at delivery jobs as a stop-gap. Creating a career ladder for this workforce is the real challenge that we’d want to solve," says Krishna.
Garv Toilets: Sensors and solar power for sanitation solutions
Several anecdotes from Gandhi’s life make clear his views on sanitation, with the cause of cleanliness being next to spirituality. From community sanitation efforts at his ashrams to calling it a foremost priority for Indians, Gandhi envisaged a clean India for all. But until 2014, more than half of the world’s 1.2 billion open defecators were in India.
Faridabad-based Garv Toilets addresses this gap by providing smart sanitation solutions and deploying tech-enabled modular toilets.
The toilet kiosks are made of steel, which improves their life and makes them difficult to vandalise. These toilets are also equipped with RFID and IoT sensors, to relay upkeep information. They use solar power for self-flushing.
The company has deployed more than 1,000 toilets across India, with 60% of them located in semi-urban and rural areas. And 140,000 of the 200,000 daily users are women.
“In spite of providing facilities, a lot of people find it difficult to use toilets in villages, and continue to practice open defecation. Hence, this is really a generational change," says Mayank Midha, founder and managing partner, Garv Toilets, which also has installations in government schools.
Jiny: A genie to help first-time Net users transact and buy online
India has over 500 million smartphone users but only a fifth use the device for transactions beyond calling, messaging and watching videos. More than the barrier of language, what scares people off transactions, especially those involving money, is digital illiteracy. Visual cues that most top-end users of apps take for granted are hard to pick up for those coming to the internet for the first time on their smartphones.
Bengaluru startup Jiny, founded by Kushagra Sinha and Sahil Sachdeva, is tackling this with software that can be embedded in apps to guide users with text or voice prompts on how to proceed at every step, screen by screen, for a registration or a netbanking transaction. Just like a Google map, it tracks where a user has reached and shows them where to go or what to do next. For example, Vyapar, a bookkeeping app for small businesses, has Jiny inside as a navigation aid. For consumer-facing apps, it aims to remove the dependence of users on their friends, children or the local kirana store for everything, from mobile recharges to shopping online. “Digital technology is one of the most empowering tools for access to knowledge, products, services and opportunities. But digital impact can’t be realized without its mass adoption," says Sinha, co-founder and CEO, who was earlier a UX researcher at Flipkart.
Fandoro: Helping companies, large and small, turn planet positive
Gandhi often said one should fulfill present needs without compromising the needs of future generations. That, in a nutshell, is sustainable development, which became harder and harder as India’s economy and consumption grew.
It prompted the corporate affairs ministry in 2011 to issue guidelines to provide a framework for the social and environmental responsibilities of businesses. The top 100 companies, by market cap, were, for the first time, asked to report sustainability-related activities.
The mandate for business responsibility reporting has now expanded to the top 1,000 companies. This has forced more companies to think about sustainability goals aligned to their core business. New Delhi-based Fandoro Technologies helps companies do that. For example, a chain of restaurants might find itself more aligned to working on water pollution or food wastage than poverty eradication. The two-year-old startup works with 14 enterprise clients. Its SaaS platform helps companies map goals, find partners to execute them, track progress and generate legally-compliant reports. “We promote self-sufficiency through sustainable economic activities and not charity," says Smita Mishra, co-founder and CEO. “We are in the business of helping businesses be planet positive."
Frontier Markets: Women and last-mile digital commerce
Despite rapid digitization, rural women still have little access to quality products and services.
“Half of the 900 million people living outside Indian cities are women. They don’t have access to digital tools, financial services or market-based opportunities for a sustained income," says Ajaita Shah, founder and CEO of Frontier Markets, which attempts to bridge this gap at their doorsteps through a digital assisted-commerce platform run by rural women entrepreneurs.
Founded in 2011, the startup has built a network of Saral Jeevan Sahelis. They are trained to use smartphones and leverage digital solutions to earn money without leaving their village.
On the supply front, it has micro-centres for products and services ranging from appliances, agri-tools and other consumer products, within a 30km radius of any village it serves, backed up with order fulfilment operations. It’s powered through the Meri Saheli app.
They have a network of 20 warehouses, and 10,000 Sahelis operating in 4,000 villages covering 350,000 households.
“Our platform has 700,000 customers on it, which amounts to a reach of over 3.5 million rural customers. Sahelis have earned over $15 million in net income since inception," Shah says. “Investing in rural women is smart business and the key to poverty alleviation at scale."
Janitri: Medical devices made for expectant mothers in India
Over two million newborns and 250,000 mothers die globally every year. Over 99% of these deaths happen in developing countries. In India, the maternal mortality rate is 150 out of 100,000 live births and infant mortality rate is 40 out of 1,000. The cause of death is most often foetal distress or obstructed labour, which can be monitored early and precautions taken. Biotech startup Janitri helps primary and community health centres, maternity clinics and rural hospitals do that. “We found that the main cause of mother and infant mortality is scarcity of affordable devices and qualified doctors and nurses," says Janitri’s founder-CEO Arun Agarwal, who grew up in Alwar, Rajasthan. Janitri focuses on the intrapartum phase—after contraction pains begin and the patient is admitted to the hospital. “This is when a lot of parameters need to be monitored both for the mother and the foetus. Every second is golden."
Janitri has an intelligent labour monitoring tool, called Daksh, and a foetal heart rate tracker, Keyar. Their readings are made available on a mobile app. Janitri’s devices, which cost one-third of conventional tools, have so far monitored over 30,000 pregnancies in Rajasthan, Karnataka, Andhra Pradesh and Meghalaya.
Riskcovry: Insurance on demand that covers everyone
India’s insurance penetration remains among the lowest in the world, with only 3.69% of Indians having an insurance policy. That’s not surprising because traditional insurance products don’t serve the needs of the vast majority of people.
This prompted Suvendu Prusty, who earlier worked for insurance companies, to launch Riskcovry in 2018 along with three co-founders, Vidya S, Sorabh Bhandari and Chiranth Patil. The startup has a SaaS product that enables any company to create sachet-sized insurance options for its employees. For example, a company could cover in-patient hospitalization of even a day for a mosquito-borne disease like dengue. Another configurable product covers utility bills or school fees in case the family suddenly loses its source of livelihood.
Riskcovry links up with insurance underwriters at the back end to unbundle their complex products for such use cases. It uses alternative data sources to enable underwriting for this.
The startup focuses on the low and moderate income segment. Over two-thirds of its users are first-time buyers of insurance. “We want to drive financial inclusion for the urban and semi-urban poor by providing low ticket products. For example, tomorrow a business can insure their workers in just minutes before they undertake a high-risk job," says Prusty.
Ecozen: Levelling the field for farmer-entrepreneurs
Devendra Gupta, Vivek Pandey and Prateek Singhal, started dabbling in energy appliances in their third year of college at IIT Kharagpur. One of their first prototypes was a device to store energy in the brakes of hand-pulled rickshaws in Kolkata, which made it less of an effort to gain momentum after a stop. After graduation they visited farms in Singhal’s home state, Chhattisgarh. “We were surprised to see that a lot of farms were not irrigated even though Chhattisgarh is one of the biggest producers of electricity," says Singhal. “We realized there was a mismatch between electricity production and distribution."
That was the trigger to launch Ecozen in 2010 which came up with solar-powered irrigation pumps that small farmers could afford with government incentives. It has a presence in 35,000 farms. Its second product is a solar-powered on-farm cold storage that extends the shelf life of perishables. This enables distribution to a wider geography. “Farmers are also entrepreneurs, who need a level playing field for their products," says Gupta. Currently, the startup is adding a third layer to business by connecting producers of perishables with organized buyers.
StringBio: Fish feed that won’t harm you or the environment
The protein that goes into the feed for poultry and fish have a huge negative impact on the environment. The main source for poultry feed is soya, whose cultivation is known to cause deforestation, apart from putting pesticides into the food chain. Fish feed relies on harvesting and crushing of small fish from the ocean as a protein source.
Bengaluru biotech startup StringBio provides an alternative to both poultry and fish feed with a protein additive derived from methane, which is fermented by bacteria. Another environmental benefit from this is that some of its methane requirement is met by biogas plants that process wet waste.
Biochemist Ezhil Subbian and her techie husband Vinod Kumar, who founded StringBio in 2012, have tested their products with animal feed consumers. They are now in the process of launching commercial production in partnership with feed makers. “We have shipped our products to customers in Europe, Japan, Southeast Asia and Australia. Many of them have a presence here as well since India is the world’s largest shrimp exporter and a major consumer of fish feed," says Kumar. This also helps the startup build a product suited to the local ecosystem, “rather than develop something in the West and bring it here," says Subbian.
Setu: Setting up the financial bridges to bring banks to people
The word setu means bridge in Sanskrit. The two-year-old startup’s goal is to bridge the huge financial divide in the country. Setu has made a beginning in that regard by enabling loan repayments and utility bill payments to be made via popular apps like Google Pay and PhonePe. Even a small lender like Ujjivan Small Finance can get paid via a digital payment app. Setu provides the API, or application programming interface, to enable this ease of payment. “It allows customers to make sachet-sized payments and removes the need to travel all the way to a particular branch of a bank to deposit money," says Setu’s co-founder Nikhil Kumar.
Setu’s founders Kumar and Sahil Kini earlier worked together on the “India stack" of Aadhaar and UPI. Their startup now wants to build the financial infrastructure that will create new possibilities for Bharat. “Most Indians are excluded from the formal financial economy. But that’s where their freedom lies—with access to credit they can afford, insurance from health shocks, and so on," explains Kini. “Our fundamental thesis is to bring banks to people in whatever app they are in, be it WhatsApp or Google Pay. We hope to enable booking a fixed deposit through Google Pay or any of the other apps on the Bharat Bill Payment Network which we enable."
Avaz: Deciphering a child’s cry by turning movement into speech
Children with autism, cerebral palsy, or speech disorders struggle to communicate. They cannot tell you that their head is hurting or their stomach is upset, while parents struggle to decipher what’s on the minds of their children with special needs, when they throw tantrums. This prompted a group of engineers from IIT Madras to build an augmentative and alternative communication (AAC) tool in the form of a tablet computer, Avaz. It constructed messages from coarse muscle movements, which are then converted into speech. Its lead inventor, Ajit Narayanan, was on MIT Technology Review’s top innovators of 2011. The device evolved into an app as the smartphone revolution took over.
The sense of community and social responsibility at Avaz connects with Gandhian ideals. “All of us have listened closely to the special needs community of children, parents, educators, and therapists to build each feature in the app," Narayanan Ramakrishnan, CEO of Avaz, says. The Avaz app today has over 75,000 active users globally. Ramakrishnan remembers how a parent from The Faroe Islands of Denmark wanted the app in her language. “I am always moved by how parents go that extra mile to help their child," he says. “We want to empower them."
Hasiru Dala: In the business of waste-picking and changing lives
Annamma grew up on the streets of Bengaluru: rootless, homeless and faceless. She rummaged through garbage dumps to eke out a living. Six years ago, she got her first government-issued ID card when she joined Hasiru Dala, a social enterprise that organized waste-pickers in Bengaluru to join the city corporation’s drive to segregate waste and channel it to recyclers. Around the same time, Hasiru Dala pivoted to be profitable instead of dependent on handouts. Today, Hasiru Dala Innovations provides waste management services to over 450 organizations and apartment complexes. “Our value proposition is that nothing goes to landfills and waste is responsibly processed," says Shekar Prabhakar, co-founder. A leading global shampoo brand uses plastic waste from Hasiru Dala for packaging at its Netherlands plant, which earns the brand points for sustainability.
For Prabhakar, a former professor, the joy is in seeing the social impact. “One day Annamma walked into our office with her three schoolgoing daughters and a hand-written invitation for the gruhapravesham (house-warming) of their new home. I had known her when she lived in a hovel that flooded every time it rained. All that we gave her was access to opportunity and she made a quantum change in her family’s life."
Haqdarshak: Shining a light on entitlements
One of the most distressed groups of people during the covid-19 lockdowns were migrant workers, huge numbers of whom returned to their villages, many on foot. A startup that came to their aid is Haqdarshak, whose mobile app and field agents helped the reverse migrants apply for ration cards or entitlements under the MGNREGA (Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act) schemes. In the four years since its inception, the startup has enabled nearly four lakh applications for government and private welfare schemes, accruing benefits worth over ₹100 crore to a quarter of a million citizens.
The first step in this process is to get applicants the eligibility documents. “A quarter of our population are migrant workers and their families. Many don’t have even basic documents such as ration cards, bank accounts and Aadhaar cards, which are required to avail of various services," says Aniket Doegar, co-founder and CEO of Pune-based Haqdarshak. “It’s the same with small businesses that need an Udyog Aadhaar or other documents to get access to credit. The prime minister recently announced cash relief for street vendors, but how will they get it without having the right documents?" What’s more, getting the right documentation is a tedious business. “But the joy we get, as a team, is when we see the impact," says Doegar. “When you help a girl child get a scholarship, you’re impacting a whole generation."
GenRobotics: Bandicoots that clean up sewers
One of Gandhi’s most vivid ways to drive home the messages of equality and dignity of labour was to clean toilets himself, and not just his own. His idea was that it wasn’t okay to burden one particular community—considered untouchables—with all the scavenging.
Almost 100 years since, a Kerala startup has come up with a robotic answer to the obnoxious and dangerous job of scavenging where people climb down into sewers to unclog and clean them. One man died every three days after breathing toxic fumes while cleaning sewers in 2019. Bandicoot, a semi-automatic manhole cleaner, comes to the rescue. It lifts the heavy lid off manholes with its magnetic attachment, gets into sewers, and unblocks them with its four spidery arms wielding shovels. The waterproof cameras and gas sensors on it let operators safely monitor the clean-up without getting their hands dirty. Nine young engineers from Kerala built it with a small grant and launched the first machine in their home state in February 2018. Today, Bandicoots clean sewers in 11 other Indian states. The startup trains manual scavengers to operate the robots. “We didn’t want them to lose their livelihood," says GenRobotics Rashid K., one of the co-founders.
Indus OS: A smartphone ecosystem in Indian tongues
Indus OS started in 2013 to build “India’s own smartphone operating system" in a regional language. As the smartphone revolution swept across the country at breakneck speed, the startup moved to building “India’s own app store" and other products. “We felt we had to create an ecosystem that could bridge the digital divide by ensuring that the next one billion Indians are able to use their phones and the apps in them in their own languages," co-founder Akash Dongre says. Their app store, called Indus App Bazaar, has more than 400,000 apps in 12 Indian languages.
“Basically, we are solving for regional discovery for users. People anywhere will now be able to understand exactly what they are downloading. Then we solve for ease of access and use," explains Dongre. “For example, you and I don’t think twice about signing up with an email address on an app. But most mobile phone users in India have never used email." This user-first approach has helped Indus OS bag more than 100 million users for its app store. It comes preloaded on Samsung phones in India as well as all Indian smartphone brands. The company also helps Indian developers localize their apps and find users across the country.
Tricog: Digital fix to bring a cardiologist to rural doorsteps
Charit Bhograj, an interventional cardiologist in Bengaluru, started Tricog in 2015 to resolve two issues: the physical limit on how many patients he could help, and lack of access to specialist cardiac care in the hinterland. That was his pitch to three engineers he pulled in as co-founders: Zainul Charbiwala, Udayan Dasgupta and Abhinav Gujjar, who had the digital tech nous to set up a cloud-based ECG diagnosis system. “As a cardiologist, I could save one life at a time. But the Tricog team has an impact on 1,000 lives every day," says Bhograj.
It’s hard for a healthcare startup, which deploys ECG machines equipped with a device that transmits readings for remote AI-based analysis, to go into rural areas profitably. Tricog has been doing it with government contracts. For example, the Goa government deployed ECG machines with Tricog communicator devices at peripheral government centres. Field medical staff are advised remotely on steps to take based on the ECG analysis. Now the startup has got similar deals from the governments of Telangana and Maharashtra. “This is a fully digital service, so wherever there is access to the internet, you can get a cardiologist at your doorstep," says Charbiwala, who has a PhD in embedded systems from UCLA and worked for IBM research before joining Tricog.
Pratilipi: Swadeshi storytelling in a language of your choice
According to a 2011 consensus, English is the mother tongue of 256,000 Indians, and the second language of 83 million, while 528 million Indians count Hindi as their primary mother tongue. In spite of this, content platforms that offer literature in Hindi and other indigenous languages are few and far between. Pratilipi was started in 2014 to equip Indians with the power of storytelling across languages of their choice. It offers three basic formats, literature, comics and podcasts, through which creators can express themselves in 12 languages.
Half of its 25 million monthly active users are from semi-urban and rural towns. Pratilipi aims to encourage local talent, becoming a source of livelihood for its 280,000 creators. The work of its creators has been converted into books, helping readers reconnect with their ethnic linguistic roots, says the co-founder of Pratilipi, Ranjeet Pratap Singh, who is from Raebareli in Uttar Pradesh. Gandhi once said that the real meaning of economic equality is “To each according to his need", and Pratilipi does that by providing a level field for even the marginalized with a swadeshi approach to content creation and dissemination. “Everyone should have the same access to opportunity, even if the output is different," says Singh.
Bollant: A vision to make the world cleaner and more diverse
Srikanth Bolla never let his life circumstances define him. Being differently-abled and a farmer’s son, Bolla went on to study at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in the US and started Bollant Industries with a vision to bring the differently-abled into the mainstream. Of Bollant’s 500-member workforce, 200 are differently-abled, with the company making ₹130 crore in annual revenue by creating ecofriendly packaging material recycled from Indian dumpyards.
With everything being recycled, as well as factory equipment being refurbished by old reusable parts, Bollant Industries’ manufacturing facilities are zero-waste facilities. On a daily basis, it produces 120 tonnes of recycled packaging paper and estimates saving 10 lakh trees a year. The company is also focused on sourcing its raw material waste from India, as opposed to the industry practice of imports, which not only reduces the carbon footprint of transportation but also helps in providing an alternative to incineration of paper in the country. Gandhi had once said, “Strength does not come from physical capacity. It comes from an indomitable will." Bollant’s work towards bringing the differently-abled to gainful work exemplifies this Gandhian principle.
Troo Good: Better food choices and millets for the masses
Millets are hardy crops that are largely free from pests and require one-fifth the water that goes into paddy cultivation. They’re also richer in protein and micronutrients, and lower in carbohydrates than rice, wheat and corn. Hyderabad-based startup Troo Good began in 2018, with a mission to revive millet farming in India by making millet-based chapatis and snacks, thereby increasing the demand for millets while simultan-eously serving nutritional needs better than popular namkeens and ready-to-cook parathas at similar price points.
It began by serving millet chapatis to schoolgoing children, before ramping up commercially with a wider range of products that are available in kirana stores and on e-commerce sites like Amazon. This year, the startup crossed a milestone of serving 500,000 products a day, making it a startup with a significant impact on millet production and consumption, as well as weaning schoolchildren away from junk snacks. “We’re not making these products for the elite. We want to serve the masses who deserve better food choices. That’s why we’ve priced our products the same as snacks from big brands," says Raju Bhupati, founder and CEO of Troo Good, who left a lucrative career in investment banking in the US to become an entrepreneur in India.
Farmley: Taking the nutty route to help niche farmers
Bihar’s Mallah community has the traditional know-how for harvesting and popping of seeds from the prickly lily plant that grows abundantly in eastern India and yields makhana or fox nuts. The nutritious makhana has grown rapidly in demand as an alternative to fattening nut-based snacks. This should have meant a rise in living standards for the Mallahs, but it’s mostly traders who are making more money.
Farmley is a niche agritech startup that is trying to tip the scales more in favour of the makhana growers. It has set up collection centres for makhana and works with farmer producer organizations to make growers aware of the benefits of paying attention to quality and segregating the best produce to fetch better prices. It also provides market linkages through tie-ups with food processing companies and exporters. “We have been working on traceability for our buyers so that they know where the makhana came from and what kind of processing was involved," says Akash Sharma, co-founder and CEO of Farmley. Apart from makhana, Farmley has been working with producers of other high value foods, like raisins in Maharashtra, cashew nuts in Karnataka, and walnuts in Kashmir. Each of these categories has special needs and Farmley tries to maximize their returns.
Lokal: A news community for every corner of the country
Lokal is aptly named. The app focuses on hyperlocal news and presents it in the local language. It has notched up more than four million downloads in just two years. Starting with Telugu, it is now available in Malayalam and Hindi as well. Lokal’s value proposition comes from a focus on content that the plethora of mainstream media houses and news aggregators gloss over. The startup is building up a network of stringers who will gather this content. Apart from hyperlocal news ranging from agriculture to politics, it provides useful information like food prices, job openings and local classifieds.
“We are in the business of hyperlocal news, which is news about the community by the people of the community. We also have enabled a local marketplace, so that’s the community enabling transactions, buying and selling things within the community," says co-founder and CEO Jani Pasha, who set up the company with Vipul Chaudhary. Most Indians living in small towns and villages rarely venture outside their district. Everything in their lives happens right there—education, job, marriage, children. “For you and me, the internet took 30 years to evolve to an extent where I can do pretty much everything online. But a non-English speaking user still uses the internet only for communication or entertainment," Pasha says. “And then, when we had a product with hyperlocal news, we saw a lot of people coming on to the platform."
Gramcover: Creating a safety net of micro-insurance for farmers
One-third of India’s crop yield gets wasted because of pests, shows 2017 data by the Indian Council of Agricultural Research. To add to that, Indian farmers face a multitude of challenges which leads to a loss of income, with no wage guarantee for their efforts. This pushed Jatin Singh to look at equipping Indian farmers with a safety net, and provide micro-insurance products for crops, cattle and two-wheelers for a premium can go as low as ₹80 a year. Gramcover covers small farmers with an annual income of ₹20,000. Since the start of its operations in December 2017, the startup has reached out to 1.2 million farmers, garnering ₹68 crore in premium so far.
Apart from protecting livelihoods, the startup is also creating employment by hiring insurance agents in rural geographies. At present, the company has close to 6,000 insurance agents who spread the coverage of its products, while servicing existing customers. “India’s rural economy is resilient and can protect and co-insure itself against losses," says Singh. “While there are pockets of subsidies, there isn’t a social programme which offers complete protection to farmers. Our aim is to come up with a unified insurance policy, which covers all needs of the farming economy, from cattle to crops and equipment."
Gramophone: Music to the ears of Madhya Pradesh’s farmers
IIT graduates rarely end up as entrepreneurs in their subjects of study at college. IIT Kharagpur graduates Tauseef Ahmad Khan and Nishant Mahatre are exceptions to this. They founded Indore-based agritech startup Gramophone, along with Harshit Gupta and Ashish Ranjan Singh. “I come from a farming family in UP and worked for John Deere (agricultural equipment maker) before this. One day I was discussing with my father that Indian agriculture may soon have a 1991 moment of liberalization and reforms. That encouraged me to start Gramophone," says Khan.
Gramophone’s value proposition comes from a close connection with farmers and a network of micro-entrepreneurs. It offers pricing information from mandis, advice on soil health and crops, and access to agricultural inputs for which the micro-entrepreneurs solve the last mile delivery problem. The founders took the model initially to Madhya Pradesh and scaled it up to 550,000 farmers, expanding to Maharashtra, with a Marathi version of the app which is also available in Hindi. “There are a lot of small farmers associated with us, many of whom don’t even use smartphones. They connect with us on a toll-free number," says Khan. “The joy comes from hearing a farmer say how we’ve revived his farm or that his neighbour asked what made the farm so robust."
Yelo: A mobile-first neobank for blue-collar workers
Banking services that the higher income 50 million people in India take for granted, such as payments, credit and money transfers, are largely unavailable to hundreds of millions of others. Traditional banks are either ill-equipped or disinclined to serve them. Hence, the emergence of digital-only, mobile-first neobanks such as Yelo.
The Bengaluru startup mainly serves blue-collar workers in the construction, manufacturing and gig economy sectors. Unlike other startups working on financial inclusion and loosely calling themselves neobanks, Yelo partners with banks at the back end to provide bank accounts to customers who access services via the platform. This lets it offer a full range of banking services, modified to suit the needs of blue-collar workers. “It’s like having a regular bank account without having to deal with the bank’s customer service which is getting managed by us," says Nilesh Agarwal, co-founder and CEO. The biggest use cases are payments and money transfers. Although digital payment apps are heavily advertised, they remain “a largely Tier-1 phenomenon" because they’re not designed for the needs of the so-called Bharat, says Agarwal. These are people who need better support systems than UPI-based apps typically provide.
Khadigi: On a quest to revive India’s freedom fabric
Khadi, which means handspun, is synonymous with India’s freedom struggle. The fabric became a central protagonist for the country’s swadeshi movement, which boycotted not just British ideology and its products, but also contributed to the development of Indian nationalism. But today this indigenous industry is facing a slow death, with craftsmen abandoning it to look for sustainable employment outside their family tradition, owing to lack of support.
Bhopal-based Khadigi has taken up the mantle to revive this industry by working with traditional skilled Khadi artisans and providing them a sustainable income by delivering Khadi products to retail fashion brands. Apart from upskilling, KhaDigi also manages the entire production process, right from procurement of raw material to setting up looms and on-time delivery for these artisans. Through its efforts, Khadigi has eliminated middlemen, and prevented large corporations from harassing artisans into reducing costs, which has resulted in a 20% increase in incomes. “We want to create an impactful business for artisans, without harming anyone, and want to make the world look up to India’s indigenous textile industry," says founder Umang Sridhar, who comes from the small town of Bundelkhand.
Periwinkle: Towards the basic health right of every woman
Cervical cancer kills one woman every eight minutes in India, the highest such cancer fatality rate in the world. India records nearly one lakh new cases annually, although cervical cancer is preventable. Screening can catch and stop it any time during the cancer’s long pre-malignant phase of up to 10 years.
Pune’s Periwinkle Technologies built an AI-powered handheld imaging device, SmartScope, which does a 5-minute non-invasive, low-cost test for cervical cancer. It lets a doctor examine the mouth of the uterus without causing the patient much discomfort and detects high-risk infections, precancerous cellular changes and other abnormalities. “Cervical cancer is one of the toughest to diagnose because its symptoms are not so evident for years. By the time a rural woman comes to the primary health centre, the disease has already progressed into the malignant phase," says Veena Moktali, co-founder and CEO of Periwinkle. She and co-founder Koustubh Naik confronted the issue in 2016 while building a software platform for healthcare data of chronically ill people in rural India. Since May 2019, when they launched SmartScope, it has been deployed in over 80 hospitals, clinics and healthcare centres. “Basic healthcare of her reproductive tract, I believe, is the right of every woman," says Moktali.
FIA Global: Fintech services to break the patriarchy
In spite of the boom in the fintech industry, the penetration of financial services in India’s rural economy continues to be low. Bootstrapped startup FIA Global, using artificial intelligence and its combined network of 26,000 banking agents on the ground, delivers financial products and services attuned to the rural and semi-urban economy.
Since inception in 2012, it has delivered financial products to 34 million customers, two-thirds of whom reside in villages. Eight million of FIA’s customers are women, as the startup looks to bring them into the banking system. Working with 15 financial institutions, FIA helps the marginalized open bank accounts, enrol in government security schemes, perform money remittances and access sachet credit and investment products. In the process, it is creating job opportunities for its field agents, with a preference for employing women. “We want to encourage women to break through the patriarchy, and become partners in our journey. We have seen an immense response, with our female banking agents helping more women open new banking accounts," says co-founder Seema Prem. FIA plans to expand its reach to 50 million customers this year and launch operations in Bangladesh, retaining its focus on reducing the gender gap in financial services.
Kaleidofin: Sachet-sized ideas from Sabarmati to build up savings
Chennai-based startup Kaleidofin has been creating sachet-sized savings, credit and insurance products for people left out of the formal banking system. It launched a new product, called Kaleidopay, in May, after the pandemic, to enable microfinance institutions to collect savings deposits, insurance premium and loan EMIs.
“Kaleidopay is in the local language, works even with feature phones and incorporates assistance where the customer needs it," says CEO and co-founder Sucharita Mukherjee. “For apps like Google Pay, you need to own and be comfortable using a smartphone for payments; 80% of our customers are not in this category and own feature phones. Kaleidopay bridges this big gap." Apart from Tamil Nadu, Kaleidofin’s big presence is in Bihar, eastern Uttar Pradesh, Rajasthan and Gujarat. It was Sewa Bank, which has its roots in Sabarmati Ashram, that first partnered Kaleidofin to offer financial products to low income groups, recalls Mukherjee. “I remember being crammed in an auto with Sewa Bank saathis going to convince customers about saving for their life goals." (That’s the picture she shared with us above.) The startup has an assisted model, where an agent from the local community helps a new customer with financial assessment and planning.
Stellapps: A 21st century white revolution driven by IoT
India’s milk man, Verghese Kurien, created the white revolution in India with village-level cooperatives to increase milk production and augment farm income. Its 21st century version uses IoT to enhance milk procurement to benefit both farmers and bulk buyers who, in turn, sell milk and its products to end consumers. The digitization of procurement, right from the cooperative-level collection centre to chilling centres and to customers, solves several ingrained problems in the supply chain, such as adulteration, pilferage, inefficiency and delayed payments. End-to-end digitization of the supply chain is not a trivial problem to solve in a country where 80 million households produce milk, two-thirds of whom are small farmers.
Bengaluru-based Stellapps has been tackling this since its inception in 2011. In the process, it is making a change at the grassroots level, as farmers get a transparent view of milk quality and pricing. They’re incentivised to improve animal care and nutrition. Founders Ranjith Mukundan, Ravishankar G. Shiroor, Praveen Nale, Ramakrishna Adukuri and Venkatesh Seshasayee worked at Wipro before starting Stellapps. “We’re helping dairy farmers move from a backyard hobby level to a micro-entrepreneurial orbit," says Mukundan. “That women handle 80% of dairy activities in India makes it even more significant that we buttress their position." Both Kurien and Gandhi would approve.
Vernacular.ai: Indian voices are the future of the internet
Around four years ago, well after India’s creamy layer became internet savvy, companies began talking of how to reach the country’s next billion who were already getting online via budget smartphones. Their needs are different from those of the earlier adopters. For example, even if one can read and write, typing on phone keyboards isn’t easy. A voice-based interface would make it easier for them to navigate the web. Vernacular.ai, founded by Sourabh Gupta and Akshay Deshraj, does that. Voice-based AI products built by this startup can understand 10 Indian languages and over 150 dialects and respond to them. “A person from Darbhanga in Bihar might call up his bank. For him, it’s not enough if the system understands Hindi, it needs to recognize Bhojpuri," Gupta, co-founder and CEO of Vernacular, points out.
“We are building intelligent virtual assistants that can figure out nuances in languages besides the context of the business," he says. There are linguists working with engineers to build this. Vernacular.ai’s products are already deployed at two of India’s largest banks, two insurance companies, a restaurant chain, and a DTH cable provider. The startup is now taking its tech to Southeast Asia and the US as well. “Voice is the future of the internet," Gupta says.
Reshamandi: Giving an IoT spin to India’s silk route
India is second only to China in sericulture, the rearing of silkworms to produce silk. It is also the biggest consumer of natural silk. The Indian quality, however, is inferior to China’s because of climate, low-tech practices and poor market linkages. To address the issues, young Bengaluru startup Reshamandi has forayed into this niche area of farming. Indian farmers have adopted high-yielding bivoltine silkworms, but they require careful monitoring and control of temperature and humidity, explains Mayank Tiwari, co-founder of Reshamandi, which has set up IoT devices in rearing centres that link up with its app. “If the temperature goes too high, the silkworms don’t eat the mulberry leaves and grow weak. If the humidity is too high, they bloat up and become disease-prone."
Reshamandi is also providing better market linkages for the farmers by tying up with reelers who are assured of predictable quantity and quality of supply. Tiwari was at NIFT Mumbai, where he studied the handloom sector’s supply chain closely. His co-founders are Saurabh Agarwal, who has been working with Cisco, and serial entrepreneur Utkarsh Apoorva. Reshamandi has onboarded 350 sericulture farmers around Bengaluru since its January launch. It is now expanding across the state as well as in Andhra Pradesh and Tamil Nadu.
1Bridge: Closing the gap in rural retailing to reach Bharat
Ecommerce and other tech platforms are giving urban consumers more choice and convenience and better prices. But it’s the people in rural India, who need such services the most, and they have poor access. “If you go even 10km from district towns into the villages, access, choice and convenience are non-existent," says Madan Padaki, founder of 1Bridge, that takes a leaf out of Gandhi’s writing over a century ago to bridge this gap.
“A Samagra Gramaseva must know everybody living in the village and render them such service as he can. That does not mean the worker will be able to do everything single-handed. He will show them the way of helping themselves and procure for them such help and materials as they require. He will train up his own helpers. He will so win over the villagers that they will seek and follow his advice," wrote Gandhi. Padaki, who has taken Gandhian leadership training at Sewa Gram, has adopted the Samagra Gramaseva concept in 1Bridge Advisors. These are village youth trained to procure products, ranging from tractors to cellphones, for rural consumers and provide services from mobile recharge to money transfer on the 1Bridge platform. Padaki sold his earlier startup MeriTrak to Manipal Institute to focus on making a social impact.
Aarna Biomedical Products: Making low-cost breast prosthetics
The agony of mastectomy, partial or complete surgical removal of one or both breasts, is often described as worse than the anguish of breast cancer itself. The physical pain is just the tip of the iceberg. A deep sense of loss, low self-esteem, phantom pains… the women have a longer ordeal.
Due to late detection, 50 to 75% of breast cancer patients in India are forced to undergo mastectomy. Cancer biologist Pawan Mehrotra saw the aftermath of mastectomy at close quarters while working with the cancer out-patient department of a hospital in Bengaluru in 2013. “Why can’t hospitals provide a solution before or after the removal of the breast to avoid the emotional turmoil," he felt. That prompted him to find an affordable solution—Poorti, a light-weight silicone breast prosthetic kit, launched after four years of research and trials. “I used to wear it myself for days together to understand how it would feel," Mehrotra, the managing director of Aarna Biomedical Products, recalls. The Poorti kit’s price starts at ₹4,000. “There are imported silicone breast prosthetics in the market but they are either very expensive or use low quality industrial silicone." He feels grateful to have helped many women overcome the trauma, “from a 15-year-old from Jodhpur who lost both her breasts in a fire accident to an 84-year-old breast cancer survivor from Delhi."
Fluxgen: 1 billion litres of water saved and counting
The earth, the air, the land, and the water are not an inheritance from our forefathers but on loan from our children." Words of the Mahatma are more relevant than ever, as large sections of India’s population face acute water shortages. Indian industries use up nearly half of India’s water, either through consumption or wastewater discharge.
Bengaluru-based FluxGen Engineering Technology is taking up the baton of mitigating this water crisis with its monitoring and management solution, Aquagen, for industries and corporations. Aquagen helps industries manage their water consumption by identifying points where it needs to be tracked, leading to actionable insights on leakages and finding sustainable alternatives.“The real dent will be when industries in India become water positive by not just reducing wastage, but recycling water through methods such as rainwater harvesting," says Ganesh Shankar, founder and CEO, FluxGen Technologies, whose awareness of sustainability issues came early while growing up near one of Bengaluru’s most polluted waterbodies, the Madiwala Lake. He claims Aquagen has saved more than one billion litres of water, with its solution being deployed by 26 large corporate customers, including Amazon and Microsoft.
Testbook: Affordable prep work for government job exams
Of all the millions who take government exams in India, less than 2% get a job. For example, when the Railway Recruitment Board held its last exam, over 40 million aspirants competed for less than 70,000 vacancies. More than half of them come from the smaller towns and villages of India. They need affordable and high quality preparation to compete and win. Mumbai-headquartered Testbook attempts to do that. It prepares candidates for over 200 government exams in Hindi and English. “The cost of learning is less than one rupee a day," says co-founder and CEO Ashutosh Kumar.
The startup claims to have placed over 37,000 in government jobs. “We have coached over 12.5 million candidates just sitting at their homes using their mobile phones," Kumar adds. Each month, aspirants solve over 200 million questions on Testbook’s app. There are several startups in the domain, competing for these aspirants, some of them teekoperaching in regional languages. For example, Kochi-based Entri offers exam-coaching in Malayalam, Tamil, Telugu, and Kannada, besides Hindi. “Access to quality education is one of the most important pillars of our nation’s growth. This is in bad shape currently but technology has the power to solve it," Kumar says.
Phool: Changing lives with flowers
Over eight million tonnes of flowers are dumped into the Ganga every year, adding to the river’s pollution. So Kanpur-based Phool collects used flowers from temples and mosques, before they can reach the river, and “flower-cycles" them into incense sticks, vermicompost, and vegan leather - “fleather". All this is done by Phool’s army of women. Founder and CEO Ankit Agarwal used to find it difficult to get regular workers to collect discarded flowers from the ghats of the Ganga. “Men wouldn’t come for work or were prone to alcoholism. But there were two ‘ammas’, who were regular and very happy to come to work everyday," he recalls. They are from a community in UP that cleans dry toilets. “Working with Phool meant they didn’t have to go clean toilets in 10 different homes everyday. Now they were doing something holy instead. They took pride in that. That left a mark on me and became our mission: turn waste into something valuable and change lives doing that."
“We have retrieved and recycled 11,000 tonnes of flowers so far," says Agarwal. “I believe this is a self-sustaining model. People see the ghats are clean and it changes how the workers view themselves as well as how others view them and their work." The startup is now expanding operations to temple towns of Puri and Tirupati as well.
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