SMV Green's business model empowers drivers

E-rickshaw entrepreneur brings cleaner travel to toxic streets

Craig Burnett

Senior Communications Officer

Electric
rickshaw company SMV Green is putting battery-powered vehicles on the streets
of Indian cities, places choking in fumes from diesel rickshaws and growing
number of cars. Its bold business model helps people on very low incomes dramatically
boost their income as rickshaw drivers – and offers women a rare chance to earn
a living as rickshaw drivers.

Around the
world, 7 million people a year die prematurely from
exposure to air pollution. SMV founder Naveen Krishna knows the impact of the
problem on daily life. He says: “I haven’t taken my own family for a walk in the
streets for more than two years. Walking is a privilege now – you can only do
it in parks.”

Naveen is
passionate about tackling the air pollution problem. “This work started with my
own personal journey. In my childhood, we would drink water with our hands
straight from the Ganges. But when I was 10 my father gave me a water bottle
instead, which I carried everywhere – the river had become too polluted. I
don’t want to give my children a bottle of water and an oxygen cylinder for
them to carry around on their backs. Helping solve this problem – it’s my
duty.”

Naveen Krishna accepts the 2019 Ashden Award for Sustainable Mobility

SMV Green operates
in six cities, supplying rickshaws to customers paying a 10% deposit. A linked
finance package allows people on very low incomes to earn a living wage as a
driver and also own their vehicle outright in about two years. It’s a dramatic
change in an industry where drivers often rent their vehicles for a high daily
rate, with little take-home pay once the day is over.

Many of
SMV’s customers are already rickshaw drivers, often using pedal rickshaws.
These vehicles don’t create pollution – but they are inefficient and put the
health of drivers at risk. Naveen explains: “Rickshaw pulling all day in hot
temperatures requires deep breathing. Around 40% of our customers have tuberculosis
or chest infections, due to their exposure to smoke and dust.” Pedal rickshaw
drivers often double their income once they switch to SMV Green, as they can
take more passengers and complete more journeys.

Naveen has lived
in the communities SMV serves, and understands the many challenges people there
face. He says: “We work with people who don’t have formal skills for other
employment. They have migrant status in the cities, and so have fewer rights.” More
than half can’t read or write – so SMV Green helps them complete forms and open
bank accounts. Personal recommendations and a visible community presence –
helped by SMV’s innovative battery swap stations – are key to finding new
customers.

The company’s Vahini scheme is encouraging women
to become rickshaw drivers, something almost unheard of in India. An all-female
recruitment team helps persuade families and overcome social barriers – helping
women earn an income and greater independence.

This year,
a report found 15 of the world’s 20 most polluted
cities are in India. Naveen says: “The problem has increased tremendously in
the last three years – because of population changes, people moving from the
countryside to the cities – the pressure on the roads has increased. The sound
pollution is terrible too – if you work in the streets, you can’t hear what is
happening.”

He credits
India’s government for starting to take action, with subsidies for
manufacturers. But he says more must be done.

“I dream of
streets where, at last, people can breathe. There should be pollution-free
zones, where only non-polluting vehicles are allowed. And more use of electric
vehicles in the last mile, from homes to metro stations and so on. Government
policies all around the world should enable an eco-system of clean transport –
promoting better, more affordable vehicles.”

Naveen also
calls for more shared transport options, and a shift in attitudes. He jokes: “You
see people who have one car for each member of their family, one for their
servant and one for their dog.”

“We need to change mindsets. More cars shouldn’t
be a status symbols – we should see greater status in how many kilogrammes of
carbon we saved today. That’s what people should be talking about around the
dinner table.”


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