(LOO)king Ahead: The Woloo Story
What comes to your mind when you think about public toilets? Unsanitary, sometimes unsafe spaces that you wouldn’t want to venture into unless you’re in a dire emergency? Well, unfortunately, that’s a reality many of us live with, owing to the state of our public conveniences. So, when entrepreneurs Shivkala Mudaliar and Manish Kelshikar launched Woloo, a swanky, pay-per-use women’s only powder room near Thane railway station in November 2019, it made national news.
Kelshikar and Mudaliar met at a business networking event in Mumbai last year, where the latter was representing Things Etc, her social entrepreneurship venture that works with tribal and rural craftsmen. Kelshikar was impressed by her ideas and shared his idea of creating a chain of clean, safe, and well-equipped washrooms for women across India. “Manish often faced the challenge of finding hygienic washrooms for his wife and daughter while travelling. I immediately connected with his idea, and that’s how Woloo was born. We started working on the project, and I focussed on the operations and execution. Despite having hundreds of washrooms built in recent times, for 150 million working women, the usability of the facilities remains a big challenge. Studies say that every year, 2.5 lakh women suffer from hygiene-related diseases,” says Mudaliar.
Since the ideation stage, it took about seven months for the first Woloo to be set up. And, ever since it was launched, Mudaliar has had many grateful women thank her for the initiative. The powder room is a huge hit with commuters, older women, and women with young children, among others. “We have several Woloo stories that have touched us. Many women have just come to click pictures to confirm that Woloo exists since a majority of them have never seen a clean washroom,” she says.
What makes Woloo stand out from other public toilets is not just the superior level of sanitation, but also the facilities that it offers. There is a feeding room, a section to change your baby’s diapers, a place to change your clothes and apply some makeup, a convenience shop that sells sanitary pads and innerwear, and even a café where you can sip on hot beverages. And the best part is that the staff is trained to assist differently-abled persons. The powder room is also air-conditioned and wi-fi-enabled. They have recently tied up with an intimate hygiene brand that will stock its products here.
At the moment, there is just one Woloo that caters daily to over 300 urban women; the plan is to expand to the rest of Maharashtra and then across the country. “We will be focusing on Mumbai for the next year, followed by other metros and tier-II cities. In the next five years, we aim to have 10,000 Woloos up and running across India near suburban train stations, bus stations, temples, tourist places, and arterial roads,” explains Mudaliar. The venture has received funding for the next level of expansion through investors.
However, it wasn’t easy setting up the first Woloo at Thane. For starters, acquiring land was difficult. “We struggled to convince the landowners, but once they saw our experience in global retail and the Woloo business model, they were cooperative,” says Mudaliar. While the Thane Woloo built over 350 sq feet with five seats is an ‘express’ model, the other units in the pipeline are larger. “We have three models where the café model is 550 square feet with eight to 10 seats, while the lounge model is 850 square feet with more than ten rooms, a larger café area, and a makeup room,” says Mudaliar. The cost of all three models, however, will be the same. “The cost of using Woloo once is Rs 20. However, we also have a monthly Peers Club membership at `99 that is valid for 30 days with unlimited usage,” adds Mudaliar.
With Mudaliar’s social entrepreneurship background, she has ensured that Woloo also empowers women by employing them. “We also have a franchise model where women can come together to own a Woloo, thus generating micro-entrepreneurs across India. We already have plenty of enquiries. When somebody reaches out to us, we check the feasibility of the proposition, survey the location, and calculate the expense of building a Woloo model at the site. If all these factors are in place, we assist the franchisee with our standard design and look, and handhold them through the process of setting up a Woloo,” she concludes.