This electric rickshaw social business in India are cleaning up polluted streets while helping the drivers earn a better living.

Meet the Entrepreneur: Naveen from SMV Green

Naveen Krishna, the founder of SMV Green Solution, at one of the company’s workshops in Varanasi, India..jpg

We spoke to Naveen Krishna about his business SMV Green, the challenges that social entrepreneurs face in India and his journey to offer cleaner, greener transport and better opportunities for rickshaw drivers.

Naveen was born and raised in a small village outside Varanasi in Northern India. All his life, he grew up around manual rickshaw drivers carrying people to and from the city, it’s backbreaking work for very little pay. He saw that very often the rickshaw cyclists came from some of the most vulnerable communities, frequently associated with drug and alcohol abuse. 

“We started SMV Green with two objectives in mind,” said Krishna. “The first was to upgrade the manual cycle rickshaw pullers to electric rickshaws to eliminate the physical pain and drudgery of a pulling the cycle rickshaw. We wanted to bring dignity to these people working so hard to make a living for their family. The second objective was to create an ecosystem within last-mile transportation, Indian streets are some of the worst in the world for pollution and traffic. I’m not able to simply go for a walk with my family on the streets. I wanted to create a business that benefits everyone with cleaner transport.”

An electric rickshaw, locally known as toto, on the streets of Varanasi..jpg

SMV Green upgrade manual rickshaw cycles to e-rickshaws by providing access to affordable financing, as it is very difficult for drivers to go to the bank and get a loan to purchase their own vehicle. The social business also provides the necessary training, registration with the road transport office, and insurance for both the vehicle and driver. Drivers of electric rickshaws are often renting from owners of fleets, who charge exorbitant rates. SMV Green are cutting out the middleman and allowing drivers to become owners themselves - increasing their income from 3 dollars per day to 12 dollars per day. We spoke to Naveen about his journey starting SMV Green:

What is your background? Why did you choose to start your social business? 

I was born and brought up in a very small village in Uttar Pradesh and I did my masters in social work. I wanted to do something good for the community and the development of the country so I was placed in one of the government funding agencies - looking at the suitability and due diligence of NGOs. But I felt working within the defined format of the government job was quite limiting for me, I could see that something was going wrong but I didn’t feel like I was really changing anything in my role. Another ‘click’ moment for me was getting to know a rickshaw cyclist personally. He was not begging for money but working very hard every day to earn his livelihood. It seemed crazy to me that his hard work was not able to earn him a decent living. I decided to start SMV Green to become a catalyst to bring a level of dignity and respect to drivers on the street.

Tell us about the social element of SMV as an enterprise? 

One of the goals of SMV is to improve the lives of the drivers we work with. This means we are often working with the poorest of the poor. They do not have the capital or a support system - so money alone will not help. They need training in financial literacy, health insurance and other kinds of support. At SMV we are providing that support system. Social enterprises are vital in reaching marginalised groups in society because you have to understand the limitations of the end customer and reach them with the limited resources they have. Especially working with customers at the base of the pyramid you have to be innovative and well connected to the background and aspirations of that person.

How are you helping women to become drivers too?

The Vahini Project encourages women to break stereotypes and become electric rickshaw drivers

The Vahini Project encourages women to break stereotypes and become electric rickshaw drivers

Mobility is key to female empowerment but is an area that is often forgotten about. Presently, 99.9% of drivers in India are male. We feel that encouraging more women to come into the profession is incredibly important and we want to reverse the stereotypes of rickshaw driving as a male-dominated industry. To make the women feel safe, the vehicles have a camera on board with cloud reporting. We also provide them with a mobile phone which has a panic button linked to the nearest female police officer. 

The areas we are working in the northern parts of India are some of the most conservative parts of the country, where the purdah system is still prominent. To bring change we must challenge the old mindset to change the narrative. I was born and brought up in the same society and community so I am also trying to challenge the stereotypes and prejudices that I hold myself. I feel that real empowerment comes when women have the freedom of mobility. Irrespective of class, caste, or anything else. 

This is a huge change of mindset for the women themselves too, how is SMV Green going about recruiting these women?

It’s certainly a very difficult question. When we started last year, for 3 or 4 months we did not have any traction at all and I was rethinking whether it was possible. Until one day a student called Maria came to us, her father suddenly became very ill and she had to care for him, along with her 3 younger siblings at home. She was studying for her second-year graduate programme and came to us to say that she wanted to drive. Her village was 10km away from the highway, which she would have to walk in the dark. With her SMV rickshaw she can continue her studies, take care of her ill father and earn a living. Seeing how Maria took this opportunity showed how there is so much more potential for women in Indian society to become more independent. With only one electric vehicle she was able to change her life. It’s currently a small project with around 60 Vahinis and we are slowly expanding to other locations.

How are you reaching the last mile?

There are many rural places in India and across the world where electricity is not readily available, so introducing electric vehicles there was not possible. To solve this issue, we piloted with a grassroots energy company who run a biogas plant in an incredibly rural village. They had surplus energy during the day time (when there is less need for lighting and cooking). The electric rickshaw batteries could easily be charged with the surplus. It could be a win-win situation for the mini-grid, to us and the rural customer with mobility. We wanted to build a case to understand what it would take to make this model sustainable in a rural area in India. The pilot is running at the moment and we hope to gain some significant learnings to take this forward to bring clean transport to remote areas.

Do you have one important challenge to tackle or is SMV a wholistic solution?

I see that there is a requirement for an ecosystem for any kind of impact to be created. If you are solving just one problem, that does not help in the longer term. If I am just upgrading a manual rickshaw to an electric rickshaw and providing no further support services, then the impact becomes very limited. As a company, our focus is to build the ecosystem around last-mile electricity and clean transportation in India. Building a robust system for impact requires attention to the quality of the vehicles, upward economic mobility, cheaper rates for commuters and eco-friendly transportation in general. We understand very clearly as an enterprise that you need various kinds of interventions at different levels, so as many people as possible can be benefited socially, environmentally and economically.

What kind of challenges do you face in India as a social entrepreneur and what is the support available for social entrepreneurs?

Legally setting up a social enterprise is complex in India and there are huge variations between the central government policy, state and district policy. These irregularities make it incredibly difficult for social enterprises like us to navigate. There are around 50 steps if you want to register a company in India. It’s a lot of legal compliance - which takes a huge amount of my time as a social entrepreneur. I would also say that there are limited platforms where the stories of social businesses are told, I see lots of potential aspiring entrepreneurs out there but they don’t know how to start or where to go. 

Why does Yunus Social Business make a good partner for you?

We are very much aligned towards the same vision - it’s not only about making a profit but there is a focus on the social goal. The mission of the YSB Bangalore fund is primarily impacted. In India now many banks and schemes are providing liberal debt financing to small social enterprises. However, receiving support is very difficult as the terms are specific and do not match the requirements of social businesses like SMV. That’s why I’m very happy to be working with the Yunus Social Business fund in India, they are looking to support the eco-system of social businesses to grow.

What is your vision for SMV Green for the future?

We want to become the one-stop-shop for clean mobility, offering end-to-end solutions around clean mobility vehicles. We plan to go to 10 cities by 2020 and long-term we want to reach every city in India.