How Debartha, Ritwik, and Jayant are revolutionising waste collection systems in India
This story is a part of Portraits of Purpose series sponsored by DBS Bank.
“Being good means nothing, unless you are willing to do what needs to be done, when it needs to be done,” said an angry Abraham Setrakian in the US vampire apocalypse show The Strain. And while our planet may not be under threat from vampires, the danger to its environment from the waste-dumping activities of human beings is not just real, it is critical.
When Debartha Banerjee, Jayanth Nataraju, and Ritvik Rao set out to change the way waste is handled in India, they had to battle not just ignorance but also apathy. Armed with degrees in engineering and masters in social entrepreneurship, they founded Sampurn(e)arth — a Mumbai-based startup focused on urban waste management. Vijaya Shrinivasan, a client, shares that the residents of her neighbourhood were initially very reluctant. They didn’t want to go through the whole process of having two separate bags and segregating food at the source. Six months of tireless campaigning later, the efforts of the team are starting to make a difference.
Though there is a long, long way to go in changing people’s attitudes about how they deal with their waste, these grassroots changes seem seismic and signal for a better time to come. “Targeting ‘out of sight out of mind’ and ‘not in my backyard’ approach is one of our key strategies. That is the reason all our solutions are decentralised and the waste generator has to take extra responsibility of waste segregation to keep their waste management system active. Monetarily incentivising people by creating value from waste is also what helps us penetrate,” shares co-founder and director Debartha Banerjee.
India generates more than 1, 00,000 metric tonnes of waste daily. 90 percent of this sector is disorganised. Consequently, the decomposition of biodegradable waste generates huge amounts of methane, a harmful greenhouse gas. But scary statistics aside, there is another ugly side to the waste management system in India— the waste pickers. Though their work is essential, actually crucial, to a well-functioning society, the humiliation and degradation they have to face on a daily basis is inhuman.
Sampurn(e)arth works to provide them with dignity. Earlier they would be scavenging inside dumps. Now the waste pickers employed by Sampurn(e)arth work under proper conditions. They earn more money, thanks to their recycling efforts. Above all, instead of being just ‘waste pickers’, they proudly wear on their sleeve the new title of ‘waste managers.’
Like all great and meaningful initiatives, Sampurn(e)arth was born out of a feeling of discontent and disenchantment. Debartha was working as a software professional in Pune. In his free time, he started volunteering extensively with NGOs. Though this gave him great exposure to social causes and an appetite for helping people, he could not shake off the feeling that he needed to create a greater impact and part-time volunteering just wasn’t going to cut it. He signed up for a Masters in Social Entrepreneurship at the Tata Institute of Social Sciences in 201o, where he met Ritwik and Jayant, pursuing the same course, and it was here that the idea of Sampurn(e)arth was born. With engineering backgrounds and entrepreneurial hearts, they held the belief that technology can solve big problems. Their love for the environment and keen interest in sustainable development made them ponder over waste management.
As before, the trio of soon-to-be founders started volunteering when their academic duties for the day were done. While pursuing their two-year course at TISS, they actively started working and freelancing for NGOs and other outfits operating in the sector. During this time, they worked for Stree Mukti Sanghatana, an NGO working for the rights of waste pickers and also involved in waste management.
It was here that they realised the deep cracks in the waste collection and aggregation system and the harmful consequences that followed. “We realised solving the current waste-management problem would require an approach which is not only environmentally sustainable, but should also be socially inclusive, involve different stakeholders, be financially viable and profitable. Waste management has always been seen as a few good examples developed by a few good people that have not scaled to reach out to a wider audience. Though all of us have heard about composting, biogas, and recycling, there are very few companies doing the same and providing professional services around it. The bigger companies, however, which are mostly involved in the collection and disposal of waste hardly recognise the environmental challenges that the cities face today because of indiscriminate dumping and the role that the informal sector plays,” says Debartha.
The team recognised the gap and thus the opportunity of creating a complete waste-management service which is built around triple bottom lined returns. Their efforts early on went not only into optimising and finding the right technology for waste management but also coming up with appropriate business models. Nonprofits extended their support with their resources and gave them an opportunity to experiment their ideas till the time Sampurn(e)arth, a private limited company, was formed.
The co-founders Ritwik and Jayant enthusiastically delved into the roots of language to procure a name befitting the beauty and importance of the work they were doing. “In Sanskrit, sampurna means complete, arth means purpose as well as money, and (e)arth represents our planet. Sampurn(e)arth embodies our vision of creating a purposeful venture which benefits both planet and economy.”
Since its inception in 2012, Sampurn(e)arth has developed not only into an efficient and sustainable venture, but also a profitable venture of waste management. Sampurn(e)arth provides context-based waste management solutions which are environment friendly and actively engage waste pickers. They work along with municipal corporations, corporates, educational campuses, and residential complexes to manage both biodegradable waste (handled through compost units or biogas plants) and non-biodegradable waste (channelised to recyclers). Waste pickers are also trained and employed to manage these systems.
Apart from client specific solutions, they also run vehicles and manage dry-waste trading centres in Mumbai along with the municipal corporation and a federation of waste pickers named Parisar Bhagini Vikas Sangha. DBS Bank India plays the role of an active partner and has helped them right from providing seed funds to helping in strategising and executing as well as managing their revenue. “DBS Bank has helped us in covering our losses. They also conduct meet-ups after every three months to help us overcome our drawbacks,” says Debartha.
The venture also conducts waste audits, supplies recycled paper stationery, and does impact assessments.
They have ambitious plans for their startup. Debartha explains, “Considering that Mumbai alone generates 10,000 MT of waste daily, there is 1000 times scaling up opportunity here itself. We also are looking for installation of biogas plants on a pan-India basis and with different municipal corporations. We are especially targeting small towns and villages for a complete transformation and overhaul of their waste management practices,” he continues, “We see that one of the ways of further scaling up will be developing franchises or helping groups/individuals to develop and run solutions at a local level. We have also recently developed portable biogas plants of 20 kg/day ad 50 kg/day capacity.”
Sampurn(e)arth started out attempting to be self-sustainable, but has come a long way since then. “Though we are trying to self-sustain our venture through profits being made, we also have been supported by the DBS-TISS incubation programme and also Unlimited India. We have been winning business plan competitions and have recently raised our first round of equity investment,” shares Debartha.
The venture has been well received from all over and will soon cross servicing 100 clients. Over the past three years, they have provided their services to over 80 clients across various contexts which include corporate houses, housing societies, townships, hotels, restaurants, hospitals, educational institutions, etc. They provide complete waste management services of collecting, processing, and recycling waste for corporate parks like The Capital(Bandra Kurla Complex) and Adlabs Imagica to name a few.
They are involved, in various capacities, at biogas plants in Tata Institute of Social Sciences, Tata Power Thermal Power Station, and Tata Consultancy Services Powai Campus. They have installed and are operating composting pits at various colleges across the city and several residential colonies in Chembur, Bandra, and Navi Mumbai.
They are involved in collection and management of recyclable waste from reputed corporate entities like Reliance Corporate Park, Axis Bank, Mahindra & Mahindra, Bajaj Electricals, Ernst & Young, Mahanagar Gas, etc. They are also working with construction/real estate companies to design waste management systems for their upcoming projects aside from working with various facility management companies.
They have also started associations with a few municipal corporations and cities in Maharashtra.
The kind of work they do is gaining more attention and legitimacy every day, thanks to the government’s Swachh Bharat campaign. Says Debartha, “With the Swachh Bharat campaign kicking in, waste management and cleanliness is gaining more attention. However it needs to be understood that Swachh Bharat not only means clean streets but also clean air and water which will only happen if collected waste is also processed properly. We also see CSR money supporting such initiatives and paying a role in future.
Globally also, waste management is getting more importance as it is directly related to sustainable livelihood and sustainability of the planet breaking away from the recent cradle-to-grave system.”
Debartha is quick to acknowledge the army of well-wishers and mentors that helped shape Sampurn (e)arth into what it is today. “I would like to share one of the best pieces of advice that I received, for people who wish to start up but are getting lost or bogged down with the initial inertia to start an enterprise. Working on a venture every day in at least some areas and taking at least one step every day will make sure down the line you start getting momentum and things start to fall in place,” says Debartha.
While things may be falling into place rapidly now for Sampurn(e)arth, it was an intensely uphill battle to begin with. They share, “One of the biggest challenges is to keep one motivated for the emotional roller coaster that is a part of every day. Keeping the entire team motivated and in sync and also running short of money are a few of the problems which do trouble us; however, each of them comes with huge learning opportunities.” But they managed to retain their optimism through the worst of times. “If each of us is able to play our role right, we am sure some way will emerge. As people who understand and identify with the problem, it is our duty to make sure the word spreads. All we can do is give our best shot and see what happens,” they share.
What has happened for the co-founders is infinitesimally rewarding. “We have an opportunity to dedicate our time to create something that we want to see and can impact the lives of many in a positive way. It is also a huge learning opportunity and completely transformative experience,” they grin.
When asked about what the future of Sampurn(e)arth looks like, Debartha delivers a pragmatic rather than poetic reply, but one that is just as spirited. “This will keep being a confident endeavour to successfully transform our waste management system into an economic, environment-friendly, and efficient system.” The co-founders have strong sentiments on what the legacy of Sampurn(e)arth should be. They say, “We want to be people who have played their roles and also acted as catalysts in tomorrow’s changing waste management systems. We would like to demonstrate more cases, create more examples in a profitable way so that more people join the initiative.”
Before parting, the three share that fear of failure is an insane reason for not going after your dreams. “It is worth taking a shot. Even if you fail you don’t lose much, maybe a couple of years. But you will go back much more enriched and transformed. Bringing that entrepreneurial attitude is going to be the key,” they sign off.