Combining Nature And New Technology To Empower Rural Communities – Neha Upadhyaya, Founder Of Guna Organics
This Earth Day, we are exploring the start-ups leading the charge in tackling some of the world’s most pressing climate challenges, and the founders behind them…
Here we speak with Neha Upadhyaya, Founder of Guna Organics, a start-up which seeks to empower farmers, women and communities in rural terrains of Ladakh, India, through vertical integration of organic farming and solar technology and rural electrification. Neha is a graduate of King’s Business School.
What specific environmental problems is your company addressing, and how do you plan to make a difference in these areas?
In India, we are witnessing one extreme weather event every day from January to October whether it is heavy rain or unseasonal hail storms. Weather-related displacement is more frequent than war-related displacement, and the coping abilities of poorer people to withstand crisis after crisis is getting weaker.
According to the last Census of India (2011), 63 percent of rural households used firewood as their primary cooking fuel. India gets 250 days of sunshine annually and facilitating rural areas to shift to cleaner renewable energy will not only curb carbon emissions but also reduce indoor air pollution and associated health issues.
We focus on the vertical integration of organic farming and solar technology, harnessing the sun’s energy for rural electrification, domestic cooking and post-harvest management and solving the problem of land degradation as a result of avoiding chemicals, colour, and plastics. We estimate that the switch to solar is reducing greenhouse gas emissions by 536kgs per household over a period of eight months.
After seven consecutive years of the region farming organically, using renewable energy and uplifting women farmers we have seen reverse migration in the area and have not had a flash flood since 2018.
What inspired you to start a company focused on environmental sustainability, and how did you get started?
I am a flash flood survivor. In 2010 I was travelling in Leh, Ladakh as a tourist and was very fortunate to have survived the devastating flash flood. The flash floods washed out most of the apricot trees that provided 80% of revenue to the apricot farmers and I decided to help them to switch to organic farming. I started with awareness workshops on organic farming and met many tribal leaders, government officials, local organisations and renewable energy agencies.
In this journey, I found a social worker who spotted my passion and shared his frugal innovation of a wooden solar dryer. I found it less complicated than the ones the sophisticated agencies were offering at a much higher price. Once the farmers had access to the solar dryer, we started training them to hygienically solar dry the organic apricots, tomatoes etc to give us value-added green products.
How did your experience at business school help you launch and run this company?
King’s Business School gave me the confidence to continue the enterprise no matter what happens and equipped me with better terminology. It helped me build a better narrative between my company and NGO [Vishwadeep Trust]. The Entrepreneurship Institute at the business school helped me with presentation and pitch skills to a great extent. Working in remote areas where we hardly get internet access, I was not aware of many tools and techniques. It was sometimes difficult to keep up but the support of my peers kept me going.
What makes your company’s approach to environmental sustainability unique or different from other solutions out there?
Rural women have limited access to productive resources, service education and employment opportunities while experiencing, excessive workloads and limited decision-making power. Our solutions are different from others as our innovations are devised keeping women in mind, therefore they are lightweight, portable affordable and locally made such as solar cookers, solar dryers, solar lamps, millet threshers etc.
What are some of the long-term goals you have for your company, and how do you plan to achieve them?
My long-term goals are to work with 21 more Indian villages and we want to produce world-class agro products that can be made available anywhere in the world. We want a business case for our frugal innovation solar dryer to be used in semi-arid and sunny regions to help our farming sisters globally.
What advice would you give to other entrepreneurs who are interested in starting a company focused on environmental sustainability?
My advice is always to listen to your heart and make many green friends so you have good motivated company. Subscribe to green journals in your country and be open to sharing your weaknesses. Always learn from other cultures to improve.
Please be a part of entrepreneurship programs and learn from them. Finally, my formula is to set 90-day goals!