Technology

Three Wheels United correcting the autorickshaw scenario

We have all complained about auto wallas at some point in time, but rarely do we consider the myriad factors that contribute to the sorry state of affairs plaguing India’s autorickshaw sector.Stef van Dongen and Ramesh Prabhu, founders of Three Wheels United, have done that and more; they have taken the time to identify what’s wrong with the picture and more importantly,have taken on the herculean task of correcting it.

Stef van Dongen, from The Netherlands, is a pioneer in the field of sustainability and co-creation, and is heavily involved in socially and environmentally responsible entrepreneurship. Ramesh Prabhu is a Chartered Accountant and MBA graduate from the Indian School of Business at Hyderabad. He has over 4 years of work experience in the financial markets space with about 5 years of entrepreneurial experience.

Prabhu says the organization came into being during one of Dongen’s visits to India in 2009.Through his project, Hybrid Tuktuk Battale, Dongen had been working since 2007 to reduce harmful emissions from autorickshaws, and it was in Chennai that he met Prabhu during the conclusion of the project. After discussing a potential social enterprise opportunity which would combine a positive socioeconomic impact on drivers with environmental solutions, Three Wheels United rolled onto the scene.

Nobody can deny that an organization like Three Wheels United is desperately needed in India,as the autorickshaw industry requires a serious overhaul. Prahbu says auto drivers are usually forced to rent the autos, fuel them up and maintain them as well, which means it’s pretty hard to make ends meet with what little money is left at the end of the day. Adding insult to injury, drivers find it nearly impossible to purchase their own autos as India’s socially exclusive banking system does its best to ensure that basic financial instruments like savings accounts and loans remain out of reach for auto drivers and their families. With inflation spiralling unchecked, the drivers’ financial hardships continue to multiply along with their frustrations.

Under such circumstances it’s almost inevitable that commuters are forced to pay the price,either through shameless extortion or outright abuse. Aside from drivers fighting for better earnings and commuters fighting for fair prices and ethical treatment, there’s the pollution issue, and Bangalore in particular has failed to shape up, as its autos are mostly powered by petrol or diesel. The fumes from these fossil fuels contain deadly carcinogens and neurotoxins which pose a serious threat to public health, thus creating a very real need for zero-emission vehicles. On the bright side, reform is not impossible; ample support from both the public and private sectors combined with scientific planning and common sense could easily transform the Indian autorickshaw from the necessary evil it’s perceived to be into a valuable public transportation asset.

It isn’t easy to get a business off the ground, especially in India, and Prabhu was willing to list the many roadblocks that he and Dongen stumbled upon along the way, “We have faced a lot of challenges over the years, including community organizing, identifying suitable NGOs and co-operative societies to partner with, partnership with banks, sales, government support, attracting quality human talent, raising capital and scaling up to effectively manage default free financial operations.”

When asked what sets Three Wheels United apart from other companies, Prabhu commented, “The core of TWU model is community building and engaging with auto drivers directly. All services and products relevant for the community will be identified through co-creation with the community members and service /product suppliers will be identified for the same. TWU takes complete responsibility for providing these services to the end beneficiaries and in the bargain revenues would be generated for TWU.”

Regarding plans to raise funding, Prabhu said that total Investments till date in TWU is to the tune of Rs. 3 crores, and that all the investments have been in the form of equity funded by Stef van Dongen and Ramesh Prabhu. Prabhu also mentioned cost containment measures, “By building a strong driver community and getting the drivers to take ownership, we deliver various services at lowest possible costs.”

According to Prabhu, TWU has enjoyed several successes including a partnership with Corporation Bank, partnerships with four large NGOs, drivers being covered under life insurance, increase in income of drivers by at least 50 per cent compared to what they earned before in the rental system and he says they even mangaged to recruit some well behaved, trustworthy drivers which enables pleasant rides for commuters. He added that 250 loans were disbursed to drivers with zero default in repayment and that actual repayments are being made ahead of loan schedule. Prabhu also mentioned that over 1,000 drivers will be getting their own vehicles while enjoying other services.

Three Wheels United has high hopes for the future, Prabhu says goals include bringing 750 drivers under the Namma Auto brand by the end of 2014, expansion to two other cities starting in mid 2015 and capturing 20 per cent of Bangalore’s autorickshaw market share by the end of 2017. He also said they plan to get more products and services delivered by leveraging on the “Namma Auto” driver network which, for example, would include intra city same day delivery courier services.

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Tracy Venkatesh

Tracy Venkatesh

Tracy Venkatesh has spent twenty years working and interacting with a socioeconomically diverse population in both the private and public sectors, and has held positions in multiple verticals including content development, healthcare, customer relations management, defense and law enforcement.

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