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Published on: July 13, 2020, 7:36 a.m.
A real ‘Hero’
  • The premium cycle maker has over 80 models

By Arbind Gupta. Assistant Editor, Business India
I

t started its journey in 1956 in Ludhiana, Punjab, as a bicycle components maker. Today, Hero Cycles Ltd is the undisputed leader in the Indian bicycle market with over 40 per cent share. In fact, the company is the largest manufacturer of bicycles in the world by volume.

It began with a modest 639 bicycles per year, and currently makes 19,000 cycles per day, with a total sales volume of over 5 million units per annum (FY20). Since the demand for cycles has recently seen an upsurge – following the growing awareness of the benefits of cycling (Covid-19 has accentuated this further) as also the government’s thrust on environmental-friendly mobility – the company is all set to increase its annual sales to over 7 million in the next 12-16 months.

In the past few months, even as the world has struggled to make its way through Covid-19 afflicted headwinds, the company has seen a massive surge in demand for cycles in the overseas markets, particularly in Europe. In the UK alone, sales in May this year surged 600 per cent as compared to May last year. All enthused, the cycle maker is aiming to double its exports by the end of this fiscal year, from the present 10 per cent of its total production. It currently exports to over 70 countries in the Middle East, Africa, Asia and Europe.

This has happened at a time when the company is now gradually restoring its manufacturing activities after the initial two-and-a-half months of complete shutdown due to the ongoing lockdown. Hero Cycles has highly-integrated manufacturing facilities in Ludhiana, Ghaziabad and Bihta in Bihar, and a modern facility in Sri Lanka as well. In all, the company has a total capacity to manufacture around 7.5 million cycles per year, and is now looking to expand it to 10 million before 2022. The company sells through a robust network of over 250 suppliers and 2,800 dealerships across India.

“This Corona crisis has reminded us that there is no progress without sustainability or there will be more push-backs like the one we are facing today. Even when restrictions are lifted, there will be a need to exercise caution and maintain social distancing. In European countries such as the UK and Germany, cycle and e-cycle markets have surged as people don’t want to crowd in public transport. In India too, we have seen a rise in demand for premium cycles in the last couple of months as more people are taking to cycling in the absence of gyms and group workouts,” says Pankaj M. Munjal, 57, chairman and MD, HMC, a Hero Motors Company, who is of the view that with the growing trend of environmental consciousness amongst consumers, electric cycles as well as traditional cycles will gain consumer preference in the coming years.

Hero Cycles is a part of the HMC group with a $1.2 billion asset base and over 7,500 people across the globe. Other entities within the group are auto parts manufacturing companies – Hero Motors, ZF Hero Chassis Sytems Pvt Ltd and Munjal Kiriu Industries Pvt Ltd, hospitality arm Munjal Hospitality and luxury home decor products company, Oma Living.

Promoting cycling

Hero Cycles has launched a campaign in India to advocate policy and behavioural changes to promote cycling in greater numbers so that social distancing measures are observed while cities retain some environmental benefits. The ‘Cycle of Change’ campaign has garnered support from environmentalists, fitness enthusiasts as well as common people. The campaign aims to draw the government’s attention to creating bicycle-friendly infrastructure on Indian roads to make cycling safe and attractive. It also wants to educate people about the environmental and health benefits of cycling.

In the past few years, the domestic bicycles market has undergone a major change. Under various policy initiatives, the government has been promoting environment-friendly modes of transportation, and cycling has been recognised as one of them. “The ongoing Covid-19 pandemic has certainly helped accelerate the whole process where people in urban locations are now keen to embrace cycling as part of their daily regime. In Europe, we are already seeing a big jump in demand for cycles.

Moreover, the Central and state governments in India have also been promoting cycling recently under their various schemes, aimed at creating a robust mobility and transportation system in the present urban set-up. All this augers well for the overall cycle market in the country,” says K.B. Thakur, secretary general of All India Cycle Manufacturers Association (AICMA) which represents the organised sector of the country’s around Rs7,000 crore cycle market with a total sales volume of around 20 million.

The organised sector, represented by players like Hero Cycles, ti Cycles, Avon Cycles, TIDC, SK Bikes, Milton Cycles and Vishal Cycles, accounts for over 75 per cent of the market. In the last few years, unorganised players have also expanded their share. Moreover, import of cycles and cycle parts have also increased relentlessly in the last decade, around 700,000 (valued at $255 million) cycles were imported in FY19, mostly of Chinese origin. China makes over 90 million cycles per annum and exports around 60 million units every year to the global market. As against this, India exports just around 5 per cent of its organised production.

The premium segment of the business, where cycles are priced from Rs7,000 to as high as around Rs200,000, is growing at a brisk pace of around 15 per cent as against the overall cycle industry’s growth of around 4-5 per cent. The growth in the standard bicycle category (mass segment) has been almost stagnant for the last few years. These structural changes have forced cycle manufacturers to get into other emerging categories of the cycle business.

Hero Cycles has proactively tried to grab these opportunities in the last decade or so. In fact, the last few years have been quite eventful for the cycle maker as today it has managed to enjoy a pole position in both mass and premium categories in the country. Apart from organic expansion, the company has also taken the inorganic route and struck multiple acquisitions both in domestic and international markets, in order to not only expand its existing capacity but also diversify its portfolio into other high-value categories.

Besides, these activities have helped it grow above the industry average. From 30 per cent market share around 3-4 years ago, the company has ended FY20 with over 40 per cent market share and is looking to increase it to around 50 per cent in FY21. In a very short span of time, the company has also become a leader in the premium segment with a market share of above 35 per cent. The company sold over 400,000 premium cycles (average price: Rs12,000 per unit) last year. Moreover, the company recently ventured into e-bicycles under its Lectro brand and within a couple of years has already commanded over 65 per cent domestic market share; around 35,000 e-cycles were sold last year.

In the domestic market, a majority of Hero’s e-cycles are priced quite affordably at around Rs25,000 per unit (a small portion of premium segment is priced at around Rs130,000). The company is planning to double its sales this year since the market is growing, even as it diversifies from personal mobility to last mile delivery for e-commerce players.

A market leader in the standard bicycle category for over three decades, the company announced its entry into the premium bicycle segment in 2012 with the launch of its new brand, UT Edge. Another step in this direction was the acquisition of Firefox Bikes Pvt Ltd in 2015. Hero Cycles has further expanded its presence in this category with the launch of Hero Sprint Pro (average price Rs12,000 per unit), a new lifestyle biking product line.

As per market sources, the acquisition of Firefox Bikes was an all-cash deal of around Rs150 crore – the largest transaction in a bicycle market beset by influx of Chinese and Taiwanese brands, even as the domestic market for premium cycles continued to expand rapidly with changing demographics and growing affordability. The deal included the Firefox brand of bicycles, accessories and spares along with exclusive distribution rights of ‘Trek’ and other global brands.

Firefox was founded by IIT-Delhi alumni Shiv Inder Singh, along with his friend Pradip Mehrotra in 2004 in Greater Noida. In FY14, the company clocked revenue of around Rs75 crore, selling over 7,000 premium category cycles every month. Currently, Firefox has a presence across 75 cities through over 250 outlets where four are exclusive company-operated stores. It has the full spectrum of the mountain, all-terrain, road, BMX and kids’ bikes. The premium cycle maker has over 80 models.

The company’s first overseas acquisition came in 2015 when it announced acquiring a majority stake in UK-based Avocet Sports, to mark its entry into the European market. Based in Manchester, Avocet Sports, with over 20 years of experience, is one of the top three distributors of bicycles, e-bikes, bicycle parts and accessories in the UK. It has relationships with leading retailers such as Tesco, Halfords, Asda, Shop Direct and Amazon. The acquisition of Firefox Bikes was a strategic move to cement its position in the fast-growing premium bicycling segment in India.

In March 2016, in a strategic move, Hero Cycles acquired a majority stake in Sri Lanka’s BSH Ventures, to use the manufacturing plant as its base for its rapidly-growing European exports as also serve the South India market. BSH Ventures is an export-oriented bicycle manufacturing company located in the Biyagama Export Zone in Sri Lanka, with a potential to make around 1 million cycles per annum.

In order to strengthen its overseas initiatives, in 2017, Hero Cycles established a Global Design Centre in Manchester, UK, to boost its design and technology innovation capacity to produce next generation bicycles. The £2 million design centre, backed by 25 designers and marketers from across Europe, helps the company come up with designs for different kinds of bikes.

Continuing its aggressive intent, Hero Cycles has now set its sight on becoming a major player in the global e-bicycle market and aims to achieve a 5 per cent share in the global e-bike market by 2024. In line with this objective, the company has acquired a strategic stake in German premium e-bike manufacturer HNF GmbH in January this year, together with German investment trust holding IBG Beteiligungsgesellschaft Sachsen-Anhalt mbH. IBG, operating as a venture capital firm, focuses on management buy-outs, acquisitions, mergers, recapitalisations, restructuring, and other corporate situations for German clients.

The new joint venture between Hero Cycles and HNF GmbH will emerge as a new full-range supplier in the European e-bike market and help the Indian bicycle maker establish a strong footprint in Europe. With Europe leading the e-bikes space with a 20 per cent year-on-year growth, the company aims to garner a greater chunk of this market in the coming years.

The company plans to strengthen HNF with investments in design, brand, distribution and supply chain. HNF will assume a larger role in the company’s global centre of excellence for electric bicycles with the group’s global R&D centre based in Berlin. The HNF factory in Bitterfeld will evolve as an R&D application centre along with high-end manufacturing, even as Hero India will support with back-end manufacturing and supply chain from India. While Hero will bring in complementary strengths of low-cost automotive-quality supply chain to HNF’s expertise, HNF’s e-bike design and engineering strength will be leveraged for the company’s e-bike and bicycle businesses in other geographies.

For more than 25 years, HMC has been manufacturing OEM transmission components for renowned German and global suppliers in the automotive industry with its components being integral parts of prestigious upmarket products and brands such as BMW, Harley Davidson and Ducati. With major German automotive OEMs as its customers and ZF Friedrichshafen as a JV partner, HMC has Germany as its choice of destination for entry into the EU market as it is the epicentre of the e-bike industry and largest e-bike market in Europe.

Strategic moves

“These acquisitions and expansion measures are strategic long-term moves that will buttress our objective of becoming a major global player in the traditional as well as electric cycles’ space over the next 10 years. At home in India, our strategy has been to maintain our leadership position in the mass segment while taking a parallel lead in the rapidly-growing premium segment,” says Munjal, adding that while the mass segment in India has been showing flat growth in the past few decades, it is the premium segment that has been growing and expected to do so exponentially over the next few years.

“In Europe sales of traditional bicycles have already plateaued while e-bikes are increasing. We are expecting e-bikes to become a central part of Hero’s exports over the next five-six years along with a local presence in these markets. The acquisition of HNF GmbH is a step towards that journey. We are building up manufacturing capacities to build e-bikes for European and other global markets for exports,” says Aditya Munjal, 31, director, Hero Cycles and Lectro e-Mobility Pvt Ltd. Aditya is the elder son of Pankaj Munjal and grandson of Om Prakash Munjal who, with his three other brothers, founded Hero Cycles way back in 1956. Till last year, Aditya was also the CEO of Firefox. He played a key role in striking the Firefox deal.

Under Aditya, Firefox, a market leader in the premium bicycle segment in India with 30 per cent market share, grew at a higher double-digit growth, and now he wants Firefox to double its revenue to around Rs1,000 crore in the next five years. Armed with a degree in Business Administration from the Southern Methodist University in Dallas, Texas, and certifications in the dynamics of leadership from Harvard University, Cambridge, Aditya started his formal career with lifestyle chain, Oma and went on to work with brands such as BMW, Ernst and Young, Rotax and Maruti Suzuki. He was actively involved in diverse domains such as hr, marketing, equity markets, logistics and management before returning home to Hero Cycles.

“As India puts a major thrust on electric vehicles, we hope the e-bike market here also holds a lot of promise. Our e-bike brand Lectro has already become the largest selling brand within a year-and-a-half of its inception. Electric cycles have been present as Chinese imports for a few years now but with India product development keeping in mind our specific needs, it has now been well received in the Indian market,” adds Aditya, whose younger brother Abhishek, 29, is also a part of the company.

Ever since Abhishek was appointed director of Hero Cycles in 2016, he has been deeply involved in the company’s operations, vision and strategy. Having studied Economics at Indiana University, Abhishek is well versed in the concepts of productive efficiency, empirical investigation of markets, public policy and industrial forecasting. Currently, he is driving the manufacturing capabilities across various segments of the business.

Born into the family of the Munjals, the founders of the Hero group, Pankaj has always had a love for automobiles. He finished his early schooling from The Lawrence School, Sanawar, graduated in Science and got training in automotive manufacturing at Kettering University (formerly General Motors Institute), Flint, USA. He also attended an executive programme in strategic marketing management at London Business School and Harvard University.

Munjal joined the Hero group in 1988, and took over the executive responsibilities of Hero Cycles Ltd in 2010 after the Munjal family realigned its businesses. He became the CMD at HMC in July 2015 when his father Om Prakash Munjal passed on the mantle (chairmanship). Amongst his special focus areas in the bicycle industry are technology upgradation, development of cycling infrastructure and economical mobility to the disadvantaged segment.

With his vision of innovation and creating differentiated products, Hero Cycles has recently partnered with Japan’s Yamaha Motor Co, to launch India’s first centre-motor e-cycle. The high performance e-cycle powered by Yamaha is a path-breaking addition to Hero Cycles’ popular Lectro range. The premium product is the first outcome of the three-way strategic partnership initiated between Hero Cycles, Yamaha Motor Co and Mitsui & Co.

The alliance, brought together by Mitsui, is to create technologically superior high-performance products through collaboration between Hero Cycles’ and Yamaha Motors’ electric drive units, with go-to-market sales, distribution and marketing support by Mitsui. “The product is aimed at the small yet growing community of adventure lovers and mountain cyclists who love pushing the limits of performance. With promising days ahead for the e-cycle market, we hope to deliver more such path-breaking products for different sections of the Indian audience in the future,” says Aditya.

In order to support its plans and activities, the company is also ramping up its manufacturing capabilities. Under a recent agreement with the Punjab government, Hero Cycles is setting up a 100 acre industrial park in the upcoming 380 acre, International Cycle Valley at Dhanansu in Ludhiana district. The industrial park, at an estimated investment of Rs400 crore, will help the company scale up its capacity to over 10 million units by the end of this fiscal. Besides, it will also host global and other domestic component suppliers from various categories of cycles including e-bikes.

In fact, the company is looking to localise almost Rs1,000 crore worth of its component imports in the next few years. Proactively, the company has invested in localising components like aluminium frames, suspension forks, drivetrain parts and aluminium rims. Hero is also working towards developing a highly cost-effective e-cycle for the mass segment. “Under this venture, we are in the process of signing JVs with German, Japanese and Chinese companies and set up joint manufacturing facilities, which will produce components, parts and frames for traditional cycles as well as electric cycles,” says Abhishek.

Backward integration

“A lot of mechanical and electrical components for bicycle and e-bicycle have to be imported due to non-availability in India. We are backward integrating with our components brand ‘Spur’ to localise these components in India. We are aggressively investing in R&D and innovation to be able to engineer these parts and make in India with indigenous manufacturing capability. In fact, our aim is to localise maximum possible e-bike manufacturing including components in the country over the next few years. There are also global bicycle component brands that would like to set up their facilities at our industrial park and make India their hub for exports as well as to meet the Indian demand,” says Munjal, who is of the view that while as a leading cycle maker, his company is trying to create a strong cycle making base in India.

Experts are of the view that among the various challenges being faced by the industry is the entry of unorganised players that do not adhere to quality norms and bring down the reputation of the industry as a whole. Another is the dependence on imports for key components which makes India less competitive in exports as compared to China and other Asian countries. They are of the opinion that the government should chalk out policy measures that should encourage these global component makers to invest in India and cater to both global and domestic markets.

With all these developments and measures in place, Hero Cycles is well poised to maintain its leadership position in the market. In the last decade or so, the company has made a conscious effort to diversify its portfolio. The aim is to not only expand its overall business but also move up in the value chain by getting into high-value products. While the market has undergone a major change in the last few years, the company has tried to move ahead of the curve to provide the much-needed robustness to its overall business proposition.

While Europe and other developed economies have shown keen interest in adopting cycling as a healthy alternative to motorised transportation, in India things are slowly changing. The ongoing Corona crisis has certainly lent its support to this transition as an increasing number of people are now taking up cycling. All this augurs well for the growth prospects of the domestic cycle industry where a player like Hero Cycles will continue to lead the space as a robust and vibrant business.

An inspiring journey on bicycles

From the bylanes of Kamalia and the rugged landscapes of Quetta in India of the 1940s which later became Pakistan, they escaped to the Partition-ravaged cities of Amritsar, Agra, Delhi and finally settled in Ludhiana. From here, four of the six Munjal brothers built their business, part by part. Hero began with trading in and then manufacturing bicycle parts, evolved into bicycles, mopeds, automotive parts, motorcycles and scooters, and today the restructured group also encompasses service businesses and infrastructure. In 1986, 30 years after its inception, Hero Cycles became the largest bicycle maker in the world. In the next 15 years, the motorcycle venture Hero Honda also became the largest in the world, and both pole positions are held firmly even today.

Hero Cycles, the world’s largest integrated bicycle maker, is the mother company that gave birth to Hero Honda, the world’s largest motorcycle maker, and the numerous other Hero group companies being run with stellar success by the next generation of the Munjal family. This is the story of the grit and perseverance of four brothers – Dayanand, Satyanand, Brijmohan Lall and Om Prakash Munjal – who set up a modest bicycle-component business. And after being displaced from their roots twice, started all over again and achieved unparalleled success.

The Munjal brothers were born in Kamalia (in unpartitioned Punjab), Pakistan, to Bahadur Chand Munjal and Thakuri Devi – a middle-lass Arora/Khatri family whose day would start with Havan, the Vedic ritual promoted by the Arya Samaj. The family was initially (1900s) engaged in raw wool trading. But as Kamalia gained importance as a centre for trade in agriculture commodities, Bahadur Chand began dealing in food grains and opened a small wholesale shop in Kamalia. Gradually, his business expanded and he became an important supplier who was known for his ethical practices.

The Munjal brothers grew up at a time of great economic and political turmoil. Against this backdrop, the brothers could not continue their studies beyond matriculation, instead at a very early stage they decided to supplement the family income. Moreover, joining their father’s business was not an option as it was not big enough.

Some of the brothers led by Dayanand left for Quetta in 1933 in search of work. They were daily wage workers (mechanics) at an ordnance factory in Quetta. Brijmohan Lall was the only one among them to get a regular job as a clerk in the ordnance factory.

However, it was Satyanand who first got the feel for cycle making while working in a bicycle retail and repair shop in Lahore. Later Dayanand too got involved in the bicycle business.

From Quetta, Dayanand went to Firozepur where he worked until September 1943. He then settled in Amritsar, where he started a bicycles parts business in January 1944. Soon his youngest brother Om Prakash also joined him in Amritsar. Together, they set up a small shop for bicycle parts and repairs in November 1944. While Dayanand managed the workshop and the store, Om Prakash toured across India selling parts.

In 1946, there was a massive flood in Amritsar, the Munjal brothers moved to Agra but later on shifted to Ludhiana. They opened a small bicycle shop in Miller Ganj near Vishwakarma Chowk. Soon after, they set up a work-shed for the manufacture of bicycle parts and assembly of bicycles. They continued to do that on a modest scale, till the birth of Hero Cycles in 1956 when they moved from component manufacturing to complete bicycle manufacturing under the brand name Hero.

In fact, the journey from parts making to manufacturing of a complete cycle was not that easy. At the time, there were no manuals laying out engineering, designs and production processes. Most of the cycle parts and components were imported at that time. The Munjals had to wing it and create their own. They would squat in the backyard for days with the local community of mistris (technicians), craftsmen and artisans, drawing designs of cycle parts on a sheet of paper and discussing ways of implementing them.

Their very first experiment in 1954 was in bicycle fork. After several hits and misses, they finally came up with a product that satisfied all the brothers. Subsequently, other parts like handles, handlebars and mudguards were also included in their manufacturing capability, however rims were sourced from a company called Regent as also tyres and tubes from Dunlop.

The first complete bicycle was manufactured in India in 1938, by India Cycle Manufacturing Company in Calcutta. It was quickly followed by Hind Cycles in Bombay and Hindustan Bicycles in Patna. But all through the 1940s, the majority of demand was met by imports as India-made bicycles were of poor quality.

In 1956, the Punjab government issued tender notices for 12 new industrial licences to make bicycles in Ludhiana. The Munjal brothers participated in the bid and won the contract. Hero Cycles was registered first as a small-scale unit and then converted to a large-scale industrial unit. In its first year of production, the company produced 639 bicycles, grew rapidly to 7,803 units in the following years and then to 31,000 per year by 1961. In the 1980s, Hero Cycles became the largest bicycle manufacturer in the world and in 1986 was registered with the Guinness Book of World Records for this feat. Hero Cycles today produces around 19,000 bicycles per day.

There is an interesting story behind the name ‘Hero’ also. While Dayanand and Om Prakash Munjal were packing up to move to Ludhiana from Amritsar, one of their suppliers, Kareem Deen, was preparing to shift to Pakistan amidst brewing Hindu-Muslim conflict in the partisan-imposed Amritsar city. Despite this divide, Om Prakash had embraced him as his business partner who would manufacture and supply him bicycle saddles. While leaving for Pakistan he came to meet the Munjal brother and as a parting gift he offered him to use his company name i.e. ‘Hero’. The Munjal brother was touched and humbled by that gesture and that’s how the world’s largest company got its name ‘Hero Cycles’, a brand that many envy, while the Munjals are proud to possess that name that has continued to rule the Indian bicycle as also motorcycle market for years now.

The Munjal brothers expanded the Hero group in various businesses, diversifying into sectors like bicycle components, automotive, automotive components, IT, services, etc. Om Prakash, his brother Brijmohan Lall and the next generation of the family have been instrumental in establishing Hero Honda (in 1983), now Hero MotoCorp, a joint venture between Hero Cycles and Honda for manufacturing motorcycles that went on to become the world’s
largest motorcycle producer.

In 2010 after the group underwent a restructuring, Om Prakash assumed responsibility of leading Hero Cycles, Hero Motors, Munjal Kiriu Industries, ZF Hero and Munjal Hospitality. He continued to serve as the chairman of Hero Cycles and the group companies, till he passed on his mantle to his son, Pankaj Munjal in July 2015, only to breath his last next month at the age of 87.

In November 2015, his elder brother Brijmohan Lall also breathed his last at the age of 92. Brijmohan Lall, who had been the chairman of Hero MotoCorp since its inception in 1984, had passed on the leadership of two-wheeler major to his son Pawan Munjal in June 2015.

Courtesy: a) ’The Making of Hero’ the book by Sunil Munjal

b) ’The Inspiring Journey of a Hero’ by Priya Kumar

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