Of all of Jeremy Clarkson’s achievements, which include punching Piers Morgan (commendable) and destroying a Perodua Kelisa on an episode of Top Gear (a slight affront to Malaysia’s national pride), perhaps one of his greatest accomplishments – not that he might realise it – has been to inspire Vinesh Sinha. “My father gave me a diesel Pajero when I was still in school, and I was trying to find ways to lower its operational costs,” recalls the Founder and CEO of FatHopes Energy Sdn Bhd.
“I stumbled upon footage of Clarkson running a diesel vehicle on used cooking oil for Top Gear and, after I watched it, I had to give it a try.” As a teenager, the Penang-born Vinesh would visit his favourite eateries, persuade them to donate their unwanted waste oil, filter out any cooking debris through old T-shirts, blend the oil with diesel and get his engine running. “That’s where my journey really started – and since then, it’s been challenging but incredibly enjoyable and fulfilling.”
GREASE IS THE WORD
It’s not just Jezza who deserves credit for setting Vinesh on his path to the biofuel industry: an enormous proportion of it is down to the 30-year-old’s natural curiosity and unshakeable determination. “I’m intrinsically very inquisitive and that’s probably what got me going,” he muses. “I tend to question everything and why it’s done a certain way, especially with mechanisms. I’ve always had a great interest in vehicles and automotives, and that’s where an overlap occurred which really struck a chord with me.
“Back in the day, there was never an alternative to how you could run these vehicles and, even today in Malaysia, we’re very sheltered from alternatives or options that allow us to operate vehicles differently. It prompted me to look for alternatives – not specifically because I wanted to make a significant difference, but an alternative for the sake of an alternative. That’s the inquisitiveness in me, you see.” Despite his enthusiasm for asking plenty of questions, by his own admission, Vinesh made for a reluctant student.
“I had so many questions that I couldn’t find the answers to. Towards the end of my secondary education, I told my parents not to waste their money on me and to let me figure out what I was interested in. I even took an independent course in automotive engineering, as I was searching for something that sat well with me and would keep me motivated, ready to wake up in the morning raring to return to it. But I couldn’t find it. It was extremely frustrating to be edged back into school, and I only agreed because – as the eldest of three boys – I couldn’t set a bad precedent. And that opened me up to a series of events that I’ll never regret.”
He performed well enough academically to secure a place at the London School of Commerce, studying Business & Finance (“I wasn’t particularly focused on what I was going to do, so I chose a generic course as I thought those skills could be applicable in a wide variety of industries,” Vinesh explains). Much to his delight, on the first few days he arrived in the UK, he discovered both diesel and biodiesel were readily available at British petrol stations, sowing the seeds of his future career. “Three months later, while I was getting my bearings in London, the front pages of the newspapers announced the implementation of a tax on homebrewed biofuels.
“That’s when it struck me that things were getting serious. Up until then, I’d understood that massive oil and gas, palm-based and agricultural companies were entering the biodiesel market, but there was a disconnect – I couldn’t see an entry point for myself. Learning that home-brewed fuels had attracted a 30p tax revealed that, if it was being done on a wide-enough scale at home, it must be affecting the British government significantly. It meant there were significant volumes for them to want to implement a tax on it, and that was a turning point for me.” All but abandoning his university course, Vinesh began volunteering at three companies that specialised in the collection of waste oil, plus the production and distribution of biodiesel.
Over a period of nine months, he gained valuable exposure at these niche, small-scale entities that were responsible for supplying London’s black cabs with biodiesel. “I knew the ‘whats’ of biodiesel but this was where I figured out the ‘how’,” he says. “The main lesson I took away was that the conversion and manufacturing process was not as difficult as it looked. If it had been a mammoth organisation with 500 people, the idea of trying to reach that scale would have put me off, but seeing seven people running this small organisation was a big motivational factor. It gave me the confidence that what I saw, I could do.”
OIL BE BACK
There was, of course, the tricky question of what Vinesh was going to tell his parents. Once word got back from LSC that he wasn’t meeting minimum attendance numbers, he came clean to them about what he had been up to (not that it stopped Vinesh’s mother from heading to London to change her son’s mind). “I was very open with them. To me, I wasn’t sitting in a casino, gambling their money away or doing something I shouldn’t. It’s just that this was more amusing and fascinating, rather than my course, where I couldn’t see the relevance of what was being taught to me in my day-to-day life. In university, it was like learning another language I didn’t need to speak.”
This was where Vinesh pulled his ballsiest move yet: he agreed to finish his first year at university in order to avoid returning to Malaysia immediately but, covertly, took his future into his own hands. “I knew if I refused, I’d end up back home, trying to figure out what to do next – and that was not the way for me. So, I hoodwinked my mother to get her to return home, saying I was going to continue with my course,” Vinesh admits. “Two weeks later, I forged my father’s signature on a letter to LSC asking them to refund my fees for Years Two and Three, then took that refund and bought a conversion unit I’d been manning at one of the companies I volunteered with, and brought it out to Kuala Lumpur.”
As luck would have it, a close friend’s logistics company was being relocated to Kuala Lumpur in order to satisfy an accounting firm’s requirements for a green fleet. “This was the key push factor for me – it was about seizing the opportunity. In 2008, Malaysia had no biodiesel, electrification or green options, and diesel was super-cheap, thanks to government subsidies. When my friend asked if I could sell them biofuel, I had no clue whether it would make any financial sense, but said, ‘Yes – let’s go do this.’ Before I knew it, I’d been out here running things for nine months, it was cost-positive and I could move out to our own factory premise.” (It made for quite a surprise – albeit a pleasant one – when Vinesh’s parents discovered him and his business featured on the front page of a local newspaper.)
After spending two years collecting waste oil from eateries and shops, and converting it into biodiesel, he set up FatHopes Energy in 2010 with the primary focus of developing sustainable fats, oils and grease solutions in the interests of advanced biofuel production. The past eight years have been a training ground for his company’s ingenuity, where it has identified over 30 different streams of waste oil for recovery and developed SmartTank technology for more efficient waste oil collection, as well as a test of Vinesh’s plans to build a sustainable business that rewards its stakeholders. “We’re not tree-huggers. We understand you have to make financial sense to make ends meet, but it doesn’t justify being unscrupulous or opportunistic.
“I won’t ring fence my business and make it difficult for competition to come in – I embrace it by engaging and collaborating in order to spread this initiative to a bigger geographical footprint. Harming your stakeholders – your buyers, sellers, consumers, staff, and everyone else in between – means forfeiting your future value today. That’s not what I believe in. For this to be a self-propagating model, everyone needs to have skin in the game – something they can take out of it. Our company motto is ‘waste to wealth conversion’: if I buy that waste and distribute the wealth down the supply chain towards much more fragmented parts of society, I feel this will be a single trans-generational, trans-border solution that – irrespective of who and where – will be able to be implemented.”
THE FAT OF THE LAND
Vinesh’s early success in supplying biodiesel or biofuels feedstock to various oil and gas companies around the world swiftly saw him net a MYR300,000-a-month contract with MacFood Services – which goes some way to explaining how the company has since generated nearly USD105.4 million (MYR414.6 million) in revenue, along with the conversion of 150.5 million kilograms of waste oil to biofuel. In his eyes, though, the numbers – impressive as they are – are just a small part of the equation. “I never measure success by financial gain,” Vinesh states. “I don’t have any desire to become a millionaire and drive fancy cars. To me, success is about fulfilment: do you still love what you do, more or less than when you set out? My answer is that it’s generally more, because I now have better access to the industry. This is just the beginning.
“We believe this industry is in its infancy and has a long, long way to go. If that’s the case, we have first-mover advantage and cannot rest on our laurels. Everyone wants to be the next Alibaba and Facebook – I want us to be a YKK Group that quietly goes about its business with not many people knowing about them, but they’re everywhere. We need to scale FatHopes Energy like a tech business so that we become an underlying infrastructure provider – the convergence of a hardware set with a tech platform that enables a unified and streamlined methodology to offer total transparency over the supply chain. Within the next five years, picture us as a platform where customers can look at a map of the SmartTanks around the world, decide where to commission waste oil to be purchased, and we’ll collect it and send it out to them. That’s where we see ourselves heading.”
At the moment, Vinesh and his team are working on covering the ASEAN region by 2020 (with Indonesia as its next target location), along with focusing on servicing nearly 18,000 points of origin. With the growth of regular exports of biofuels and biofuels feedstock to European-based oil and gas companies, FatHopes Energy is keen on pushing for more comprehensive waste aggregation and biofuel policies. As Vinesh, a top nominee in the Emerging Category of the EY Entrepreneur Of The Year Award 2017, explains: “Promoting the aggregation of waste-derived materials generates revenue and cleans up the environment, irrespective of where it’s been or what it’s being used for. Waste-based or waste-derived biofuels deserve to be a top priority because they are a double-good: recovering the waste prevents the pollution of waterways and, when converted, they’re a fuel source with a minimum 70 per cent less carbon emissions compared to diesel.
“It’s always been my intention for our business model to be trans-generational and trans-border, mainly because of the benefits it brings to the people we source from. Why should we limit the potential of its positivity? The solution and the value proposition appeals to everyone, across all strata. There are no exclusions – who doesn’t eat food? Everyone who eats can participate in this model. Moving forward, we’re definitely going to be growing at an unprecedented rate.” And is he still driving his father’s old Pajero? “I own a diesel BMW – one of the last models before they stopped selling them in Malaysia due to national interest.
“Enabling or creating options should always be a priority of national development strategies, because that’s when you instigate people to think differently – and to think in general, instead of just being a follower. I’d like to see more diesel options or variants available in the country, and if I don’t,” Vinesh says with no small amount of conviction, “I’ll stick with the vehicle I have for a long time to come.”
TEXT RENYI LIM
ART DIRECTION PENNY CHEW
PHOTOGRAPHY GERALD GOH / IMAGE ROM
PHOTOGRAPHY ASSISTANTS SAIFUL AZWAN & GEORGE CHONG
PRODUCTION SUPPORT METAL BEES