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Riches from rags

Hasiru Dala Innovations has committed itself to improving the lives of one of the most marginalised working communities in India

Lotfar began his life as a waste-picker in Delhi. By the time he moved to Bengaluru in 2010, the 40-year-old was struggling to make ends meet. That’s when he heard about Hasiru Dala, a not-for-profit organisation working with waste-pickers.

Things were difficult in the beginning, when Hasiru Dala (coined by the waste-pickers themselves, the name means ‘green force’ in the local Kannada language) was trying to establish processes and relationships with its stakeholders. Lotfar was the first waste-picker entrepreneur that it partnered with, even raising funds so he could buy a truck.

Today, Lotfar owns four trucks and employs about 20 waste-pickers who collect, transport and sort garbage from bulk generators such as housing societies, offices, events and weddings. His earnings — between 20,000 and 25,000 a month — have enabled Lotfar to move into a rented house, access bank loans for a two-wheeler, and also look for land to build a home.

“Hasiru Dala is the reason I am what I am today,” says Lotfar. “Where else would I get such respect and dignity as a waste entrepreneur?”

He is actually referring to Hasiru Dala Innovations, a for-purpose company that was formed, in November 2015, as an offshoot of the parent nonprofit, Hasiru Dala. The latter started out as an organisation focussed on social justice for waste-pickers, including education for their children, healthcare and housing for their families, advocacy, financial inclusion and programmes for community libraries and the like.

Since this seemed to be a scalable model for providing entrepreneurship opportunities to waste-pickers, Nalini Shekar, Shekar Prabhakar and Marwan Abubaker decided to found Hasiru Dala Innovations (HDI). They realised that their operations required a certain business rigour to be truly beneficial for waste-pickers. While they first considered turning it into a cooperative, they later decided on making it a for-profit company.

A jobs cascade

The quantum change in the quality of life for Lotfar and other waste-pickers has been possible thanks to HDI’s business model. A partner of Social Alpha, which invested a seed fund of 5 million in 2016 in the Bengaluru-based startup, it now has 24 waste-picker entrepreneurs who, in turn, have given jobs to some 300 other waste-pickers. They not only get paid for collecting garbage from, say, housing societies, but also make money from sorting and selling recyclable waste.

“We started working in waste management in a bid to find a different sort of employment and livelihood opportunity for waste-pickers,” says Ms Shekar. “We started by looking at two different kinds of services: collecting from housing societies and then managing the waste. In some places we even did in-situ composting.”

The idea for the enterprise, says Mr Prabhakar, emerged from a conversation he had with Social Alpha’s chief executive, Manoj Kumar. “Nalini was already running the nonprofit, so when I mentioned that this could be extended as an employment opportunity for waste-pickers, Manoj suggested we form a separate company.

“There was no ecosystem to support something like this when we first started. But Social Alpha agreed immediately to invest in us, which was heartening. It showed us that we were on the right path.”

The garbage collected through the venture is responsibly disposed, and very little of it makes it to landfills, which in itself is an eco-friendly step. “For us Social Alpha is a support system that we can always rely on,” adds Mr Prabhakar. “If there is anything we need to discuss, we can just pick up the phone and call them.”

Mr Kumar, who has been an advisor to the Hasiru Dala management team is “our go-to person and sounding board for new business initiatives, or when we’re stuck with something,” says Mr Prabhakar. The Social Alpha team also helped the startup create business plans and pitch for their most recent round of financing.

Furthermore, Social Alpha has enabled HDI to connect with other startups operating in the same sector. “We did not leverage the usual incubation services that Social Alpha offers to all its seed investments,” adds Mr Prabhakar, “but since Social Alpha is deeply engaged in impact investing, it saw merit in Hasiru Dala Innovations’ ability to fulfil its social and environmental commitment.”

Waste workers from Hasiru Dala at a garbage collection centre in Bengaluru

What got Social Alpha really interested in HDI was their mutual allegiance to social betterment and the latter’s dedication to the cause of waster-pickers, one of the most marginalised working communities in India.

HDI is now replicating its services in Aurangabad and considering a debut in other cities. “Our entrepreneurship model has shown that it’s possible to vastly improve the lives of waste-pickers,” says Mr Prabhakar. “We are clear about our objective: whatever we do has to be good for the waste-picker.”

Images courtesy: Hasiru Dala Innovations