June 2023

Gender inclusive circularity: Unpacking gender within Social Alpha’s architecture

By Rushali Shivprasad, Social Alpha

Founded in 2016, Social Alpha has been on a journey to support innovators and entrepreneurs who are creating compelling solutions to fight poverty and address India’s intractable developmental challenges. As we continue on this path, we recognise that advancing towards the goals of inclusive, sustainable growth cannot take place without building a foundation for gender equity principles into the programs supported by Social Alpha. 

Social Alpha operates through three Strategic Impact Units, each focusing on a specific area of societal concern. These units are 'Climate & Sustainability', 'Health & Wellness', and 'Livelihood & Prosperity'. Each unit has unpacked gender and inclusion to incorporate: 

(1) prioritising problem statements to address gender disparities and women-centric issues (such as clean cooking, menstrual hygiene, cervical cancer, to name a few); 

(2) supporting enterprises which are owned or run by women, as well as integrate women in their entire value chain – as employees, artisans, contractually engaged workforces, and consumers.

Being a strong culture driven organisation, Social Alpha has been steadfast in building dialogues on inclusion and gender diversity. With a learning bent of mind, the internal engine at Social Alpha has been geared to adopt principles of inclusivity and equal access to opportunities not only within the organisation but also for the startups being supported and the end users that the startups cater to. Problem statements focusing on issues that perpetuate inequalities of women, people with disabilities, marginalized and vulnerable communities are at the core of Social Alpha’s focus under thematic areas and, as a result, startups with solutions addressing these gaps find prominence in our portfolio.

Investing in Gender Equity

While there is a rise in investments in women-led startups in India and across the world, the funding ecosystem continues to be riddled with stumbling blocks. As part of Social Alpha’s commitment to fostering gender equity through venture development, engagement with women-owned businesses and enterprises that integrate women stakeholders comes at the forefront. This is evidenced through innovations such as indigenous solutions for battery storage, comprehensive air quality monitoring solutions, sustainable building materials from crop waste, premium footwear from upcycled leather, infant feeders for babies with a cleft lip or palate, all spearheaded by women entrepreneurs supported by Social Alpha.

A circular transition

The climate crisis continues to get exacerbated by the prevailing linear ‘take-make-dispose’ economy. This model intensifies ecosystem degradation, wealth concentrations and social inequities. To overcome the negative effects of unsustainable practices that have prevailed for centuries, there is an urgent need to adopt a circular economic model that can alter current production and consumption patterns and serve as an instrument towards achieving just and inclusive economic development. 

A smooth circular economy transition necessitates a stronger participation of women across the entire circular economy spectrum. As part of Saamuhika Shakti, and with support from the H&M Foundation, Social Alpha has been advancing towards this goal by supporting circular economy startups, with women holding the reins of these innovations as founders and key employees. 

The second edition of Techtonic Innovations in Circular Economy identified five startups that joined the Saamuhika Shakti initiative in 2022. Three of the five startups are led by women founders and all five startups have integrated strong gender diversity and impact focussed practices at the core of their mission. Each of these startups recognised the expertise of waste pickers in working with multiple waste categories and provided them with a range of upskilling and training courses on the job to build the skill sets they need to contribute to the operations of their respective startups.  

Ashaya has employed five women waste pickers and has trained and integrated them into 50-75% of all processes. These women lead all the initial steps in the overall pre-processing activities including washing and shredding the multi-layered plastic (MLP). They also occasionally assist in more complex steps such as extrusion and filtration of polymers. Ashaya has also enabled the flexibility of part-time work in order to enable the women waste pickers to manage their responsibilities at work without disrupting their responsibilities at home.

Jayashri, one of the waste pickers employed by Ashaya initially faced challenges conducting bank transactions and had requested Ashaya to pay her in cash. The team intervened and found that her bank had deducted a hefty fee since Jayashri held a "minimum balance" account and had been unable to maintain the minimum amount. Ashaya assisted her in converting her account into a "salary" account where there is no need to maintain a minimum balance and also provided the bank with an official employment letter stating that Jayashri works for them.

Ecosattva onboarded two women waste pickers trained to conduct solid waste management operations. The startup’s model focuses on providing formal employment opportunities and dignified working conditions to waste pickers at dry waste recovery centers. Ecosattva also provides them with health insurance, support for children's education, and regular health check-ups. 

Gender-based discrimination in towns and villages in India has made it rare for women to obtain driving licenses, especially for commercial vehicles.

Renuka and Soni, two of the early waste picker hires at Ecosattva, received the startup’s support in enrolling in a driving school, with the aim of operating their own waste collection vehicles on routes between Bulk Waste Generators and Material Recovery Facilities. They were among the first two women waste pickers in their community to do so. Since coming on board, they have inspired other women in their community to assume new roles and challenge existing stereotypes.

Bare Necessities employed one woman waste picker, Chithra, to join their all-women manufacturing workforce at the startup. She supports production, packaging, and labeling operations and intends to expand her manufacturing skills. Bare Necessities provides a conducive environment of emotional and mental support for all employees at the workplace and has built a spirit of healthy interaction to enable women to uplift each other.

Reti Ecotech employed two women waste pickers, Lavanya and Shashikala, to support pilot operations. They assist the startup with the segregation of textile waste and manufacturing textile panels at their pilot unit. The startup has enabled flexible work timings for the waste pickers, which allows them to take up more than one part-time employment, thus improving their financial earnings.

PadCare Labs provides an unprecedented menstrual hygiene management solution that completes the loop of the menstrual hygiene economy and makes modern sanitation choices safer and recyclable for women. The startup’s official mascot, Ekta Didi is also the first woman waste picker hired by them to support sanitary pad collection and recycling operations.

As the startups from cohort two make strides in their pilot operations, the Social Alpha team continues encouraging them to ensure that gender mainstreaming and inclusion are actively practised. 

While there have been stories of success, transformation, and moments of pride, challenging current gender inequalities, deeply held stereotypes and unconscious gender biases is an arduous process. At Social Alpha, we are on this journey for the long run, with patient capital and support.

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