The Ajala Project presents Siddharth Hande, founder of Kabadiwalla Connect.
This Chennai-based social enterprise uses technology to reduce and recycle the waste that ends up in landfills across India. In doing so, they are also helping formalize the informal economy of wastepicking and junk dealing.
The kabaddiwalla in India is a standard neighborhood feature. Armed with a weighing scale and packaging gear, the kabadiwalla stops by homes or businesses to purchase recyclable waste made of plastic, glass, metal, or paper scraps. A member of the country’s informal waste management ecosystem, the kabadiwalla then sorts and sells the material to recycling plants. In a case of perfect rendering, kabadiwalla translates to “junk dealer” in English.
India generates a staggering 62 million tonnes of waste per year. 43 million tonnes of waste are collected annually with 31 percent of the waste being dumped in landfills and 11.9 being treated. By 2030, the country’s annual waste generation is estimated to rise to 165 million tonnes, requiring 66,000 acres of land with 10 meters in height. India is in desperate need of alternative ways to deal with waste and reduce the landfill.
Kabadiwalla Connect, a start up in Chennai, is working to solve this problem. Starting off as a research initiative, KC officially launched as a business in 2016.
Siddharth Hande, founder and CEO of Kabadiwalla Connect, first started paying attention to the informal waste ecosystem in 2010. While leading a beach clean-up initiative called Reclaim Our Beaches in his home state, Hande noticed waste pickers rummaging through landfills and waste dumps to source useful material. He understood the enormity of the network only in 2014 after winning a grant from the World Economic Forum to research India’s informal waste ecosystem. Tapping into his background in spatial data analysis and urban research, Hande approached the project with a method that was the easiest match for him – mapping.
To begin, Hande interviewed the waste pickers who led him to the kabadiwallas. While mapping their shops, he also recorded data on how kabadiwallas collect and purchase their material in what he calls the robust waste ecosystem. The team soon discovered Chennai’s kabadiwallas managed 33 percent of the month’s post consumer recycle waste and that 90 percent of them had a smart phone.
“We realized there’s a strong business case to actually work with the kabbadiwalas, to help them source more material, connect to new clients and get better prices for the material they recover,” Hande explained. Once they gathered the data, they spoke to residents and built a map based app to ease waste collection in a handful of neighborhoods. The app connects residents with their nearest kabadiwalla at no cost. In parallel, the startup runs a materials recovery facility where waste is segregated and prepared for use by recycling plants. The facility currently processes PET plastic and has prevented 80,000 PET bottles from reaching Chennai’s two landfills.
Kabadiwalla’s cause is to “understand the informal waste ecosystem [and] work within the sector to make it more efficient while reducing what goes into the landfill.” To achieve that, Kabadiwalla is also producing their own line of upcycled products and building a SaaS platform for companies and municipalities to better manage their waste while processing waste in their facility.
With no experience in launching a business, Handed ended up “Forest Gump[ing] his way through it”. The first choice his team made was to build a B2B business model in order to leverage the already existing supply chain of kabadiwallas and residents. But, entering the informal supply chain of the kabadiwalla demanded cautious strategy.
“This has to do with the nature of the informal ecosystem,” Hande said., “It is so guarded and closed that even figuring out price points and what our margins were initially, [felt] like we were operating in the dark. We really took a gamble.” In 2016, more than 90 percent of India’s 470 million workforce belonged to the informal sector. The sector also accounts for nearly 50 percent of the country’s economy.
“One thing we are doing which is also a value add is we consider ourselves the formalizing bit of the chain. We don’t push our kabadiwallas to formalize, but we focus on being the formal link in the supply-chain,” Hande said.
Kabadiwalla started generating revenue in April 2016. By April 2017, the team had won $200,000 from the Global Partnership for Sustainable Development Data. The award adds to an exemplary list of recognitions, which includes the Launch Nordic Accelerator and the MIT Climate CoLab. Hande said applying for grants and awards early on was also business move; Raising money for a company dealing with the informal waste is not the easiest pitch to a potential investor.
Today, Hande leads a team of 16 with his co founder and UI/UX expert, Sonaal Bangera. They are looking to raise USD 350K while planning to expand to cities in India and eventually to Europe and Latin America. On the social impact front, Kabadiwalla Connect wants to send 70 percent less waste to the land fill, avoid 30M tons of carbon emissions per annum and save local municipalities USD 3.5B in expenditures.
The natural interlink between Kabadiwalla’s business and social impact growth is a thorough extension of what Hande believes is the purpose of business. For him, businesses are meant to solve social challenges. “Our fundamental alignment [in business] is around pure profit for profit’s sake and money to create money for money’s sake,” Hande said while talking about the general discomfort of walking into a room full of suited professionals. “One really powerful thing of business is the ability to solve the issue of scale and production…we’ve forgotten that [and] built all of these mechanisms and structures in business that put profit first.
“The idea of business and generating capital can actually be used for immense social good. Money is for you to be able to attack the issue you are solving in a really interesting way.” he rounded off.
About the author: Archana is an independent journalist, creative writing trainer and a forever wanderer. She is the creator of the Wandering Local, a project exploring the impact of home on individual identity. You can read her work at wanderinglocal.com and follow her on Instagram @thewanderinglocal.