This sponsored post, part of a series on Asia’s Young Social Entrepreneurs, is brought to you by DBS Bank. In partnership with the National University of Singapore, DBS is a proud supporter of the Social Venture Challenge, an Asia-wide competition for social enterprises.
Bangalore is famous for being the home of India’s Rs 30 billion (US $500 million) incense manufacturing industry. But little did Keshav Giriyapnavar know that 90 percent of incense sticks made are by hand.
He realized this while doing infrastructure assessments in Bangalore’s slum communities for a summer internship in 2011. Women were rolling sticks one by one without the help of any machinery. They would sit for hours doing this repetitive motion, causing many to have back and arm pain and exposure to charcoal. On a productive 12-hour work day, they can roll 5,000 sticks, earning them Rs 100 (US $1.65).
Giriyapnavar noticed the problem extends beyond intensive, underpaid labour. Women are forced to roll incense sticks because they need to remain home and are not skilled enough to do other jobs. To earn more, their daughters would help out, exchanging the time that could be spent in school for work. And their earnings are often controlled by middlemen who provide the material. So Giriyapnavar, an Indian Institute of Technology (IIT) Gandhinagar mechanical engineering student at the time, began building a machine to automate the process and help reduce the manual work.
After one and a half years, Giriyapnavar had a working machine. It was critical to ensure the product works well, so he traveled frequently back to slum areas to test his machine. He continued making improvements on the machine after his graduation in 2012 and by the end of 2013, the Doopica was created. The machine can help produce 10,000 incense sticks per day and is up to five times cheaper than other alternatives.
While developing the Doopica, Giriyapnavar realized what he really wanted to do was create high-quality, low-cost machines for women workers across all cottage industries so that they can be more productive and increase their earnings. To carry out the mission, he formed a social enterprise called TinkerTank with Abhishek Rathi and Adnan Ansari, two other IIT graduates.
There are various cottage industries in India where 80 to 90 percent of the work is done manually, says Rathi. “There is another segment which is bamboo cutting industry. People manually cut bamboos. So we’re working on a bamboo cutting machine already.”
Rathi met Giriyapnavar through a mutual friend and decided to quit his job to join the venture. He remembers feeling irritated whenever he saw women cleaners at his office pick cigarette butts off the floor because they often don’t get disposed of in the garbage. “I was always interested in solving problems of the poor because they have to deal with these things. Plus they also don’t earn much. [TinkerTank] is the best place I could have been,” said Rathi.
To solve the middleman problem, TinkerTank brings a group of women together to form their own company with the machines. There are microfinance institutions (MFIs) and rural development banks that provide loans to women workers in rural areas if they’re interested in doing something of their own which the bank thinks is viable, says Rathi, who adds that the Doopica machine can be paid off in four to five months.
“I have been to three or four slum areas in Bangalore. They’re very willing to do something which gives them something better, some good life,” said Rathi. “When we speak with them, [we think] we should not let them down. Also, I’ve seen a child rolling incense sticks just because they can earn a little more instead of going to school. That’s the situation here and that’s why we want change to happen.”
But first, they need to prove the value of their machines. At the Social Venture Challenge bootcamp, Rathi learned how vital it is for them to quantify their social impact for investors like MFIs and other stakeholders who need to know. “We’re helping these poor women increase their income by four-folds and three-fourths of their time is reduced. So they have time and money. On the health side, they do not have to spend on the painkillers they used to take. Again, quantitatively, we’re saving money from health issues,” explained Rathi.
If there’s a bigger lesson Rathi learned, it’s to not underestimate the power of markets to create positive societal impact. “I had this doubt of how you’re going to convince women workers to pay because they have less money. When we did a little research, we saw that there are many companies that are actually giving loans to these people and they’re returning it back. So MFIs are willing to pay the loan and women workers are willing to take the loan, do something of their own, and return it back in time.”
Watch this video to learn more about TinkerTank:
Social Enterprise Buzz is a media company dedicated to covering social enterprise news from around the world. We publish a range of stories from startups to entrepreneurship, innovation, and finance, which showcase business making the world a better place. Read more.