Cousins bridge digital divide

| BARKHA KUMARI
Published Jun 22, 2014, 4:29 am IST
Updated Jan 13, 2016, 3:53 pm IST
They buy useless computers, refurbish them and sell them at very low prices
Raghav and Mukund. (Photo: DC)
 Raghav and Mukund. (Photo: DC)

According to the 2011 Indian housing Census, less than one in 10 households in India have access to computers or laptops. That’s just about 9.4 per cent of our population, the urban population to be precise, because computer penetration in rural India remains abysmally low at less than one per cent. And how many of them have ever seen Google is anybody’s guess, in a country that’s currently en route to Mars.

At the heart of this staggering digital divide is the issue of affordability. While most of us simply trash our laptops for what’s latest in the market, thousands of families are still saving up money to bring home their first PC.

But cousins Mukund B.S. and Raghav might have hit upon a solution, not just to make PCs more affordable but also combat the biggest trash problem of the 21st century. The two run a facility called Renew IT near Bengaluru’s Electronics City. They buy computers from corporate houses which are no longer needed, refurbish them and sell for prices starting as low as Rs 4,500.

Also, as a Microsoft-registered Refurbisher, they provide original Microsoft Windows 7 licences to schools and NGOs at roughly 1/10th the market price. That means, you can get a Rs 35,000 PC for less than half the price. Last December, Renew IT reached the magical figure of selling 10,000 high-quality, low-cost computers. And now the cousins are in the thick of setting up offices in Hyderabad and Mumbai and hoping to scale up their revenue to Rs 5-6 crore.

ORIGINS

It was the summer of 2008 when Mukund bumped into a family friend “who was doing something similar in the US, supplying spare parts of old computers”. “Then I quit my job and flew to the US to work at his factory. Yeah, I hadn’t even decided if this was what I wanted to do eventually and I had blindly put in my papers sudden josh, you know. But after a month’s work, I was sure.”

So was Raghav, who let go of his job as the head of a pharmaceutical firm in Bengaluru, to work with his elder cousin. It was a year later that Renew IT, which was registered as an authorised e-waste management firm, started selling refurbished machines to NGOs, educational institutions, SMEs, students, graphic designers, RJs, doctors, teachers and even car drivers. But the Indian government itself proved to be their first hurdle.

Procuring consent from the pollution board was a learning experience as Mukund explains, “The government official wanted bribe to get the consents done. Neither did I relent nor he. Finally and unwillingly, I offered him an old laptop. He wasn’t pleased, of course.”

Next step was easier though to get through the doors of corporate houses. That’s because Mukund had batchmates from IIM-Calcutta who were, at the time, handling top posts in big IT firms.

PROBLEMS

But discussions inside those conference rooms did not yield anything significant for a year. “The companies would send us back assuring that once the disposal cycle of the computers happen, they will contact us. Believe it or not, a company we visited five years ago, got back to us only recently. That’s the problem.”

Then there’s the traditional notion of raddi. “You just can’t equate 30 kilo of metal scrap with 30 kilo of computer waste. There’s a lot of high-end hardware in those systems and it can’t be bought back for the same price. We really broke our heads explaining this point to the firm,” adds Mukund, who takes care of procurement of e-waste while Raghav looks after sales and marketing.

Raghav adds, “Disposing of computers is not even on the priority list of anybody, any firm. OK, now we are in this business, so that’s all we think about. But honestly, instead of letting the PCs gather dust in storehouses, which often is the parking space, give it off to an e-waste management firm. We understand how the IT firms work they have to upgrade their systems from time to time. Working with dated technology is not an option for them.”

There was another major problem. Mukund explains, “Since these computers come from corporate houses, they store highly confidential information. So we wipe off all data before proceeding with quality tests. These firms can be rest assured there will be no Wikileaks from waste.”

Fortunately, in 2011, Indian government passed an e-waste management (Management and Handling) Rules which made it mandatory for IT or corporate firms to give away e-waste to authorised vendors.

A DISTANT DREAM

The duo explains why they like this business of selling waste. “Buying a PC is still an aspirational thing for Indians. To an extent, it’s also a leveller between the urban and rural regions. So when low-income households come to buy PC from our facility, the experience is truly heartening. For them, it’s like buying a car. They come with their families, inspect it and insist, ‘achcha waala dena’.”

More importantly, Mukund and Raghav, who have had the fortune of receiving good education and, yes, access to computers early in their lives, do not want any Indian to miss out on the digital boom.


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