The Cookstove Start-Up
Greenway Grameen Infra provides rural Indians groundbreaking solutions for clean cooking.
The traditional mud stove, or chulha, is an integral part of the daily life of millions of people in India, but it’s also a dangerous one. The simple act of cooking with chulhas leads to pollution, deforestation, economic loss and over a million deaths per year, says Mumbai-based engineer and entrepreneur Ankit Mathur. Solving these problems is the core mission of his start-up company, Greenway Grameen Infra.
Co-founded in 2011 by Mathur and fellow engineer Neha Juneja, Greenway produces safer, healthier and more efficient cooking solutions for the rural families which lack access to clean energy. The company’s products include the Greenway Smart Stove and Jumbo Stove, robust and portable appliances that still burn biomass fuels like wood or crop waste, but reduce fuel consumption by 65 percent and smoke by 70 percent. This helps minimize health risks, economic loss and environmental damage.
The first spark
Mathur and Juneja came up with the concept behind Greenway while working together as consultants for rural projects focused on the environment, like renewable energy and carbon credits. “One of the recurring issues that we saw was a complete lack of clean energy options for cooking,” says Mathur. It was a deficiency, he discovered, that could lead to an array of problems.
For instance, cooking with a chulha for an hour is equivalent to smoking 20 cigarettes, states the Greenway website, and can also cause eye and skin irritation. The inefficiencies of chulhas contribute to deforestation, as rural families must search for large amounts of burnable fuel; increased greenhouse emissions is a result of the cooking process itself. From an economic standpoint, gathering or purchasing fuel for inefficient cookstoves costs rural families effort and money that they cannot spare. The time spent laboriously gathering fuel also translates into less time for education and other productive activities, particularly for women and girls.
“We, as engineers, saw all of this as a big problem,” says Mathur, “but one that could be solved in an economic manner with a product intervention.”
Driven and inspired to make a difference, the Greenway team began designing its cookstoves in 2010. The creation of prototype models began the following year, as Mathur and Juneja simultaneously evolved their business operation from a consulting firm to one dedicated to product creation and distribution.
Although Greenway’s products may look simple, they are meticulously engineered—the result of an intense research and development process. “We prototyped about 12 designs over a period of more than one year and took them to the field,” says Mathur. The Greenway team interacted with rural households across five states in India, trying to understand exactly how its new cookstoves would be used, how to make sure that rural families would, in fact, want to use them, in order to perfect their product for customer needs. The team also worked closely with sheet metal manufacturers to better understand what it would mean to mass produce any of their cookstove models.
“Initially, we worked with vendors to manufacture the products, but it was difficult to sustain the quality and desired cost for our products,” says Mathur. In 2014, the company opened its own factory and production of cookstoves began early the following year. Once Greenway’s products were placed on sale, they gained quick and widespread popularity, selling thousands of units per month just half a year after product introduction. The company is now one of the largest cookstove makers in India.
Greenway’s efforts have gained attention from media outlets around the world. Business Today magazine named Juneja one of 2017’s “most powerful women in business,” while Mathur received The Economic Times 40 Under Forty award in 2016. CNN covered Greenway in 2017, citing the company’s impressive sales of over $9 million [over Rs. 58 crores] and its plans to sell solar-powered lamps and create affordable television antennae for rural use, among other innovations. Both these products are now available in the market.
Like many successful start-ups, Greenway turned to venture capital firms for investment, in order to develop its products and reach markets. In addition to funding from the nonprofit organization Acumen Fund and the venture capital firm Asha Impact, Greenway received a grant from the Millennium Alliance, a partnership between the governments of the United States and India which provides support to innovators. “Millennium Alliance helped us by facilitating a grant for design of the Power Stove, a thermoelectric product that produces electricity from a biomass-burning cookstove, while women cook on the stove,” describes Mathur. The product solves two problems at once for Greenway’s rural customers, allowing them to cook cleanly while powering or charging other appliances.
For Mathur, Greenway’s work has just started. The company plans to launch several new products this year, with more in the works in the coming years. Over the next decade, “our goal is to have a reach of over 10 million units sold, with at least 15 to 20 products that are specifically designed for mass market,” says Mathur. “We hope to expand our operations from India to all of the developing world in the next 10 years.”
Michael Gallant is the founder and chief executive officer of Gallant Music. He lives in New York City.