At CIIE, we thought to bring out the success stories of young entrepreneurs associated with us, for you to draw inspiration. So, we have started a series of interviews with startups, who would tell you about their journey, the stories of success and failure.
The first in the series is a social enterprise, ONergy.
Established in 2009, ONergy provides decentralized energy solutions to underserved households and institutions through a range of solar products such as home electrification system, solar hot water system, LED lantern and more in Calcutta, Odisha and Jharkhand. In conversation with Piyush Jaju, Cofounder/CEO of ONergy.
How did the idea of a social enterprise develop?
ONergy started in 2009 as an offshoot of “SwitchON”, an NGO which was instrumental in spreading awareness about climate change and sustainable living .In 2008, the founding team put together a film on India’s energy security – ‘Why New Coal’ – to question India’s growth based on fossil fuels and highlighting alternative to its sustainable and equitable development – and bicycled 1600km from Kolkata to Delhi along the coal belt. SwitchON reached out to over 60,000 people across India through its various projects and campaigns. Through extensive travelling, the gaps that existed in sustainable energy access were clear. At this juncture, in mid-2009, ONergy was registered as a for-profit enterprise not only to develop an ecosystem for uptake of complete energy solutions for rural India but also address the gap within distribution system and financing for such products.
You could be anything, given the qualification, then how did you end up being a social entrepreneur?
Where else could I get an opportunity to interact with the poorest (rural household) and the richest (investors), work on spreadsheets and on the field, do the smallest of job and also the top job – everything on the same day. Everything is super exciting as long as you are passionate, self-motivated, humble and ready to face failure, challenges and criticism in a positive way.
How did your team decide to monetize the social venture?
For the first couple of years we started with a capital built by our own money and support from family. After 2 years, we started reaching out to investors by preparing all the details which is required for their due diligence. After over one year of discussion with investors we closed it with CIIE, Rianta Capital & Halloran. And now we have started raising for our subsequent round.
What were some of the unexpected challenges you faced in launching and growing Onergy? What did you learn?
Onergy expected to face some pretty strong initial challenges. We came across 2 kinds of people – one who did not know about solar and the other who knew about solar had a bad impression. There existed a major trust deficit among rural people when it came to solar due to failures in the past. Since the business concept was largely untested in the Eastern region, there was a reasonable level of risk involved. Solar products has limited penetration in pockets, where the poor product & service quality of products had somewhat dented the interest in solar energy products. Hiring & retaining the right talent, was always going to be difficult, especially when we could not afford high salaried people. One of the biggest challenges is on the supply chain front. The remote villages pose a very serious problem to transportation of goods & men, in terms of safety & cost. We have never had it easy with funding and have been bootstrapping while not compromising on the growth of the organization.
Being a social enterprise, what is your idea of changing the world?
Personally, I don’t think about changing the world. The most important is to change myself and my world view. Over the last 5 years, there has been a lot of unlearning and relearning that has happened.
Do you have any favourite business or related books that you can recommend to other entrepreneurs and why?
No specific book but I like reading about journey of other entrepreneurs and draw inspiration from them.
What is the best advice you have ever been given?
Start putting your ideas on the ground. It will grow into something beautiful. Don’t just wait for a miracle or funding to happen.
Golden words of advice for aspiring social entrepreneurs
Dont take life seriously. Follow your passion and don’t give up on your dreams. Starting any business is difficult, but with starting a social business, the challenges multiply. Be prepared for it and have patience.
Stay tuned for many more of such success stories…