"I hope to create an impact across the world by being considerate about the environment and staying true to our values of sustainability."
Despite working as a Project Engineer at a Pune-based company that would generate electricity using waste, Suraj Said never stopped wondering why there was so much of it everywhere.
“There were quite a few recycling units in the city, and yet there was so much waste. I wondered if it had something to do with people’s lack of knowledge about waste and waste segregation,” he begins.
Wanting to do something about it, he brainstormed with some friends and the result was a volunteer group named ‘We are EcoBuddy’ formed in March 2017. The group had 15 members, and would get together every week to carry out awareness drives on waste management.
“We would go to schools, colleges, communities and speak about the importance of segregating waste. We taught participants about composting, and explained how these processes actually facilitate recycling. We also spoke to them about reducing non-biodegradable waste in their lifestyle,” recalls the 26-year-old.
During these interactions, Suraj realised something important. “I found that a lot of people were aware of what is good for the environment and what isn’t. However, a lot of them said they did not know how to remove non-biodegradable waste from their lives as they couldn’t find alternatives,” states Suraj.
This is when he had a moment of sheer clarity. What if he could provide alternatives to these people so that they would lead more sustainable lives, which in-turn, would reduce the amount of waste in the environment?
He took this idea to the volunteer group, and everyone jumped on board. In September 2018, the volunteers’ group was reinvented as a company called ‘EcoBuddy’ which sells items like bamboo toothbrushes, cotton bags, among others, that are sustainable solutions for daily use objects.
The products are manufactured by 7 vendors and through them, EcoBuddy is supporting over 250+ livelihood. Suraj also claims that since the beginning of operations in May 2019, they have already sold over 34,500+ products and receive about 600+ orders in a month on an average.
Mechanical Engineer turned Eco-Entrepreneur
A Mechanical Engineer, Suraj also has an MBA from Nottingham Trent University in the UK. After he returned from the UK in 2016, he started working with Transparent Energy Systems, a company in the waste energy sector in Pune. It was this experience of working as a Project Engineer that made him understand the waste problem at large.
Consequently, he went on to form his volunteer group while still working in the company, and quit in May 2018 when he decided to rebrand EcoBuddy as a company.
“EcoBuddy was founded in September 2018 but operations started much later because there were a lot of things that needed to be done before we began operations. We had to decide on how many and what kind of products we would sell under our brand. Since we were not doing the production, we had to ensure we got the right manufacturers to make our products. Another aspect that needed to be taken care of was finding people who could provide us with sustainable packaging options for the products because we wanted to stay true to our values and refrain from using plastic. We eventually did find them, and today, the boxes and even tapes that we use as packaging, are plastic-free,” says Suraj.
Working towards saving the planet
It took close to a year for EcoBuddy to begin operations and they started in May 2019. They identified nine manufacturers for their seven products which are: bamboo toothbrushes, bamboo toothbrush travel kits, stainless steel straws, stainless straw kits, bamboo fibre coffee cups, stainless steel tongue cleaners and cotton bags for fruits and veggies.
“The cotton fruit and vegetable bags, for example, are made by Sri Savitribai Phule Mahila Gat based in Pune, while the paper packaging is made by a manufacturer named ‘Padmavati Packaging’ based out of Pune again,” mentions Suraj.
So, what sets apart their products from other brands in the market?
The first factor and the most unique selling point product is that they are sustainable and do not pollute the environment. Secondly, these eco-friendly alternatives are being provided at an affordable price.
“If you take our bamboo toothbrushes for example, ours is priced at Rs. 99 which is much lower than other bamboo toothbrushes in the market. Also, ours is ergonomically designed and the bristles are in wave patterns which helps you reach difficult spots in your mouth,” he explains.
He also claims that their steel straws are the only ones in India that are child safe as their rims are rounded and not sharp. They also have three varieties in this category — the straight straw, the bent straw and the wide straw for shakes and smoothies.
After deciding the products, they also had to come up with the right packaging along with creating content that would go on their website, once sales began.
“Since we had very few products in our portfolio, it did not make sense for us to have a sales website. Rather, we explored all kinds of e-commerce channels and kept our website a static one which has information on the company and the products we sell,” he explains.
Barring about one store in Mumbai and nine in Pune, all their sales happen online.
“The reason for this was because of the credit system that currently exists in case of offline stores, which means that the money comes in only three months after you have on-boarded your products. As a small company, it’s very difficult to wait for so long. The offline stores we currently work with have been very cooperative and we have reached an arrangement with them where they do not follow such a credit system,” he explains.
Since most of their products are sold online, Suraj knew that having a good online presence would also be necessary for them to attract customers. Therefore, having a good marketing strategy and a following on social media was paramount for them.
“EcoBuddy conducts a lot of awareness workshops on composting and tree plantation drives and I feel that this really has helped us garner people’s attention. Other than that, we get in touch with Instagram influencers to try their products and almost all of them have loved it. They have endorsed EcoBuddy’s products for free and helped us gain traction,” says Suraj.
Eco-friendly users speak
Mumbai-based Kamyani Tiwari is a follower of the zero-waste lifestyle and was looking for bamboo toothbrushes when she discovered EcoBuddy.
“The first factor that drew my attention was definitely their price range which was quite affordable as compared to other brands that were selling similar bamboo toothbrushes for double the price. After that, I called them directly to inquire if their products were authentic because I couldn’t believe it when I saw the price,” says the 27-year-old Engineer.
Since then, she has bought the stainless steel straws and the bamboo fibre coffee mugs along with the toothbrush. “I use the bamboo toothbrush with the charcoal bristles and it does the job well. This is so much better than using a plastic toothbrush that would eventually pollute the environment,” she says.
Sailing through hurdles and moving ahead
Suraj begins his day by going for an early morning walk. After a quick shower and his breakfast, he reaches his office around 9 AM. There, he looks after the orders that need to be sent out for the day, the logistics and delegates the work among his four employees. Although its a small team that runs operations like a well-oiled machine, it would be wrong to say that they haven’t faced any challenges.
“Despite pricing our products quite low, customers continue to ask us why products are expensive. They ask why they should buy our toothbrush when they can get one anywhere between Rs. 15 to 75. But here, what needs to be understood is the fact that the process of manufacturing sustainable products is also high since all the materials that go into making it are consciously sourced,” explains Suraj.
Regardless, seeing the response he has gotten for his products, he is confident that sustainability is one value that is definitely going to become more popular in the future. For other small business owners too, Suraj has a few words of wisdom to share from his own experiences.
“Keep in mind that what you are selling must be unique. There will be competition in the market and they’ll try to crush you. But, if your product is of good quality, you will be able to create a niche for yourself. Customers will definitely see merit if you have a core value system as it will reflect in your products,” says Suraj.
So, what plans does Suraj have for EcoBuddy in the future?
Currently, one percent of the sales proceeds are donated to environment NGOs that carry out awareness campaigns, tree plantation drives, and other environment-related activities in the future. Suraj hopes that he can contribute more to this cause.
He is also looking forward to setting up a website for sales and is working on adding new products to the existing range. These include stainless steel bottles, jute bags, sustainable food pouches among others.
“I hope to create an impact worldwide by being considerate about the environment and staying true to our values of sustainability. I want us to create more awareness through our products so that people get alternatives and can adopt these changes seamlessly in their lives,” he says signing off.
*An entrepreneur you admire.
Ans: Mark Zuckerberg
*New tech that can transform the future of small businesses
Ans: Better internet connectivity
*One value that can help small businesses thrive
*Your favourite book
Ans: The monk who sold his Ferrari
*In my free time I ____…
* Before this interview I was ____…
Ans: watching something on Netflix
*Something they don’t teach in college but is important to run a business is
Ans: Finances and banking
*One question I always ask people while hiring is ____…
Ans: If they that small changes can make a difference in the world.
*Best advice you ever got is to ____…
Ans: Teamwork is the foundation of success.
(Edited by Gayatri Mishra)