For Ugyen Phuntsho and his team, the service they provide is more than a business

He was five years old when he first noticed an overflowing sewerage tank behind a house in Thimphu. Since then he noticed similar tanks overflowing while walking to school and returning home.

With time, Ugyen Phuntsho realised that he could do something to solve the issue one day. Today at 22, Ugyen along with his driver and a helper runs a service called Ugyen Phuntsho sewage services. Together, the three drain and clean sewerage blockages. He describes his work as social entrepreneurship where he is running a business while also helping the society.

“My father’s driver friends used to drop us to school and home and during the ride, I saw many poor sewerage systems,” he said. “Now, we are doing something about it. Many consider this a menial job but we don’t mind cleaning sewerage tanks with our hands.”

They go house to house whenever they receive a call for their service. Each trip the vacuum truck makes to clean the tank costs Nu 1,000. They make about five trips on an average to clean a building’s sewerage tank. The price they charge is at par with the Thimphu Thromde’s charges.

Although his service opened in July 2015, Ugyen like any other new entrepreneur struggled to start his business three years ago. He had completed class 12 and had no money to realise his business plan.

“It wasn’t easy to find a job after completing class 12 so, I decided to try what I had always wanted to do, he said. “My father supported my business idea.”

His biggest obstacle was getting financial support for his idea. Ugyen tried every possible way he could think of to arrange about Nu 2.2 million, the cost of the vacuum tanker, which is used to pump fecal sludge.

He applied to the Rural Enterprise Development Corporation Limited (REDCL) then known as BOiC for a loan, but his proposal was rejected because then, they accepted only manufacturing business proposals.

“But my hope regained and I reapplied after I read in the news about the Prime Minister saying that the REDCL would accept any unique business proposals,” he said. “But sadly and until today, I have not received any response from the office.”

He applied to the financial institutions for a loan and while many agreed that it was a good idea, they all required mortgage. A son of a driver, Ugyen only had his business idea and his family.

In 2015, his father’s friend and a businessman Ugyen Tshering offered to help him realise his business idea. He mortgaged his land and business to avail Nu 2.2 million for Ugyen with the condition that he repay the loan in five years. Once the loan is cleared, Ugyen would make his father’s friend a business partner and share the profit.

Ugyen today earns about Nu 50,000 a month of which he pays Nu 22,000 as loan installment. He also pays the driver and his helper and uses the earning to fuel and maintain his truck.

“It wouldn’t have been possible to buy a tanker had the department of revenue and custom not supported my idea and waived the vehicle tax,” he said. “I am always thankful to Thimphu Thromde who helped me get my first customer and they still help us sometimes by giving my number to others when their tanker is busy.”

He said Bhutan Toilet Organisation also refer him to those who require sewerage cleaning services. Today, they travel as far as Paro, Haa and Phobjikha where his relatives and friends helped market his service.

He receives at least two calls a day from a building or house owner today and works during weekends also. They also have a facebook page where they could be contacted. Most of the time they clean private houses and buildings. They dispose liquid wastes and fecal sludge in the Thromde’s designated sewerage tanks.

“We noticed that at least five of the six houses we clean have not cleaned their tanks for more than five or 10 years,” he said. “Most clean only when the tank overflows.”

Ugyen also said that the tanks are filled with solid waste, which block the sewerage pipes. To encourage them to maintain the tank, they offer people 10 percent discount if they agree to not dump solid waste.

“I’m really trying to expand my service because I want to contribute to the environment and the country in my own small way,” he said. “It is more than a business and I want to encourage those youth who want to do something but cannot because of financial problems.”

Yangchen C Rinzin