Uttam Banerjee, Co-founder, CEO Ekam Eco Solutions | Entrepreneur Driving Climate Action

A Conversation from The Climapreneur Show with Shweta Dalmia (Episode 3)

Uttam Banerjee, Co-founder, CEO Ekam Eco Solutions

“Ekam” is basically a Sanskrit word, it means, “interconnectedness” or “oneness”. What we believe deeply is that everything it this world is interconnected. So, for example, sanitation, health, hygiene, agriculture, everything is greatly connected to each other. And, that’s what drives the philosophy of Ekam, so, as part of the work that we do, we work in the areas of sustainable sanitation technologies, water management and waste management.

How did you come up with this idea?

Actually, the idea came out long back, it was I guess, 2009-2010. I was pursuing my master’s degree in design and I had a few of my colleagues who were pursuing their research work on something called human urine utilisation. So what they were doing was very interesting to me. They were trying to figure out what exactly is inside urine, faeces and what kind of ingredients they had. And if at all can you recover them, extract them and use them in the agriculture as a fertiliser. So we found there is great potential in that. There is a lot of phosphorus, potassium and nitrogen and potassium. We started working and I started interacting with them a lot and they were kind enough to interact with me on this topic. I did not have any passion for sanitation or waste management. By training, I am a mechanical engineer and. a product designer. So we started working on this, we created a small setup in the college campus itself and we used to call it as urine bank. We used to call people and ask them can you come here and pee in this particular urinal.

Toh unhe bohot aisa tajub hota tha,

Ki ye kar kya rahe hai,

but that was fun.

So, experiments were good. We could actually recover the nitrogen, phosphorus and we could utilise them as fertiliser in the farm. So we have used- produce, banana and maize and a lot of other stuff. Produce was quite good as compared to the kind of output that you get in a regular chemical-based fertiliser. So it was quite encouraging and we thought let’s do it at scale. Let’s implement several of the setups inside the campus. It was a huge campus and we thought let’s do it at scale. But soon we realised there is a great challenge doing it on that scale because, how do you collect urine. If you look at the building all the plumbing lines are actually connected, the toilets, the drain lines, the urinal everything is connected so you know how do you extract the urine. How do you collect it? So we thought okay, let's create a set where you have a separate line for a urinal. And then we faced another challenge which was that urine is heavily diluted because we flush a lot. And flushing happens because we feel that there is some odour or a bad smell that is coming from the drain line which is primarily ammonia gas and few other gases that come from the drain line when urine dries up. If the urine has a lot of water in it. Then, How do you process it, how do you recycle it, it becomes very difficult for you. So we started researching on it, we started figuring out what exact existing solutions you have so that you don’t mix urine with water and we came across waterless urinal.

It’s a very old concept around 20-25 years old concept. Very popular in western countries. But when we tried to adopt that technology we found out a lot of chemicals being used to suppress that odour, so the reason you flush is that we face some bad smell and if you can handle that smell no need of flushing and the way those products were handling that smell was using some kind of chemicals or some kind strong fragrances and that was another challenge for us. You have stopped mixing water with the urine and there is a lot of chemical getting mixed in the urine.So we thought there has to be a better way of doing it and we have designed a mechanical system to this problem purely mechanical, no chemical, no consumable and we could collect pure urine. We implemented around 200 or 300 of these small kits inside the college campus and it was working very well.

But as you know it happens in a regular kind of curriculum, in a college curriculum, we graduated, we got placed and we moved out. So nothing happened on the ground, everything remained on paper, the patent was filed, everything happened.

And I think it was somewhere around the end of 2012 or early 2013, I was working with an MNC at their R&D lab interacting with one of my professors, Dr V M Chariar. He happens to be a faculty member at IIT Delhi and one of our founding member. So while interacting with him we realised that there is so much of work we did in sanitation, waste management but nothing actually came out in the public so why not form a commercial entity and do it. And then we approached IIT, and they were kind enough to support us. We got the incubation, IIT gave us permission to work on those projects on a commercial platform and that’s how the whole journey started.

So it started off with a big idea of recovering the nutrients from a so-called waste, converting that waste into a resource and make it a useable form but eventually we zero it down and we sort of focused only on the small component of the urinal that too waterless urinal as a product as an offering but eventually we moved and then from the urinal to the toilet, from the toilet to housekeeping, now if you look at our portfolio you will find an end to end solution in sanitation and waste management space ranging from waterless urinals to solutions that can handle your toilet waste or STP waste, food waste and as well as you know natural solutions that you know keep your home clean and healthy. That is the overall work we are doing right now.

How did you deal with the social stigma?

To be honest, yes in the beginning

thodhi si jhijhak thi mujhe bhi

because you know the brain is kind of tuned in that way from childhood because

sussu hai potty hai, ise eka lag tarreke se dekhna hai.

You know dinner table

p baat nhi karni hai iske baarein mein infact,

when I decide to take that jump from corporate life to starting up something like ekam, even my family members said that you know what exactly is this.

Sussu potty p kaam karoge ab tum. Ek engineer hone k baad,

So definitely

woh ek stigma toh hai.

But what we realised is the best way to sort of approach that problem is to talk about it more and more. One of the greatest examples that you can see in recent times that happened was in 2014 with Swachh Bharat Mission. When the PM started talking about these subjects sanitation, hygiene, health, waste management everybody was aware of these things, everybody started talking suddenly and it no longer remained as a taboo. So what we realised off light is that the more you talk, the more you discuss, the more you openly think about these things the easier it will be to sort of challenge to tackle those challenges.

One very small thing that we came across was after we sort of came out with this men’s urinal product we also realised that there is a great you know sort of area line for the female. Now if look at the female toilets, for men there are two separate things a commode and a urinal. For women there is only one device to both defecate and urinate, so we thought that there is a lot of UTI infection happening because there is only one product that is available. Now we thought of creating a separate urinal for women. Now while doing that research when we started interacting with users and service people we found a lot of challenges because nobody was opening up especially when I was interacting with them. So my wife came into the picture, she started interacting with them and they gradually started opening and things got slightly better. So that is something that we normally follow if you are comfortable talking to me great. If not then I will find a person with whom you are comfortable and let’s talk more and more, discuss more and more and that’s how we resolve it.

What gave you the courage to leave his corporate job and go back to the college project

Yes, I was having a good job, a good corporate life, in fact, the work culture was very good which is very difficult to find these days. I was posted in Mumbai and one of the reasons I felt strongly that it’s time to move on is the work that was doing, I didn’t find it very meaningful. And while in college this was a very immersive experience that I had in the college days. You know, I used to work on real projects, I used to work on interact with the real users and face the current challenges and when you are doing it every day and the moment you solve the smallest problem also, you feel a lot of confidence in you that yes we can do this, this is actually working on the ground. And after working for almost three and a half years in the corporate after graduating from college I was not finding it very interesting. I was doing and I felt that there was so much work that we did in the college which we were, I mean it was not just on paper we actually experimented with it. So the proof of concept was there to give you a certain amount of confidence that yes it works in the real world. And of course, the support of an institution like IIT and your faculty members also gives you a lot of courage and confidence that if something goes wrong then these are the people whom I can look forward to. There was a great amount of support from my family, my wife, as well who also encouraged to try it out for a couple of years. If it doesn’t work out then you always have the backup of coming back to corporate life. So that’s how I actually took that step. “

What all fears you had before making this mega switch. How do you feel about that?

To be very honest, when I was starting up I didn’t have that kind of fear. But now I have a slight amount of fear because there are so many people attached to this business you know, So many lives that are actually dependent on the work that we do. So now, I would say there is a sense of responsibility, there is a sense of accountability not exactly fear I would say but yes there is a sense of responsibility that is there right now, you know if something goes wrong then what happens to these guys which was not the case earlier when I was starting up because there was no one around me. And I was kind of, I knew if something goes wrong, it will only going to affect me and nobody else but when I look at the lives of these people when I look at even my teammates and the when we do any work and the impact that we create it gives you so much confidence and so much of encouragement that all of those fear, and accountability and responsibility actually it overcomes all of that.

If you get a chance to start and do everything again, what would you do differently?

One thing I would definitely like to do is, focus on a few things to start with. What we did, in the beginning, was, because the objective was very large, as I said, the college project that we did was focusing on agriculture as a whole. How you can recycle poop and pee and bring those components back to the agriculture, close that whole open loop. That’s a big thing to look at. But when you are starting on something, you have to look at very smaller things. So that it becomes easy for you to manage, it becomes easy for you to focus your energy and effort. That is something that, I feel that, if I am given a chance to start again, I would like to focus on very few things, plan very religiously, what exactly I need to, how I am doing it. Because this is my first experience, many of these things were missed out in the beginning.

How, do you feel about being a solution bearer, or being a part of the solution or being a change maker.

I am not sure whether I am a part of the change-maker community, but, yes being a part of something meaningful, it gives me a lot of kick and I am sure that everybody in my team feels the same way. I really feel very happy that, even it just 1% change that we can bring in, it’s a change to some extent. And it’s a change for the good, for the betterment of the future. So that’s how we look at it. I mean, we want to do more, we want to do a lot of things, but we know that it’s not possible to always to look at all those things. Every day we look at the new problem and get excited, that there is something we need to solve, that there is something we need to work on. And, we realise that let's hold on for some time. Focus on what you are doing. Because you spread your hands too much and then nothing happens.

What does climate action mean to you?

Whenever we talk about climate action, we normally perceive it as climate change or change in temperature or monsoon, but it’s actually much much bigger than that. If you look at it closely, as initially what I explained about interconnectedness. Everything is connected. In fact, employment is also connected to climate change. For example, there is a lot of conversation going on these days on creating employment, developing a nation, creating smart cities and smart villages, every developmental plan has its pros and cons. And we need to look at it very carefully. Sometimes we do not look at those linkages, do not find the ways and means it's linked to the other aspects of life, but it is.

Whether it’s working on the energy sector to create better energy alternatives, or to work in the water management or waste management, or you know, creating a better life or healthy life for the people. So, in whatever ways you can act in any of these areas, is a great thing to start with. Everything is going to add something to the problem that we are facing these days. We the seasons are shifting, it's October right now, and I stay in Ahmedabad and its pretty hot. In my childhood, I remember that September end means sweaters or winters to start. Now, from September end it has shifted to December or end of December. So that’s linked to many reasons. Industrialisation, food security, everything.

One piece of advice that you will give to your younger self.

I started off quite late. After my bachelors, I worked for 2-2.5 years. Then I went for my masters, then I worked for 3-3.5 years. It’s good to gain some experience. But I still feel that the time is very limited, you have a very short time in hand and definitely, you need to gain some experience before you start something on your own, but, as soon you start is a better thing to do. Also, the second thing that I would like to add is to plan things well in advance. Like, for example, when I was switching from my corporate life to this entrepreneurship life, I state away jumped into it. Without giving it a thought that if this does not work then what. I didn’t have a plan B plan C kind of thing. I only had one plan and I wanted it to be executed. It’s also a good thing to do sometimes, in some cases you need to have some backup options also in the back of your mind. So that’s something that I would like to give advice to myself.

One piece of advice you would like to give the youth.

Oh, this is something that I keep on saying to people I meet, many people I have come across, many people have asked me, what is the advice you will give 9-5 people, it’s not right to look at it that way, 9-5 is a good thing to have. The biggest thing is that, don’t do it because someone else is doing it. Do it only if you love it, whether, it’s a job, whether it’s starting up something on your own, whatever it is, do it if you love it, otherwise, there is nothing wrong with 9-5 typical job profile. Many people do an excellent job in that profile but only if they love it. I see many people who come across to me and they are like, I graduated from college and here’s my card and I says CEO of such and such start-up. Just to get that card done, that not something that you should follow. Just because a few other colleagues of your batch are doing it, don’t do it.

Find out a real problem, find out a real solution and ask yourself, whether you can put 100% of your heart into it, then only jump into it.