After winning an award in 2009 Svati Bogle has set up a social business, Sustaintech, that takes the robust model of delivering energy efficient cook stoves to the vast middle income businesses and street vendors across India.
Last week I had the chance to catch up with her after coming back from the Corporate Sustainability Summit at Rio +20 and caught up with her news on what has been happening since we last met in 2011 as well as her thinking for the importance for ethically minded businesses to succeed in the developing world.
So Svati, tell me how has it been going with Sustaintech recently?
We are really proud to have reached 10 crore, that’s 13 million rupees, in sales for stoves last month. This is a big milestone and the psychology or reaching this far has had far-reaching effects on our own confidence. We are also now perceived differently within the business arena in India. I am now getting a lot more work with the government for instance.
Are government contracts pushing forwards your businesses then?
Well, we have realised that our own distribution networks must get strengthened because the danger with government schemes is that although it is great to be that mainstream, they can be frustratingly slow and can get changed quite easily. Building our own channels must still be key to our strategy.
What has brought you this far then? Has it been a great team or a particular business strategy?
We’re lucky to have a good team running the company, we have a great CEO and committed and motivated salespeople. What we’ve found is that in being a social business we face the challenge of wearing two hats and thinking in different ways – to be aware of the social sensibilities involved not just profits. This requires a special skill set at senior management levels.
We also made a tactical decision to start with small investments from several investors that gave us the space and the freedom to grow at our own pace and with our own vision. If you’ve got big ideas and a big vision from the start it’s not going to happen. It is only now, when we’ve learnt the ropes, that I feel confident that we can bid for a much larger one million dollar investment.
What about the appetite for sustainability within businesses at the moment – did you pick up a mood change at Rio + 20 recently?
I was surprised by the focus on the green economy at the summit and the high net value of the commitments made by corporates. I’m a bit in doubt over who can actually hold them to account though – are they answerable? Do they have the right knowledge capacity? This could all just be a feel good and image building exercise on a global platform.
You’re not convinced that large corporates are committed to sustainability?
In their own estates there is some commitment. For instance cutting their own energy use or investing wind farms that will serve their enterprises. However, when it comes to widening this to be more inclusive, for instance, getting energy access in the communities where they work, they are less progressive.
At Sutaintech we are aiming to be as inclusive as possible, we like to make sure the products we are selling actually make great economic sense to our customers. We want our customers to make a big savings first. We can wait for our returns.
Is there anything exciting coming up that you’d like to tell us?
We are really pleased to be forming a relationship with this year’s Ashden Gold winner SKDRDP – they are going to support the sale of our stoves to poorer families through their microcredit scheme. We’re really excited about this because it helps us to bring our stoves to a community who has lower incomes than the businesses we are serving right now – watch this space!