Waste Ventures look to empower India’s trash collectors

Wednesday, July 21, 2010

Waste Ventures, a company looking to fundamentally alter the way municipal garbage gets collected, processed and disposed of and improve the lives of the workers doing the dirty work (Follow them on Facebook and Twitter). Waste Ventures is currently located in Bihar, but is aggressively looking to expand to other areas in India and even beyond. TC-I’s Vinay Ganti spoke with Parag Gupta, the founder of this organization to understand better their goals. Waste Ventures is currently competing in Myoo’s Beat Waste Challenge, so if you like what you read here, please support them there as well.

The gigantic stinks caused by the garbage dumps in the Indian metros leave us angry and aware of our powerlessness. They are urban eyesores and a threat to our health and immediate environment. But like many other festering wounds, most Indians have learnt to live with them.

But have you ever thought what kind of health hazard it poses to the faceless, poor trash collectors of India?

So when a company called Waste Ventures arrived on the scene to empower India’s trash collectors, it became a silver lining.

wasteventures_logo Waste Ventures is a company looking to fundamentally alter the way municipal garbage gets collected, processed and disposed of and improve the lives of the workers doing the dirty work. Waste Ventures is currently located in Bihar, but is aggressively looking to expand to other areas in India and even beyond.

So what exactly does the organization do?

Says Parag Gupta, the founder of this organization: We incubate and invest in solid waste management companies owned and operated by waste pickers. We provide them with the tools and knowledge to environmentally process garbage – recycling inorganic waste, composting organic waste, and earning carbon credits in the process.”

“The result is a better wage for the waste picker, less garbage in the city, fewer greenhouse gas emissions, and a profit margin 20 times greater than the current paradigm of simply dumping waste. We will thus harness the power of commercial markets to scale the social wasteventures_guptaand environmental impact,” he says.

Gupta, who had worked in Schwab Foundation as Associate Director, says he has dedicated his life to building market-based solutions to global poverty for the last eight years.

During his Schwab days, he saw a burgeoning solid waste management social entrepreneur movement that was still rooted in NGO roots. He recognized the feasibility of creating an entire commercially-viable sector that could both uplift waste pickers, the bottom rung of society, and also solve the largest municipal epidemic we face – garbage.

According to Gupta, there is a need for a lot more champions in government who would like to join them in moving the entire solid waste management sector from dependency on municipal payment to one that generates its income from commercial sources producing and selling recyclables, bio-fertilizer, and carbon credits.

“Right now, many municipal contracts surprisingly don’t allow for composting or recycling even if someone wanted to do so. What isn’t explicitly forbidden is disincentivized as municipalities pay by volume dumped which creates a perverse incentive not to process any waste but take it straight to the dumpsite,” he says.

Also, he feels, as more investors invest in waste picker corporations and more corporations adopt the environmentally friendly method of processing waste, the entire sector will become more efficient and familiar – attracting more talent, capital, and ideas.

“This is why at Waste Ventures our goal is to build the sector – not just our organization,” Gupta says.

While Gupta’s background is in management consulting to Fortune 500 Companies, social entrepreneurs, and foundations, Waste Ventures’ board consists of luminaries, including Geoff Davis, former CEO of Unitus, a microfinance accelerator; Harish Hande, founder of Selco; and Pamela Hartigan, Director of the Skoll Centre for Social Entrepreneurship at Said Business School, Oxford.

Waste Ventures is a hybrid organization with two independent entities.

The not-for-profit builds the market and receives a subsidized fee from the organizations they work with (usually waste picker NGOs) to ensure they have a vested interest in the intervention.

The not-for-profit also receives some revenue from projects it creates (like a compost plant).

Finally it receives grant support from the for-profit entity. The for-profit entity is a holding company that takes a minority stake in waste picker corporations and also a small percentage in intermediating bio-fertilizer and carbon credits produced by the waste picker corporations and connecting them to larger markets.

So how do they measure the effectiveness?

According to Gupta, the company assiduously works for social, environmental, and financial improvements.

“Our social metrics include livelihood increase, life expectancy increase [from wearing protective gear], and decrease in persecution by authorities.

“Environmentally, we decrease garbage by 80% through processing, reduce half a ton of greenhouse gas for every ton of organic waste we compost. Financially, we measure both the Return on Investment, the IRR, and also more broadly, how much funding is being invested in environmentally processing emerging market waste,” he says.

The unique challenges in India for the company include tough bio-fertilizer markets.

“India subsidizes chemical fertilizer making it difficult to penetrate with bio-fertilizer. This is both a government policy challenge and a farmer mindset challenge – even though the biofertilizer our waste picker corporations will produce decreases dependency on chemical fertilizer by 25% and increases land productivity by 30%!”

The company looks forward to continuing to grow in India and expand to other emerging markets.

“In 3 – 5 years, we hope to have successfully brought in pure-commercial investors into the Base of Pyramid solid waste management sector around the world. In 10 years, Waste Ventures will be working in creating waste picker corporations throughout emerging markets and we will have successfully created the next microfinance sector in terms of scale and reach,” he says.

The company works with waste picker organizations that have created collectives of waste pickers and have a relationship with the government in at least understanding the external situation (current contractors in the city, garbage profile, etc).

“We also work with urban social entrepreneurs that are interested in creating a waste picker corporation and have the government and community ‘social capital’ to do so,” Gupta says.

So what is his advice for some one else starting off on his own sector of work?

“Find a good lawyer and a good bank so you can set up your institution the right way right away. Don’t go down the path alone – find a good local partner that can fill in gaps in your knowledge. Similarly, bring good people on as soon as possible,” he says.

Waste Ventures is currently competing in Myoo’s Beat Waste Challenge, a competition offering $25,000 in cash prizes for businesses and social enterprises that reduce or eliminate waste.


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