An interview with Upamanyu Patil, CEO of SRPL
During the loan disbursement, Karthik Balasubramanian, our independent journalist, caught up with Upamanyu Patil, the CEO of Sakhi Retail Private Limited. Patil, an experienced and versatile man of the field, was able to give a nuanced and detailed view of how SRPL and SSK worked to help empower the rural areas near Solapur. Their conversation follows.
Upamanyu Patil, Chief Executive Officer, Sakhi Retail Private Limited.
K.B.: If you could please introduce yourself…
UP: I am Upamanyu Patil, CEO of Sakhi Retail Private Limited, since its inception in 2K.B: Every project has a beginning, at some point. It seems hard to believe that such a structure evolved overnight. Could you tell us more about how SRPL started?
UP: That is actually quite a story. Last year, BP approached us with their newly patented Oorja stoves and wanted to study how it took amongst the rural areas. They also stipulated that they wished to involve rural women and see how well the Sakhi concept worked. Since we were also involved with SSK and SSP (Swayam Shikshan Prayog, an NGO working with rural women), we mobilised some Sakhis to sell the product amongst the rural areas. It was hard going at first, to convince BP to stick with us, and to convince rural women to become entrepreuners. But eventually the commitment of the women and the value of the product won out and helped the surrounding areas greatly. That is when we decided to diversify into other products, seeing the new model’s efficiency.
K.B: The project started off as a research project from a corporation. When you diversified, was there a similar supporting umbrella of sorts?
UP: When we decided to bring new products, we found ourself essentially on our own. BP withdrew, as the endeavour had gone beyond their products alone. We partnered with other companies like D.Light, and Honeywell, to serve other socially relevant products…solar lamps, water heaters, water purifiers, basically, the cardinal three necessities: water, light , and air. The products were necessities, not luxuries. The solar lamps and water heaters helped villagers cope up with the uncertain electricity supply and the long power cuts. The water purifiers helped them harvest rain water and make it potable. This is why I think they took so well amidst the people…we were on our own, but we were a committed and dedicated bunch…
The oorja stove’s pellets, used to light the stove.
K.B: The idea of using microfinance and rural female empowerment is revolutionary in itself. You also, however, serve new goods and technology. Any problems convincing people about the products?
UP: Like I said, the usefulness of the products were their greatest strength. However, they are socially relevant too. This is less an entrepreneurial effort, and more of a social endeavour. That took some
time to take, and it still involves much persuasion. Just recently, I visited a prominent builder to pitch SRPL to him and get him involved. He in turn expressed a great interest in the famed Oorja stoves. After the demonstrations, I mentioned a price, Rs. 1650. He started haggling and offered to pay Rs. 1500. I had to explain to him that there were several more people in this supply chain, and that I could maximum give him a discount of Rs. 50, which would mean that I would earn nothing. In any case, I had not approached him to sell goods, but to get him interested in SRPL….it took quite some time to explain to him that I wasn’t the salesman but the CEO!
K.B: The monsoon months are hard on most rural areas…do they affect demand adversely?
UP.: The intuition leads that way. The monsoon months do bring more water…and many more power cuts and rutted roads. You expect productivity and hence spending power to decline. Surprisingly though, the demand for all our products spikes at this time, sometimes even clearing out our entire warehouse. The solar lamps sell out, and everybody needs the water purifier. The water heaters work even during the overcast monsoon months, serving whole families, and sell almost as well as the easily portable lamps and purifiers. Needless to say, Milaap’s pilot project, and the loans for our Sakhis could not have arrived at a better time.
K.B: I can’t help but feel sometimes that we are looking at things here with rose-tinted glasses. Could you tell us more about the pitfalls…?
UP.: I would never deny that we have our leaner months. After all, it was an uphill task from the first, when we had to convince rural women to step out of their homesteads and sell goods. And some Sakhis do have problems with the loans they take. This is where I think the greatest pitfall, or I would prefer to say, issue lies: to keep the Sakhis motivated about using their loans to buy and sell more products, and not use it for other purposes. Pressure tactics will not work here. As far as possible, we try to tailor the loans to the needs of the Sakhis.
Some Sakhis express doubts about their ability to take the responsibility of loans and entrepreneurship. You won’t see us forcing loans on them. The consequences of defaulting are not worth it. It is after all, a social endeavour, not a supply line for new products. It makes no sense to force our notion of independence on them.
K.B.: Anything you would like to add…
UP.: Of course. All this while, discussing issues here, I have neglected to thank the lenders, and all the people who made these loans possible. Thank you for the timely loans, and thank you for being so gracious towards us. I hope your involvement in the lives of Sakhis extends well beyond this pilot, and I promise you that there will be a real change in the lives of your proteges very soon. Thank you all again.