May-Jun 2013: Profile '3S Shramik'

In 1997, Rajeev Kher was in Canada as a business management intern, selling financial plans for an investment firm. While there, he chanced upon a portable toilet. It was the first time he had seen one, and he remembers wondering if it was a telephone booth, Canadian-style! The chance encounter with a ‘portaloo’ ended up being something of a turning point in young Rajeev’s life.

Even if you belong to the privileged minority in India that does not have to resort to it, you cannot help but be aware of open defecation; the scourge of our country, a practice that impacts not only our environment and health, but also the dignity of millions, especially girls and women. Yet, most of us do little or nothing about it. Rajeev, however, looked at the portable toilet and realized he was looking at something he could do.

Approximately 64% of the population in India does not have regular access to toilets. Faecal contamination is responsible for the spread of infectious diseases like diarrhoea, cholera and polio. A portable toilet or ‘portaloo’ is a simple, lightweight enclosure typically ‘mains free’, which means, unlike a sewer-connected toilet, a portaloo deodorises and stores waste for a short period of time and is cleaned (or serviced) once a day with the help of suction pumps. Rajeev studied how portable toilets work, read up every bit of material he could find on the subject and returned to India.

The Practitioner Hub for Inclusive Business, UK, provides innovation funding and they funded a survey for Rajeev. A consulting company conducted the survey in urban slums, and submitted a detailed report and a business plan. Rajeev had confirmation that his idea was feasible, scalable and non-seasonal!

To say that people back home were sceptical would be understating it. But Rajeev’s parents gave him the go ahead. Rajeev brought two sample toilets from a friend in Germany, promising to pay for them when he sold them. He bought a servicing truck with suction pumps and set up his one-man business venture. But it was an uphill task selling the toilets or even the concept, though he spoke to several people, including in the government. Everywhere, people agreed that sanitation was an important issue but few wanted to actually do anything about it.

And then, a friend requested the two portable toilets on rent for a wedding in Pune. Rajeev obliged and began lending them for other events. So, for the next couple of months, he lent them out free of charge, and also serviced them himself, until finally, he found his first real customer, University of Pune. “I still have a copy of that cheque framed in my office!” he says.

Selling the portable toilets did not get easier. Investment wasn’t forthcoming, and banks only wanted to finance automobiles. Getting people to join him proved difficult too – after all, a portable toilet business wasn’t anybody’s idea of a dream job. In 2001 he got his first real employee (who is still with him) – the bank salesperson who got him a loan! In 2002, Rajeev began to offer portaloos to ‘unserved settlements’ such as temporary camps or shelters, construction or infrastructure project sites, pilgrimages, fairs, events and exhibitions. They were still importing the toilets, but soon he realised it was not cost-effective to do so. When he tried to get local manufacturers to make them for him, they turned out such inferior jobs that he decided to make them himself and studied the technology. At this point his brother Ranjit Kher, and friend, Ulka Sadalkar, joined him, and they founded Saraplast in 2006. Saraplast imported only the flat-pack shells, manufactured the bulky parts locally and assembled the toilets. ‘3S Shramik’ is the sanitation services brand of Saraplast. In 2009, a social venture fund, Avishkaar, invested about US $500,000 in Saraplast, and gave it a new lease of life. Since then, 3S Shramik has been doing phenomenal work in the field of sanitation. Last year, 2,00,000 people were serviced by them; according to Rajeev, 1,30,000 of them were first-time toilet users, and 50,000 of those were women and young girls!

Rajeev turned his attention seriously towards the population in urban slums. He had a twofold aim – provide sanitation for the needy and be sustainable at the micro level. 3S Shramik put in place a micro-enterprise model. A slum is provided with an adequate number of portable toilets, and one person (most often from the slum) is trained and appointed as its caretaker. Each ‘user’ or ‘user family’ is issued a pass that has to be shown to the caretaker before using the toilet. The residents pay a monthly fee (Rs.30 – Rs.50 per person) to the caretaker, of which a percentage is paid to 3S Shramik and this sum goes towards paying for the toilets. Once the cost of the toilets is paid off, ownership is transferred to the caretaker, and he can continue to run the toilet blocks as an individual enterprise. These individuals are termed ‘Sanipreneurs’. “We cannot be everywhere, but this way, we create micro enterprise for local people,” Rajeev points out. The blocks also provide retail space for other small scale entrepreneurs in the locality, for example women who make low cost sanitary napkins. 3S Shramik has also provided portable toilets in corporation schools which are used by the school-children during the school-hours, and by the nearby residents during non-school hours for a fee. “Sanitation should be for everyone and not just the chosen few,” says Rajeev. These projects have already been implemented in slums across Pune, Mumbai, Delhi, Bengaluru, Chennai and 5 other cities.

The cost of one portable toilet unit ranges from Rs.35,000 to Rs.75,000. After it is installed, it needs to be serviced every day. 3S Shramik owns special trucks with suction equipment mounted on them to evacuate the waste, and typically, the company installs the toilets in un-serviced areas for free, and charges only for its maintenance, cleaning, and repair. In India, the tractor drawn, so-called portable toilets used at large melas collect the waste but this flows through a drainpipe into a pit in the ground – this soon overflows and the whole site becomes an environmental and health hazard; many toilets do not even have doors.

3S Shramik is also looking into the proper disposal of waste; they are planning their own sewage treatment plant instead of dumping waste into municipal plants. As Rajeev explains, sewage water is 80-95% water. Separating the 5-15% waste from it is easy, since it is organic and easily digestible. In cities like Bengaluru it is now compulsory for large landscapes like golf courses to use recycled water. Rajeev says, he does not even need to arrange the transport; corporations are willing to pick up the water themselves!

3S Shramik has ISO 9001-2008 certification in India, and is on par with all the other international standards. Rajeev Kher is now gaining much recognition for making a difference in the condition of sanitation in India. Outlook Business rated Rajeev as one of India’s 50 Social Entrepreneurs making a difference to the lives of people in India. In December 2012, 3S Shramik was one of the winners of the CNN-IBN India Positive awards. In March this year, Rajeev was invited by Jamshyd Godrej, to the Godrej Good  and Green Conclave 2013. Portable Sanitation Association International (PSAI), a non-profit organisation for sanitation and liquid waste management standards based in the USA, chose Rajeev for its board of directors in 2010. He is not only the first Indian but also the very first Asian to be on this coveted forum. “My position on this board will enable me to make a case to the government for improving the standards of toilets in our country, and to help draft a policy and legislation for it,” says Rajeev. “Sanitation is not given priority in our systems; it is always the last thing on the list. I’d say it is as important as water.”

The 3 founders with the CNN IBN India Positive Award3S Shramik is now witnessing rapid growth. They have 4000 installations and are moving towards 6000. They have a helpline that gets about 30-40 queries a day. They train and educate first-time users at unserved settlements. 3S Shramik currently employs 250-300 people across its offices in different cities. The profile of people includes ex-defense personnel, ACOs (authorized contracting officers), officer cadres, young MBAs and graduates from smaller cities. “Now, people come to me and offer money!” Rajeev laughs happily. “My friend in Mumbai is trying to set up a ‘toilet fund’ for us which will help create a leasing model for 3S Shramik in  USA and Europe. Funding is not an issue any more… in the USA, the portable toilet industry is 7 billion dollars, for a population of 350 million. In India, we have thrice the population, and we have urban slums. This could be a multi-billion dollar industry here if we get the necessary legislation and standards in place, and spread awareness.”

3S Shramik has big plans for the future. Rajeev intends to explore robotic-technology for repair and maintenance of sewage and pipelines. “It is what is done in the USA. Robots go into the drain lines to check for corrosion, blockages, etc., and generate adequate actions to correct them.” He aims to work with non-governmental organisations for pay-and-use toilets, and use the toilet block spaces for dispensing a range of associated products like soaps, condoms and sanitary napkins. He also aims to create more micro-entrepreneurs and reach out to a wider section of the society.

“It’s good to have a vision and take it to fruition,” he says. “I want to impact more and more people without compromising on my principles. I want to get more experience in India and then maybe work in other parts of the world like Haiti or Africa.”

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