By Madhushree Narayan, Social Alpha
As our waste grows, so must the innovations that aim to tackle it in a planet-friendly way. In India and across the world, individuals and companies have recognised the value of waste and are working to build waste-to-wealth technologies. At Social Alpha and Saamuhika Shakti, we believe this must be done while also integrating the people who uphold the waste value chain – the informal waste picker.
As part of the Collective Impact initiative Saamuhika Shakti, Social Alpha launched Techtonic – Innovations in Waste Management in December 2020, to scout for innovations from the waste-tech sector that are addressing critical gaps in the ecosystem, including the absence of income stability for the informal waste pickers.
Five startups were chosen from across the country and the year-long accelerator was designed to support these enterprises on two fronts – first, creating an avenue to integrate the informal waste pickers into formal operations (especially for those startups which had previously not worked with the informal sector) and, second, to enable venture development through Social Alpha’s incubation support.
Due to the pandemic, two of the five startups were unable to travel to Bengaluru to initiate the pilots, but, with the support of the H&M Foundation, which initiated and funds the Saamuhika Shakti project, the start-ups were able to execute their pilots in their respective cities, while still adhering to the objective of Saamuhika Shakti i.e., support in building greater agency of the informal waste pickers.
This first cohort brought together innovators looking to address different kinds of waste streams through innovations –
Each of these start-ups hired waste pickers 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 resource-constrained operations of early-stage start-ups.
In addition to formal employment contracts and income stability, these mission-driven enterprises have built an ecosystem to enable the formalisation of waste pickers in different ways.
One of the offerings of the accelerator was to enable the startups to focus on marketing or digitization to articulate the impact of their work and build traceability along the waste supply chain, to unlock opportunities through the data collected.
All five startups chose to proceed with marketing activities as most early-stage ventures rarely prioritize marketing due to the prohibitive costs, ultimately losing out on the value of communicating about their work to a wider audience.
The Social Alpha team also facilitated capacity building around gender and diversity, a theme that is central to the mission of Saamuhika Shakti. A sensitisation session with Gender at Work got the ball rolling, and being early-stage start-ups, the founders were keen to learn and adopt gender-friendly policies at the workplace.
A workshop with the founders of Social Alpha portfolio companies –Phool and Hasiru Dala Innovations (HDI) – was organised to share the best practices followed at their companies. Phool spoke about how they built a strong women-led production unit, while HDI showed how they centered social justice for waste pickers in their mission from the start.
Another value addition from the Accelerator has been the market access support for these early-stage enterprises. The H&M Foundation has been instrumental in facilitating conversations between different entities in the H&M group and the start-ups for partnerships. While these partnership conversations are at various stages, they have been significant not just in moving the needle to drive circularity within large companies, but also in validating the product market fit of these innovations.
Social Alpha believes that innovation and entrepreneurship can solve many complex problems in society today, and in the process create a deep, irreversible impact on people and the planet.
The Social Alpha innovation curation and venture development infrastructure is designed to support startups in their lab-to-market journeys and we are beyond thrilled to see that Phool and Loopworm have been successful in garnering the interest of mainstream investors who want to support the growth of these mission-driven enterprises.
Phool, which has been steadfast since its inception in running a women-led production unit, has begun hiring informal waste pickers into their team through the pilot. Loopworm has come to realize that with the right training, waste pickers have become an asset to the company. They are keen to onboard more informal waste pickers once their expansion plan kicks in following the success of the new fundraiser round.
In 2022, Social Alpha launched the second edition of Techtonic to identify five new startups who would join the Saamuhika Shakti initiative. A limitation of the program design from the first year was the challenges that early-stage startups face in establishing a new operating unit in a different city.
While the program supported the start-ups in executing the pilot, establishing backward and forward linkages are critical to sustain the flow of the waste streams and ensure a steady revenue stream – a process that usually takes time.
This time around, with the support of Saamuhika Shakti, the program allowed for a couple of startups to pilot their innovations in their own cities, with the rest in Bengaluru, allowing for best practices observed to be potentially replicated across cities.
Additionally, one of the main criteria for selecting the new cohort was their potential to employ more informal waste pickers in a variety of roles within the start-ups. As a result, most of the start-ups selected in this round have previously worked with the informal sector and are now keen on exploring micro-entrepreneurial models to provide opportunities for the waste pickers to ascend the employment ladder. With the second cohort off to a promising start, the Social Alpha team looks forward to supporting their journey.