Brick kilns contribute significantly to emissions of carbon dioxide, particulate matter, including black carbon, sulfur dioxide, oxides of nitrogen and carbon monoxide in Kathmandu and everywhere else. Having worked with in projects to minimize this pollution with the help of international donors, Usha Maskey Manandhar has an extensive knowledge in this field. To utilize this knowledge and help people with her expertise, Usha, along with her colleagues from the project, founded MinErgy. This company is dedicated to reduce pollution and maximize energy efficiency.
Read on to find out what we talked about with Usha, Co founder and managing director at MinErgy.
1. Could you tell us about your journey from clean environment advocate to the Managing Director of MinErgy.
Well, I started out as a staff in 2003 in projects funded by foreign donor agencies for cleaner brick production. Most of the projects directly contributed to eradicating air pollution though efficient practices. As a staff, my portfolio was in social equity where I looked over labor management practices such as child labor, ethical labor management practices in brick factories. My job included ensuring that the workers are not exploited and that they had good working conditions.
After working for almost 7 years in the projects, me and my team decided to start a business of our own and offer this expertise. We realized that the know-how of this technology should remain in this country and the only way to do so was by offering people with our consulting in the form of paid services. That’s when MinErgy was established with 5 co-founders (we’re 3 co founders as of now), all of whom are experts in the field of clean environment and energy efficiency. We started the company with one goal in mind – minimum resource consumption for maximum results.
2. How has your experience been so far as a woman leader?
I would say I had challenges as well as equal opportunities but all in a subtle way. I get acclaimed for being a woman entrepreneur and an exemplary figure but there are also times when I can’t do the same things as my male coworkers. For example, males hang out after work somewhere for, say, a glass of beer and that’s how they network but as a woman, we’ve already set that restriction for ourselves to go back home and spend time with family because that’s what we value. To add on that, I have a very supportive family who have helped me come this far but it’s the individual restrictions that we set for ourselves that limit us and our abilities.
3. Do you ever feel that because of this reason you weren’t able to reach your full potential?
I wouldn’t exactly say that because it is something, I have imposed upon myself; it’s not the society, it’s not my family or anybody else. So, to do things that I have limited myself to, such as after work networking, I ask my male team members or anyone else interested to do so. That’s actually how you balance work with partners too.
Despite this barrier we’ve imposed on ourselves, I know that there are hundreds of women who have done so much better in their lives and careers. Gender isn’t always to blame, it’s the individual values sometimes.
4. Do you recall a particular moment in life where you felt like you could’ve been better off not running a business?
Honestly, I do reflect back on the past days and think that I should’ve spent some leisure time. I also look at my grown-up son now and realize how I missed spending enough time with him when he was a child. However, I don’t regret choosing career over everything else because that was my choice then and I feel proud of where I am now. It’s just something I reflect back on when I think of my life and journey so far. And, running a business is a risk in itself. You do not get a paycheck at the end of the month as easily as being a salaried staff. You have to put extra to stand out in the competitive market while securing your income opportunities as well.
5. Minergy has been operating for quite some time now. When was it registered?
We registered the company in 2011, so it’s been a decade now that we’ve been in the market. We’re also on the growth stage. Actually, we had set a target when we started out but haven’t reached there yet. We’re not doing bad but sometimes we feel like we haven’t achieved what we could have.
6. What are your current challenges in running the business?
Taxation! We run a service company that primarily depends on human resources whom pay a lot as they are also in demand in international agencies. We fall under double tax since we registered under VAT. So, when clients make payments, it is reduced in VAT then when we pay the employees, the salary gets reduced in tax again. Thus, it’s difficult to become competitive in terms of price.
Market for Nepali Company is shrinking and we have to compete with international companies also for smaller budget volume. Access to market is not easy for Nepali companies in this service sector where most of the projects are funded by international development partners. And, our expertise are often devalued
7. Do you think a better policy will be able to curtail this problem?
Yes – a specific policy to regulate international service companies favoring national companies can create more space in the market. Since, we provide our services to international countries too such as South Africa, we’re able to bring in dollars. This is a good thing for the country so I think we can request for tax benefits.
8. Earlier you mentioned about improving the working conditions of workers in brick industries. Can you elaborate on that?
Yes, we look at the whole dimensions of the brick industry. There are issues related to energy, environment, production efficiency, living and working conditions of workers and workplace safety. One of the worthwhile achievement is that – We motivated, convinced and supported Federation of Nepal Brick Industries (FNBI), which is the umbrella organization of the brick entrepreneurs in Nepal, to develop their “Social Code of Conduct” for transparent and ethical labour management practices (including effective end of child labour, safe place of women workers). This process was supported by a programmed “Clean Brick Initiatives managed by ICIMOD and funded by DfID. Nepal government has to conduct labor practices according to the labor laws and we provide proper training to brick businesses too. Apart from that, we provide technical services that include energy-efficient and environment-friendly methods. Additionally, we’re constantly engaged in applied Research and Design (R&D) to make brick industry more efficient and environment friendly.
9. So, do you have labs for R&D?
By R&D, I meant that we conduct different innovations in the field instead of inside a laboratory. For example, we conducted an applied research on renewable energy where we were able to turn the wastes of community forests into charcoal, which they were again able to generate revenue from. We provide technical knowledge to people on these innovations and which later gets commercialized.
10. Have you invested in marketing since you mentioned about search results?
Nope. It was all organic. We haven’t invested a bit. Everything has been through reference and word-of-mouth instead of marketing ourselves proactively. That has been our weakest part since we are technical people and have not been focused on making a lot of profits. The only reason we have been sustaining is because of our quality outputs.
11. Have you measured the impact of your business?
We haven’t measured impact with proper research but we can fairly say that we have made an impact. After the earthquake when most of the brick chimneys were destroyed, an American agency- Climate and Health Research Network(CHeRN) provided us with a grant to come up with a design to make the brick kiln energy efficient, environment friendly and structurally safe. Support from ICIMOD also supplemented in the design process. As a result, we were able to come up with a design that saved energy up to 30%. It was also the first of its kind in South Asia. Although there were a lot of national and Indian experts contributed in designing, we’re proud to say that we were able to lead and coordinate all of it. We were the lead. We build bricks that produced less emission, consumed less energy and were structurally safe so that when another earthquake hits, the brick industry stays safe. This was an opportunity that we could cash on. Furthermore, this design was adopted in Pakistan too so we know for sure that a lot of energy has been saved and pollution has been reduced.
12. What are you proudest of in your life?
We wanted to be a socially responsible company when we started out. An issue that was close to my heart was of child labor and proper working conditions in brick factories. I had been raising this issue and advocating for it since 2003 and finally in 2017, the Federation of Brick Industries came up with a Code of Conduct for which we provided technical support. It got implemented in 2019 and that felt like a dream come true because I had been constantly advocating for it.
13. A lot of people are not aware of the policies that benefit them and end up being exploited. Plus, the parties responsible to check it implementation sometimes ignore it. So, how do you assure that these policies are being implemented.
Since, FNBI adopted the policy themselves, its their primary responsibility to check it right. In order for FNBI to ease implementation of their Code of Conduct, we were able to support FNBI to develop Standard Operating Procedures (SOP), which was carried out under the same program managed by ICIMOD. We will continuously engage and support FNBI to implement the ethical practices – this is also our commitment that brick industry being one of the largest employment generating sector for the poorest people is socially respected as well.
For more information about this company, check out their website- MinEnergy or directly connect with Usha Manandhar at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Interviewed and article by Yangzum Lama.