A few years ago, while working for a French company in Bengaluru, Cedrick Tandong, a Cameroon national, was bothered by an autorickshaw driver who, Tandong felt, was overcharging him. Instead of forgetting about the issue, he tried to figure out the rationale behind the auto driver’s behaviour. “I realised these drivers wake up early in the morning, they are on the road for about 12 hours in dusty and noisy conditions, and at the end of the day a lot of their income goes to the person who owns the vehicle,” he says. “They are an essential fabric of the society, and yet not much is being done to take care of their well-being.”
Soon, he started Three Wheels United (TWU) with Ramesh Prabhu, a social entrepreneur, who was already working in this space. “We realised the main problem was ownership of vehicles,” Tandong says. “We also wanted to make sure that whatever asset they own is a green asset.”
Today, TWU helps drivers own a vehicle or even replace an old petrol/diesel autorickshaw with an electric one.
There are 6-7 million three-wheelers running on Indian roads, and about 12 million drivers operating these. Tandong says one vehicle is usually driven by two drivers and at least 50% of these vehicles run on rent. “Of these, maybe just 10% have proper access to finance.”
Most of these drivers take loan from either family members or moneylenders, and interest rates are exorbitant. “They get into a vicious cycle where most drivers are never ever able to own the vehicle,” he says. “I also realised that financial institutions don’t have the right kind of tools to reach out to drivers.”
Three Wheels United acquired an NBFC (Shabri Investments) and started lending directly to drivers. “We offer loans only to those who want to buy EVs,” Tandong says. “The reason is we focus on the environment, and then there is a business case for our decision, i.e. the total cost of ownership of an electric three-wheeler is lower than that of a conventional fuel three-wheeler, and so the driver makes more money, comparatively.”
This also implies that the driver will be able to repay loan, or EMI, on time.
While sales of passenger three-wheelers have been negatively impacted due to localised lockdowns, those of commercial vehicles look promising.
Going forward, Three Wheels United will enter the electric two-wheeler segment as well. “Three Wheels United doesn’t reflect the number of wheels on a vehicle, as some may assume; it doesn’t mean we only offer loans to three-wheelers. It’s really about what the company stands for, i.e. the social parameter (green in colour on our logo), the environmental parameter (blue) and the profit parameter (orange),” Tandong says.
The start-up has also partnered with organisations such as Mahindra Electric, Microsoft, TERI, and others. “We tied up with manufacturers such as Mahindra and Piaggio not just to provide vehicles to drivers, but also to make sure that the vehicle is running consistently. Towards that, we partner with manufacturers and offer extended warranty and low maintenance contracts; we also provide a mobile app to drivers on which there is a map of charging points,” Tandong says.
Going forward, Tandong adds that while Covid-19 has slowed down Three Wheels United, the plan is to grow its vehicle fleet by 10,000 in a year, and reach 1 lakh vehicles in 4-5 years.
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