Rickshaw Respect: The Work of Irfan Alam

Article excerpt

Perhaps fifty rickshaw pullers huddle around Irfan Alam as he briefs them about the nuances of his company's operations. The entrepreneur fields queries and accepts inputs and suggestions from the operators to enhance his services. The session is then rounded off with piping hot cups of tea that help build camaraderie amongst the congregation.

Says the savvy businessman, "I make it a point to keep my rickshaw operators in the loop about ways to improve business and how they can enhance the company's profitability and their own incomes."

And that he does. In fact the 27-year-old has made a roaring success of his unique grassroots initiative which streamlines the workings of rickshaw pullers in India by bringing them under the umbrella of his firm--Sammaan (respect in Hindi).

Launched in 2008, Sammaan currently has 10 million rickshaw pullers under its operations, across a swathe of Indian cities. The venture has helped modernize the cycle rickshaw sector which constitutes a sizeable 30 per cent of India's urban transportation.

"The biggest challenge of my venture was to convert a huge base of cycle rickshaws into an interactive out-of-home advertising medium and a marketing engine-cum-transaction point," says Alam. He has also gleaned a cachet of awards from the Indian government and media channels for his unique business. "Everybody talks of corporate social responsibility but not of corporate social sustainability. So I tried cobbling together a business model that was workable and sustainable."

Such wisdom is hardly surprising for a young man who had entrepreneurial seeds sown in his mind while his peers were still playing with toys. In fact at 13 years, the youth was trading in stocks. And by the time he turned 14, he had already launched a portfolio management venture!

But why rickshaws? Surely for an alumnus of India's blue-chip management school--the IIM (Indian Institute of Management), Ahmedabad, there was no dearth of employment opportunities? "I realized that of all forms of urban transport in India, the cycle rickshaw sector was the most unorganized. Also, the idea had the potential to serve as a logistics solution in cities, towns and the rural market which the corporate sector finds difficult to penetrate."

Besides, the challenges the model offered appeared quite thrilling to the spunky entrepreneur. "The most critical challenge," says Alam, "was working with the marginalized section of society. I needed to be exceptionally patient to give them a clear perspective of the company's objectives," he says.

For precisely the same reason--that the business centered around illiterate and underprivileged people--it was tough to get loans to bankroll his venture. Finally, Alam had to pool his own resources with friends helping out to collect seed money of about Rs 10 lakh.

"Another, even bigger obstacle, was to make clients understand that social enterprises can be as self-sufficient an profitable as any other business," says Alam. "In India, 95 per cent rickshaw operators do not even own the rickshaws. They just rent them out for Rs 20 a day. So my concept looked weak on paper."

But gradually things fell into place with Alam's diligence. "In fact we're the only company of its kind in the world to work in this segment," informs Alam. "Even in India, there's no organized player in the market, who are offering similar services."

According to Alam's research, over 95 per cent rickshaw operators do not own their vehicles in India but rent them out daily. So the relationship between the fleet owners and the operators did not grow beyond this exchange level. But through Sammaan's system, rickshaws are given free to the operators though a nominal amount is charged as maintenance fee. …