My Business Tackles Women's Sanitation Needs
I am Namita Banka, based in India, running a sanitation enterprise – Banka BioLoo Pvt Ltd, committed to environmental betterment and social uplift. We are working to eradicate the malaise of open defecation. By providing eco-friendly bio-toilets (or bioloos), I help meet the Millennium Development Goals (MDG-7) and actively support the government’s vision of an open-defecation-free society.
My entrepreneurial stint began in 2000 when I got involved in jewelery design, and helped spread the concept of customized as well as budget-friendly jewelery, in Surat, western India, and later in Bangalore, the IT hub in southern India. Till then, many families lived under the impression that diamond jewelery is very costly and beyond their reach. This venture took a turn, when I moved to Hyderabad, another city in the south, with my husband who landed a new job there. I was keen to begin something for socio-environmental benefit, and I began this new journey by founding Banka Enterprises in 2008, promoting refilled printer cartridges. Refilling, again and again, ensured less landfill. There were more activities around environmentally-friendly products and services, and later I got hooked to sanitation. Initially, I was a liaising agent between the Railways and the sanitation system vendors, for the then sanitation technology – controlled discharge toilet system (CDTS) – which was installed in few Indian trains, culminating in a service contract with East Coast Railway, one of the 16 railway zones.
Sanitation is a field that requires the heart of the person, I would say, more than the brain. The cause has to be dear to the person, which is the case with our team that grew from 4 to over 100, and is still increasing. That apart, we need mechanisms to implement policies. For instance, a lot has been proclaimed in favor of sanitation – but real support to the private sector, SMEs hasn’t been forthcoming. Access to finance is not easy, banks are more concerned about the financials than the social good, or the fact that the sector provides growth opportunities.The proprietary firm was corporatized to Banka BioLoo Pvt Ltd in August 2012, of which I am the managing director and a majority shareholder. I have helped put sanitation and toilets on the national agenda in the past two years. These efforts have been recognized and appreciated nationally, as well as globally. Our business provides financial return to investors and serves the social cause in an environmentally-friendly manner. Our solutions meet the need for basic, easy-to-install and hygienic human waste disposal mechanism in areas with no infrastructural facilities and address the need for a cheaper and easy-to-operate alternative to the traditional waste disposal system. Going green was my motto and it was the premise of the enterprise. I talked and walked green, practised and exhorted others to follow suit. It was not easy a few years ago as environmental conscience had yet to catch up. The “green” nature of our offering needed to be explained – how there is a benefit at an individual level and also to the society. But I am happy today that it’s permeating every walk of life.
Financing of my initial activities was from own funds – I and my husband. After a while, I got a credit line from a bank. As the business grew, family and friends joined the wagon and today we are talking to venture capital investors to scale the business. With the current focus on sanitation, we see good opportunities. Our customers comprise individual households, construction and infrastructure companies, NGOs, academic institutions, municipal bodies and railways. These customers, through word of mouth, have helped the business grow as they have found the solution helpful and our services worthy. We are lucky to get enough in-bound enquiries. The media highlighting our work has helped us get good business.
Competition is a part of the business, and it ensures that I am on my toes, eager to provide a better service than yesterday. That apart, I believe that I have to continuously raise my bar and innovate in my offerings. To that effect, we keep experimenting with different material and components – to lower the cost for the end-user as also to make the product more sustainable.
In previous works, when I was a jewelery designer and visited the artisans, or later when I had an outlet for cartridge refilling, adequate toilets was a concern, more so for women. Probably, this was also one of the reasons for me to enter the sanitation field, apart from the fact that half of India’s population doesn’t have toilets and defecates in the open. It was not an easy start – for two reasons: women entrepreneurship is challenging in the first place in developing countries such as India, and secondly I entered the field of “human waste” that’s not attractive. But my persistence paid off, and today we are a leader in the eco-friendly sanitation sector in India. Most decision-makers in households, businesses or governments are men and they, more often than not, fail to understand the women’s needs in sanitation. In my interactions with family patriarchs, business executives or railway officers I would put forth this need and urge provision of facilities from a women’s perspective as well.
My initial activities were very narrowly focused, CDTS services to Indian Railways, and we were a small team. As I became aware of how acute the sanitation situation in India was, there was enough motivation to do a bit for my female fraternity – helping them with a sense of security and dignity. Defecating in the open for women is both concern for physical abuse and a matter of shame apart from health aspects. As we moved ahead, the business, too, evolved and grew. I am a member of Confederation of Women Entrepreneurs (COWE), which also provided support.