Ankit Agarwal and Karan Rastogi met at a tuition centre in Kanpur. They then went on to tread the usual path of pursuing higher education and jobs. The love of their city and the dream to be change-makers made them quit their jobs and come back to Kanpur.
The duo co-founded ‘Help Us Green’ in 2015, a social enterprise based in Kanpur, with a mission to save the Ganges.
Sparking their interest in environment
Karan, 26, pursued his master’s degree in business analytics and consulting from Warwick Business School. During his masters, he decided to do a thesis on climate change and carbon credits.
Ankit, 26, worked at Symantec Corporation for three years before he came back to Kanpur. He studied engineering followed by a masters in Innovation Management from Symbiosis Institute of Business Management, Pune. His interest in sustainability was sparked when he researched the environmental menace causes by discarded vehicle tires. He has published 13 research papers in various International journals and some of his work is being reviewed at patent offices.
Travelling across different places and being away from home fuelled conversations around how their own city, the problem it was plagued with, and how to bring about a change. During one of these discussions, they voiced their concern about the holy river – Ganges.
Is the Ganges even holy?
Ganges is the second most polluted river in the world and affects 400 million people. Linked to contracting dysentery, cholera, hepatitis, and severe diarrhoea – which continues to be one of the leading causes of child mortality in India.
1.21 billion Indian population offers flowers at temples, mosques, and gurudwaras. These flowers are a symbol of devotion and reverence. It is thus believed that the flowers should be discarded in the rivers to respect their sanctity. But no one thinks of the aftermath. Sadly, these sacred flowers rot – killing fishes and creating havoc in the fragile ecosphere of the water body and cause enormous pollution. The pesticides and chemical fertilisers used to grow flowers mixes with the river water making it highly toxic (pH 4.7). Every year about 800,000 tons of flower waste is dumped in the Indian rivers choking them to death. This is a contributory factor of the pollution menace that Ganges faces.
Ankit and Karan knew that if they tried to change the behaviour of people, they would have little success and be met with resistance.
“Ab yeh naukri chod ke phool batorenge (Now they will leave their jobs and collect flowers),” was Ankit’s mother’s reaction. Karan’s family sat him down and tried to persuade him against the idea, but there was no turning back for the duo.
They started researching on how flowers could be composted. The duo spoke to numerous botany professors, farmers, people interested in composting, temple Samitis (groups), organic fertiliser producers, and flower traders. They tested composting with different types of dung – cow, horse, goat, poultry, sheep – and different combinations to get the best NPK (nitrogen-phosphorus-potassium) value of the vermicompost. Six months later, they hit gold with the perfect ‘17 recipe’ (17 natural ingredients) for composting flowers with the help of earthworms. One of the ingredients in the recipe is coffee residue which they collect from the coffee shops in Kanpur; coffee residues help boost the nitrogen level in the vermicompost. They named this power packed shot of mineral rich nutrients and enzymes as ‘Mitti®’. Mitti is a safer and smarter alternative to chemical fertilisers with zero carbon footprint. Since Mitti is free from all forms of chemicals, the plants and vegetables that grow with the use of Mitti are organic.
After the success of ‘Mitti’, they delved into studying about incense sticks. They developed a method of rolling incense sticks using these flowers as opposed to the traditional method that involves carcinogenic coal. ‘Sticks and Stones’ is their range of hand rolled natural incense sticks and cones.
Every day, they collect flowers from various places of worship. Then they segregate the milk packets, garland threads, paper, silver and plastic bowls (Patar). Finally, they proportion their catch to make ‘Mitti®’ and ‘Sticks & Stones®’
From paper to seed
While researching packaging they came across this interesting fact that the use of photos of God did boost sales, but people refuse to throw the wrapper in the dustbin, owing to religious sentiments. The duo came up with an interesting solution. Some of their packaging material with photos of God is made of seed paper (paper with seeds interspersed in it) – plant the wrapper in a pot just like a seed and within a few days you’ll notice the process of sprouting. A complete win-win!
Help Us Green has accolades coming its way. They won the ISB iDiya Challenge 2015, IIM Indore Kalpavriksha Challenge 2015, and the IIT Kanpur social challenge 2015. They’re finalists at the Tata Social enterprise challenge 2016 (TSEC). All the recognition has brought about a sea change in the opinions of family and friends.
Ankit says that they flowercycled® 500 kilos of waste daily and about 135,000 kilos since they began operations. Currently, they collect flowers from 13 temples and three mosques. Help Us Green has also been able to generate livelihood for underprivileged women from 85 families in Kanpur. Not only are these women trained, their wards are also given vocational training in their area of interest.
Target audience and revenue
Karan says that they are targeting the export segment. Ankit adds that Switzerland and Germany are their picks right now. He explains, “The reason being that our produce quantity is less and the profits in these geographies are high. Contacts from the organisations in the geographies that we have worked for came in handy. We don’t want people to buy our products just because ‘yeh Ganga ke phool se bana hai (this is made out of the flower from the holy river of Ganges)’ but because of its quality.”
But why not India? Karan says, “The total organic market of the world amounted to Rs 48,743 crore. The incense sticks market alone is around 3,000 crore worldwide. The vast opportunity size makes us shift our focus to the export markets. Another reason is that the west is an early adopters of green way of living and are willing to pay a premium for the same. In India, people are running to buy cheap counterparts with the focus on discounts.”
Ankit adds, “People buy sandalwood incense sticks priced at Rs 30 from the market. Sandalwood oil costs more than a lakh for a kilogram. A little math and you’ll know you are just buying chemicals. Our incense sticks are hand rolled and the old school dipping method is followed. Sticks and Stones® are dipped in pure essential oils sourced organically.”
Help Us Green has debuted in the Indian market albeit in a small way. They launched their product ‘Yagya’ on major e-commerce portals like Flipkart, Amazon, Snapdeal, etc. Sales from these portals contributes to about two per cent of the total ales.
Help Us Green is bootstrapped and has broken even already!
Just the beginning
The duo is dreaming big. They want to spread operations across 2,000 km along the banks of Ganges and provide employment to 25,000 women and contribute to educating their children. They also want to replicate the model throughout India and hope that the country supports them. They know that it’s a long road ahead of them but neither of them doubt that they will succeed. We ask them about their inspiration, ‘Ratan Tata’, says Karan and ‘Harry Potter series’, says Ankit. Ankit adds, “Everything is possible if you just take the plunge and arm people with your trust. That is true magic.”