Rhea Singhal (ex-Pfizer) is the founder and CEO of Ecoware, India's largest sustainable food packaging company. This Mumbai-born Canadian citizen grew up in Dubai, lives in New Delhi, and brings in a much-needed holistic worldview to the consumable packaging ecosystem.
This is an Exclusive Interview with Rhea, as a part of the #TimesStories initiative by The Times Blog.
What sector does Ecoware operate in? What inspired you to launch a business in this domain?
Ecoware is India’s first and largest sustainable food packaging company. Ecoware uses the waste of locally-sourced agricultural crops, and converts it into disposable tableware and packaging for use in food services, medical care and industrial packaging. Ecoware products are 100% natural, biodegradable, and compostable.
We provide a sustainable and affordable alternative to plastic (for partners who require ongoing packaging for their products). In the process, we are eliminating the use of disposables that have collectively caused a humungous amount of damage to the environment. Ecoware also finds commercially viable use for agricultural waste that is otherwise disposed by burning in the open.
More importantly, India does not have a culture of waste management by default.
Of the 62 million tons of waste produced in 2015, nearly 50% was dumped in landfills without treatment (as reported by the Central Pollution Control Board). Plastic disposables constitute a majority of this non-treated waste, by virtue of being cheap and commonplace.
Faced with this predicament, I entered the market in 2009 to change the existing public mindset, and to openly challenge the monopoly previously enjoyed by big plastic & co. Ecoware is best described as a like-for-like replacement to plastic. It is affordable, available everywhere and exhibits the same (or better) handling benefits.
While there were biodegradable options prior to Ecoware in the market, none of them offered a complete solution. In this industry, some raw materials are purely seasonal, while others are either limited to certain geographies or have shortcomings in their applications (not suitable for Microwaves, not oil-resistant, etc).
Ecoware was instrumental in delivering the first all-India all-purpose solution, that could be used to pack and handle any food type.
When did you launch Ecoware, and what challenges did you face initially while going about it?
I founded my company in May 2009. My biggest challenge has been changing the pre-existing consumer mindset. When you introduce a new or improved version of existing incumbents, especially one that sells at a premium, it becomes all about educating your users about the benefits and advantages of using your product over the existing standard.
Other than the regular challenges of setting up a consumer business, I had to overcome the stigma and bias associated with being a female entrepreneur in India. Having spent most of my life abroad, I was practically a foreigner and spoke very little Hindi - the language of the North Indian business community. Despite these hurdles, I convinced generational traders within large wholesale markets to sell a product that they had never seen before - and more alarmingly, one that could cannibalize their current revenue streams.
But we got there!
How did your family react when you told them you wanted to be in the recyclable consumables business?
My family’s support is actually the reason I was able to take this leap of faith. As an entrepreneur, you often have to make decisions and face challenges on your own. Till date, my family remains my primary source of encouragement and motivation.
How important was the acquisition & targeting of a niche audience for Ecoware? How did you go about it?
As a business, we target both B2B and B2C customers within the food services sector. Our B2B partners include any place where food is consumed in bulk. These include quick service restaurants (QSRs), caterers, offices, etc. Our B2C customers primarily comprise households who buy via retail, both online and offline.
Before Ecoware, these customers were using either plastic or styrofoam products that were not only unhealthy, but also polluted the environment. Ecoware is ultimately a mass-market product. Our product range starts from Rs 1 and goes upto a maximum of Rs 25, making them affordable for everybody
We tend to focus on any segment where food is consumed. All of them are valid opportunities for us. This includes in-home usage, where disposables are required for pooja, birthday parties, picnics, or for packing pre-travel snacks. And certainly, our offering extends to serve out-of-home food consumption needs, such as food retail, offices, hospitals, schools, airports, railways, airlines, events, functions, catering, etc.
India’s demographics indicate a young & vibrant, socially and environmentally conscious population in the future, with higher discretionary income. These trends support exponential growth for a young consumer brand like ours.
Was there ever a time when you felt overwhelmed and unable to continue? What made you continue? What kept you motivated at your worst moments?
Of course I’ve been overwhelmed! It has been a very steep learning curve over the last 9 years, and I’ve had my fair share of challenges. If I’m ever in such a situation - I remind myself to take a step back, remind myself of the bigger picture, assess the situation and think calmly about how I want to proceed. Taking a step back lets me think clearly.
My source of motivation is reminding myself of my vision, what is it that I set out to achieve, and the impact that I want to create.
What are the Top 3 Business Takeaways that you did not know when you first started out?
As an entrepreneur, at some point in your journey, you will perform every role in your company. Specifically for me, my core learnings have been:
- How to run a manufacturing unit in India
- How to empower a labour work force (our unit employs over 100 people)
- How to build a brand in a nation as diverse as ours.
What advice would you give to your ten-year younger self, if given an opportunity?
Become an entrepreneur.
Sooner, than later.
Have you raised funds for your business? Any plans to raise funds in the future?
We have been 100% bootstrapped till date. For any disruptive business to go from proof-of-concept to profitability, it needs to demonstrate that it has what we call “skin in the game”.
We were the first company to introduce biodegradable food packaging to India. We were the first to manufacture locally in India. We were the first to convince food majors such as Haldirams, Jubilant, and Devyani to chuck plastic and move to sustainable alternatives.
Therefore, we invested in building our own equity, and created a market from scratch. Now that we have reached significant scale and since demand outstrips supply by almost 4x, we need another injection of funds. So yes, at this point we are on the lookout for investors who can provide not just capital, but also the kind of mentorship and guidance that will propel Ecoware into a Rs 100-Crore brand in the next 3 years.
The funds will be allocated towards increasing our production capacity at the current plant, to increase our sales and marketing visibility pan-India, for new product development and for building enterprise-level solutions.
Any words of advice to aspiring entrepreneurs in the sustainable/biodegradable products business?
Be clear about your vision and the impact you want to create, because this is what is going to get you through the toughest of times.
Is there a product or service that doesn't exist yet, which you wished existed? To help your business?
A way to enforce plastic bans rigirously, would help a lot. Today, such bans are commonplace but rarely executed well.
How much of a role does consumer marketing/publicity play for Ecoware? What are the key challenges that you have faced so far?
Publicity plays a big role. My biggest challenge with Ecoware has been in shaping up consumer mindsets. Public opinion and regulatory frameworks are largely obstructive to our cause, which is in the greater interest of this world we inhabit. As a company, we are certainly beneficiaries of plastic bans across states, and we are grateful to the noble regulators who have passed landmark legislations in banning plastic.
But the reality is, we live in India.
As long as consumers find loopholes, they will continue to exploit it until they are personally penalized. Behavioral economics has taught us that the greatest incentive for a person to change his actions, is money.
If Ecoware were to somehow become permanently cheaper than plastic, styrofoam or aluminum disposables, then there will be no more incentive to use synthetics. For this to happen, biomass pulp-moulded products such as Ecoware need to attract Zero GST.
"If we remove GST, we can say goodbye to plastic disposables forever. Further, long-term fiscal incentives should be extended to manufacturers such as us, who use local resources to make this product in India."
Ecoware started its operations much before plastic bans became de rigueur. At the outset, we personally invested a significant amount of time and effort to educate businesses, retailers and consumers about the harmful effects of plastic, both on our health and on the environment. We are now bearing the fruit of our efforts, as Ecoware is enjoying demand across partners from Kashmir, to Kerala.
Is there someone whom you wish to thank on The Times Blog's platform?
I want to thank my family, from whom I continuously draw my strength to carry on, and succeed.
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