Trashing the stereotypes: Hasiru Dala is empowering waste pickers to become entrepreneurs

Our portfolio company Hasiru Dala Innovations Private Limited is a Waste Management enterprise that focuses on economic justice to create access to markets and predictable livelihoods for waste pickers while delivering environmental impact. Its not-for-profit arm also works on social justice, including identity rights of waste pickers, education for their children, healthcare and housing for the families, financial inclusion and policy advocacy with the government.

This International Day for the Eradication of Poverty, we had a heart-to-heart with Shekar Prabhakar, Co-Founder & CEO of Hasiru Dala Innovations.

What was the need for founding Hasiru Dala Innovations?

Hasiru Dala Innovations (HDI) Private Limited was started in November 2015 to work towards social justice for waste pickers. The not-for-profit Hasiru Dala (Green Force in Kannada) was set up in November 2013 to work towards social justice for waste pickers.  The Total Waste Management business model, i.e, the collection of waste from bulk generators, was conceptualised and executed in the not-for-profit. Within a year, we had over 40 bulk generator clients and felt that this was a scalable model. However, we realised that the not-for-profit structure was not ideal for scale and ensuring long-term financial viability.  We needed to bring in operational and business rigour. We felt that a private limited company would better serve our purpose in terms of being able to attract equity investment as well as human capital to enable us to scale the model. That is how HDI was born.

The mission of HDI is to create better livelihoods for waste pickers through inclusive business models that has an environmental impact. It began full-fledged operations in February 2016 after receiving the required empanelment from the Bruhat Bengaluru Mahanagara Palike (BBMP), Bangalore’s municipal corporation.

How did Hasiru Dala’s involvement with waste pickers evolve over the years?

Nalini Shekar, the co-founder, has been working with waste pickers since 1991-92. Back then, she had co-founded Kagad Kach Patra Kashtakari Panchayat in Pune, which was the first trade union of waste pickers. They later formed a cooperative of waste pickers called SWaCH. This cooperative runs the waste-management system in the city of Pune. When Nalini came to Bengaluru in 2010, she found that waste pickers were not part of the mainstream discussion on waste management. So, she took it upon herself to organise waste pickers. In 2011, she created an umbrella brand called Hasiru Dala and engaged with different NGOs who were working with the waste pickers. However, she didn’t get the momentum she was hoping for and that’s why she set up the not-for-profit in 2013 along with Anslem Rosario who is considered a pioneer in working with waste pickers in India.  While the not-for-profit works on social justice including identity rights, education for their children, healthcare and housing for the families, financial inclusion and policy advocacy with the government; the company focuses on economic justice to create access to markets and predictable livelihoods for waste pickers.

Tell us the story of waste pickers journey into becoming entrepreneurs..what is this model around creating micro-entrepreneurs?

Impacting the waste pickers with predictable livelihoods is part of our core mission statement at Hasiru Dala and hence generating impact while ensuring we are profitable is business-as-usual for us.

In the Total Waste Management business alone, as of today, HDI has created more than 270 predictable livelihoods. We have also created 25 waste picker micro-entrepreneurs who run the primary collection of the business. They have in-turn created a lot of socio-economic and environmental impact. One such entrepreneur is Lotfar Ali who was the first waste picker entrepreneur who started working on this business model. Today he owns three trucks and has generated more than 25 jobs. He is now able to get credit lines and loans from the banks (he bought a scooter last year on loan). He has filed IT returns over the last four years. There has been a quantum jump in the quality of Lotfar’s life. He has not only created wealth for himself but also created employment opportunities for fellow waste pickers. There are many such stories of economic and social empowerment. Apart from total waste management, verticals like event waste management and recently launched sanitation services business line provides several person-hours of ad-hoc employment for the waste pickers supplementing their income. About, 23,000 hours of work was generated for waste pickers in FY 19-20 alone.

Why do you think waste management has taken such a long time to assume centre stage in public discourse?

The greatest challenge in this sector has been to get clients pay for responsible waste management; to make them realise that waste that is not responsibly managed will have an effect on the environment and, therefore, as a polluter, as a waste generator, one needs to pay for its management. This is an uphill task because over the years, people have become conditioned to think that ‘it’s not my problem’ and that ‘someone else will take care of it’. So, taking accountability and responsibility for the waste one generates is a concept that one takes time getting used to. The company’s growth rates are dependent on how fast the market accept this reality.

The second challenge is to get people to understand and appreciate the requirement of segregating at source into different streams of waste. In Bengaluru, for example, the law states that waste must be segregated into organic wet, non-biodegradable dry, and rejects, which include domestic hazardous waste such as sanitary waste or diaper waste, broken ceramic and broken glass. Bringing about a behavioural change is also a very big challenge.

But things are improving on the ground. Today, we have 450 bulk generator clients who segregate at the source, up to nearly 95% of the quality level. To earn their confidence that we, as collectors, are not mixing it up, one trip is undertaken everyday only to collect wet and rejects. The rejects are usually covered and the wet organic waste is directly put on the trucks. We collect dry waste once or twice a week separately. The clients therefore see that waste is not getting mixed at the time of collection and are encouraged to continue segregating.

How do you propose to expand HDI’s geographical footprint?

HDI’s second business, Event Waste Management, has already taken us to Mumbai, Delhi and Kolkata. In this business, we cater to weddings, cultural and corporate events, and marathons among other things. This year, we had planned for geographical expansion for our other services but the pandemic has delayed the move by a year. But we hope to take our Total Waste Management business to at least one Tier 1 city and one Tier 2 town/city.

Why are investments in waste management not considered lucrative despite the size of the market and the business potential? By 2025, India’s garbage industry will be worth USD 14 billion.

Investors have been reluctant to enter the waste management space, especially in terms of services, because of the interaction required with urban local bodies and their elected leadership. There is a lot of vested interests at play and, therefore, any model you come up with is not easily replicable till you are able to get to the civic bodies on an individual basis and forge relationships. So, investors see a high-risk element in the sector. Predictability of pace of scale because government processes are involved is also another factor. Any change to status quo takes time and this sector is not conducive to anything majorly disruptive because of deeply entrenched interests. However, that outlook has started changing. There are several entrepreneurs bringing in solutions and I feel the sector is going to change in the next couple of years as waste management becomes one of the key wicked issues of any city. And urbanisation being what it is today, this issue needs to be addressed professionally.

What are the potential areas in waste management where start-ups can make a significant difference?

Innovation is required in the hard-to-recover resources from waste. These would be domestic hazardous waste, which includes used sanitary pads and soiled diapers, multi-layered plastic packaging, construction and demolition waste to name a few. These end up at the landfills because of irresponsible dumping practices. The sector also needs technology enablement at the sorting and segregation level and to improve the effectiveness of collection among other things.

What is your advice to entrepreneurs who will have to work closely with civic bodies for waste management?

If you are going to work in waste, it is important that you have the ability and the openness to deal with the government (the bureaucracy and the elected representatives). One way of acquiring this skill is to get community engagement at the citizen level so that you are seen as an organisation, which is trying to be responsible about how waste is managed.

One should also be open to experimenting with pilots with own money rather than trying to get the government to fund it. So, it is demonstration that will help in creating those opportunities for engagement with the urban local authorities.

What has been Hasiru Dala’s impact on climate change?

HDI has diverted more than 40,000 tonnes of waste since inception away from landfills and ensured that it is responsibly processed. That ‘diversion’ alone is a major contribution to climate change. We also worked with organisations such as Plastics for Change and the joint collaboration with the cosmetic giant The Body Shop has ensured that plastic waste goes back into their product packaging, thus creating a circular economy.  That also impacts climate change because less virgin plastic is used in packaging.