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Neha Juneja, the Co-Founder of Greenway Grameen Infra, aims to improve the lives of rural Indian women by transforming the way they cook.
Interview by Anne John
Thousands of rural Indian women are exposed every day to unhealthy doses of smoke and soot, thanks to the traditional mud chulas that are still used in our villages. Greenway Grameen is a social enterprise that offers a healthier, environment-friendly and low cost alternative – the Smart Stove. The Smart Stove claims to produce 70% less smoke and uses 65% less fuel than traditional mud cook stoves.
Here we talk to the young Co-Founder of Greenway Grameen, Neha Juneja, about her journey and the challenges of being a social enterprise in India,
Tell us a little about your journey and the story behind Greenway Grameen. How did it all start?
Neha Juneja: Greenway Grameen was formed with the idea of developing household energy products specifically for rural consumers. While traveling across rural areas in Maharashtra, we realized that while many aspects of life in rural areas had progressed – people had televisions, bikes and many other modern amenities – cooking still remained unchanged and archaic. Even women with incomes and education continued to cook on unhealthy, polluting traditional stoves. This observation led to the development of the Greenway Smart Stove.
Our team comes with a background in combustion systems design and we applied this to designing stoves. Realizing that this is a consumer product and hence requires to be liked by users we spent one year traveling across 5 states testing various prototypes, finally introducing the one that Indian women seemed to like the most.
Although rural India has been inching towards modernization, why do you think that rural Indian women have been reluctant to give up ancient practices in the kitchen?
Neha Juneja: I don’t think Indian women in rural areas are any more reluctant that anyone else. All of us are creatures of habit to some extent and like to stick with what seems comfortable. We have in fact found it easy to convince women of the utility of the product; however other challenges in terms of reaching out to them, requiring the family/husband’s consent, not having enough money are tougher challenges to breach.
How has the response to the Smart Stove been? What was the biggest challenge that you faced?
Neha Juneja: The response has been fantastic and now we are India’s bestselling biomass stove although this sector is still rather small. Our biggest challenge has been that of distribution which any start-up trying to sell in rural areas faces. However in our case it is compounded by the fact that there are lesser takers (distribution partners) for women-centric products especially in north India. Additionally, since a product like this has not made it to the market before, there is no precedent of success.
What made you believe that rural Indian women would adopt the Smart Stove, despite similar inventions earlier failing to make a big impact? What is particularly unique about the Smart Stove that women would want to use it as opposed to other such products?
Neha Juneja: We saw the plight that women face while cooking every day and with the Greenway Smart Stove so much of that vanishes instantly. The basic utility of the product and feedback from the initial user trials made us confident of the product’s success.
What is different from other stove interventions in the past is of course the basic technology that makes the stove high performance but also the fact that all design aspects of the stove have been developed with the user i.e. it is both high-performance and user-desirable. Also, unlike other interventions we do not resort to social marketing but rather sell the stove on its aspirational appeal.
How conducive is the environment in India towards social entrepreneurship today? What changes would you like to see in this area?
Neha Juneja: I think the social entrepreneurship ecosystem in India would be one of the best in the coming years. There is a lot of good activity in this space and a lot of hope but yes, a lot more needs to be done. This movement is recent but growing very fast. To be honest, I first heard the term ‘social enterprise’ well after Greenway was formed. As a team we thought of ourselves as a regular start-up and still do.
Social enterprises face all the problems that regular start-ups in India face plus more and hence require additional encouragement and support.
On a side note (I always push this), for there to be more women working in rural India, the country badly needs better hotels and more toilets! The productivity of Indian women can go up by leaps and bounds if these simple things are done.
*All photos courtesy: Greenway Grameen.