Sistema.bio India Country Director
Research suggests that the first biogas plant was built in India in 1859. However, it didn’t gain popularity in India until1973, almost a century later, when oil prices reached a new high. The government started to look at renewable energy technologies as an alternative energy source.
Biogas technology was considered a good solution for waste management, reducing firewood & LPG consumption as well as of chemical fertilizers used in agriculture. In 1981, the government of India launched the first national biogas development program, which created jobs, provided energy, and served many benefits to the country and the environment. To date, over 5.5 million biogas systems have been installed in India. Biogas has a pretty impressive history, which has helped create a significant movement of biogas technology in India.
We started Sistema.bio in India in 2018 by looking at the vast potential and the need for bioenergy in India. We knew from our experience in Africa and Latin America that a biogas system is a beneficial appliance for smallholder farmers. However, while a large population requires our product, many cannot afford the technology. From the business perspective, promotions and marketing are challenging in rural areas because of distances and higher costs. You are required to do more BTL promotions to make customers aware of your product and its benefits. Biodigesters are also not a product that could be sold off the shelf in retail stores. Delivery & service costs are also high, leaving very thin or sometimes negative margins to serve and operate.
In spite of this, we have installed more than 12,000 biodigesters in 14 states of India and have become the largest private enterprise to have implemented this number of biogas systems in the last three years. This year alone, we aim to install over 10,000 units in India, and we are set to grow over five times in the next three years. So how are we succeeding?
1. Innovative technology: We engineered the technology to suit the needs of the farmers with a user-centric design approach. We designed the system such that it requires no maintenance and works with gravity flow and fluid dynamics principles, without the need for electricity. We also designed the stove to operate at low pressures of 10-20 mBar, compared with standard biogas stoves that only work at 100 mBar above pressure ranges.
The system is packaged in such a way that it can be easily installed within a day. It is also made with an industrial-grade LLDPE material that has a life of over 15 years. The system is flexible and modular so that it can be customized to fit the requirements of our customers.
2. A new approach: We looked at everything from a fresh perspective and wanted to understand the challenges that exist in the sector. The biggest challenge that new technology has to overcome is trust. We relied on doing demonstrations in regions where we operate and used word-of-mouth publicity as the best tool for promotion. We know customer experience is our north star, and as long as we can make our customers happy, we can continue to win the trust of our community. We also partnered with like-minded organizations that have worked in rural areas for a long time and have good community engagement. We relied on their trust and support to engage with more rural communities.
3. A service mindset: We know that service is a critical component of biogas technology. We thought, why not plan a proactive service method to make sure there are no issues? We built three free service visits with every product that we installed and provided a warranty of 10 years. We are also setting up service points and training local technicians to provide service in the regions we operate.
4. Making the product aspirational: Biogas systems have never been seen as an appliance or device which could be bought from the market like other household appliances. Sistema.bio units are produced in the factory, and have the packaging and feel of a branded product. It inspires the end-user to have one. Since our product is easy to use and our team is constantly on the ground to ensure that our customers derive the most benefits from their digester, we have seen that many progressive farmers want to be associated with the product. Our customers often tell us that they recommend our biodigesters in their neighborhood by stating their many benefits. Often, we have had farmers reaching out to us using some other farmer’s reference. This is a huge feat for us!
There are millions of farmers who can benefit from biogas technology. But, even if we install over 100k plants every year, we can only cover less than 1% of the market in the next ten years. To achieve this critical mission, all stakeholders such as government, private enterprises, and NGOs have to come together and share learnings and practices. We are ready to share our learnings and are open to collaboration to promote the sector in India to achieve a large-scale impact!