When SM Tanvir Islam was studying aeronautics and military aviation at the Military Institute of Science and Technology (MIST) in Mirpur Cantonment, he dreamed of one day making jet engines. He had even completed 16 flight-hours on a fighter jet.
Unfortunately, he realised soon enough, that living in Bangladesh, it was not feasible to pursue this goal because Bangladesh did not make jet engines.
But instead of giving up, Tanvir diversified to micro-irrigation where he used to make submersible water pumps for irrigation purposes. He made the switch halfway through his undergrad program in 2014.
Tanvir created submersible pumps and equipment for farming but at price points reasonable for poor farmers. But competition from existing companies stalled his effort and some of his customers too had complaints that his pumps failed at times. He worked on these issues but somewhere deep down he was looking to do more, to make something even more impactful.
Then when he graduated in 2016, he thought of Lithium ion (Li-ion) batteries, and instead of making them, Tanvir sought to recycle the batteries. Waste and scrapped Li-ion batteries are abundant and can be easily collected from scrap dealers.
"In 2018, we made our first e-bike prototype," said Tanvir. At first, the duo perfected the recycled Li-ion batteries. And then they decided to make an e-bike prototype using the recycled batteries.
In the process of building the prototype, they recognised how expensive the use of Li-ion batteries is - the batteries alone were priced around Tk1 lakh, rounding up toa price of around Tk1,80,000 to Tk 2 lakh to make one e-bike. However, by using recycled Li-ion batteries, the total cost could be brought down to Tk1,10,000 to Tk1,30,000 for each unit.
By 2019, the first prototype successfully worked on recycled Li-ion batteries. In one more year, Tanvir along with his co-founder, Alim al Rajii, started their own Li-ion battery recycling business.
In 2020, the duo's shared dream took the shape of Borac Energia.
Recently, Borac Energia became the first runner-up at the Springboard Programme 4.0, an incubator competition hosted by Youth Co:Lab, an initiative co-created byUNDP and the Citi Foundation.
By recycling scrapped Lithium ion (Li-ion) batteries and making them reusable to customers for an affordable price, Borac Energia's model directly contributes to the Sustainable Development Goal (SDG) 7: "Ensure access to affordable, reliable, sustainable and modern energy for all."
How does Borac Energia revive 'dead' batteries?
It is a trade secret. Nevertheless, the founders shared one tidbit of the process. After sourcing the batteries from local scrap dealers, they use salt water - among other things - to revive it.
"We either make electric bicycles from the ground up using these recycled batteries or we retrofit regular bicycles with our proprietary techniques. Or our batteries can also be used as storage units of electricity coupled with the existing solar panel technology," explained Tanvir.
And why would they not work with the more easily sourced lead-acid batteries? "Lead-acid batteries are harmful for the environment and people. [Also] they don't last as long as Li-ion batteries. That defeats our motto," explained Alim.
According to him, every procedure involved in extracting the raw materials to make and recycle the lead-acid batteries is extremely detrimental to the environment.
Additionally, the people who recycle these batteries usually do not have a clear understanding of how to handle the chemicals involved in the process and after long years of improper handling, workers develop lung issues and skin diseases.
The raw materials for Li-ion batteries, on the other hand, are much easier and safer to handle compared to their counterparts.
However, a brand new Li-ion battery costs four times as much as lead-acid batteries do, which is still why people opt for them over the better alternative.
"A recycled Li-ion battery costs even less than a new lead-acid battery but will serve three (or even four) times longer and as efficiently… we want to disrupt the acid based battery industry since they are harmful to the environment," added Alim. Because the high cost dissuades customers from choosing Li-ion batteries, recycled ones would serve them just as wellbut at substantially lower prices.
In the future, when the duo will be able to carry out more research, they are hopeful they will be able to provide their products at a price lower than brand new lead-acid batteries.
Additionally, both Alim and Tanvir also would like to enter the electronic bikes sector. Beside their current inventory of two e-bike prototypes, they are designing another two e-bike prototypes using the seed money awarded by UNDP.
These prototypes, they hope, will be their ticket into the commuter bikes industry. "These bikes will travel up to 150 kilometres before needingto be recharged, using only electricity worth Tk 20 and no more.
And by using the seed money, we are also trying to create portable chargers for our e-bikes. E-bikers can charge up while they're being used, in real-time, as people areusing power banks for mobile phones these days. With our e-bikes we would provide two batteries so that they can keep one on charge," added Alim.
Borac Energia's expansion plans
For now Borac Energia is in the business-to-business model phase.
Alim hopes that the government will help them set up smart-charging stations at already existing filling stations. These smart-chargers are not essentially quick charging outlets, per se, but Li-ion batteries require dramatically less time - not more than two hours at best - compared to lead-acid batteries.
"We also equip existing e-bike companies, such as Green Tiger, with our batteries. And in the near future we aspire to be able to provide buyers and customers alike with everything curated and manufactured by us," said Tanvir.
E-commerce businesses require deliveries made on time. Borac Energia's electric transports seem like a cost and time-effective solution. Borac Energia has already taken an order from an e-commerce entity for converting 10 vans with their technology.
"Stepping in the e-commerce sector will help them just as much as it will boost our aims and strategies. After all, we are a business entity," added Tanvir.
When asked about after-sales services and if they receive complaints, Tanvir quipped, "Our buyers want more batteries from us. We cannot quite keep up with the demand just yet. Once we are able to upscale our operations, we might be able to meet this demand. This demand is a good incentive for us to work harder."
Moreover, neither Alim nor Tanvir want to make compromises with the design language (guide for the design of products or architectural settings) of their end products, which are electric vehicles of all forms, they hope. Tanvir, especially, believes that good design along with good features at very reasonable price tags will work like a charm.
Quick charging is key if electric transports are to take over. The duo sees this as a huge challenge up the road but the way things are looking right now, they are hopeful they will be able to deliver.
Addressing all these findings, the duo is basing their design on cafe racer bikes, which, they say, are quite popular among the younger crowd.
However, their present number of staff is yet another roadblock in their expansion plan. The work process would be so much more streamlined if they had more hands on deck, according to Alim.
"Youth Co:Lab is facilitating us with a six-month training programme and once done, we shall pitch our ideas to foreign venture capital firms. Should they find our schemes viable, we are likely to receive grants. With the grants, we can definitely scale up our operations and production-lines," explained Alim.
The journey for Alim and Tanvir
Tanvir added further, "Surprisingly, our academic backgrounds are not in line with this project of ours. Alim has studied in the Department of Disaster Science and Management from Dhaka University and I from MIST. We were supposed to walk different paths in life but here we are, because we both wanted to start a business in the most sustainable way possible.
[As an added advantage] we both hail from business-orientated families. That has helped us to think from a commercial angle while maintaining our 'sustainable' roots. Alim was heavily invested in how the world is going electric in very quick succession and I was already working in the same field from the backend."
Co-created in 2017 by the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) and the Citi Foundation, Youth Co:Lab aims to establish a common agenda for Asia-Pacific countries to invest in and empower youth to accelerate implementation of the SDGs through leadership, social innovation and entrepreneurship. The Springboard Programme of Youth Co:Lab Bangladesh is a platform for young social entrepreneurs to contribute towards achieving the SDGs through tailored mentorship and wide-ranging national and global networking opportunities.