September 2022

What happens when design, communication and collective impact converge

The/Nudge Institute Team

Picture this. Used cement sacks stitched together to form a hopscotch mat, with accompanying questions on each tile about setting up a business. Answer correctly, and you land easy with both legs on two tiles; the wrong answer leaves you standing on one leg and a fun “penalty” follows. Along the way, you learn about building a business, questioning your decisions, and reaching your goal. 

Sounds like an activity one might do at business school? This game was, in fact, one of many innovative training solutions for waste pickers looking to begin small businesses, suggested by a final-year design and communication student from Bengaluru’s Srishti Manipal Institute of Art, Design and Technology. 

For their graduating project, 14 students from the institute chose to work with the waste picker community on creating design and communications-led solutions women from the community could pursue for economic gain. The students worked with Saamuhika Shakti partner CARE India’s entrepreneur development program that looks at livelihood enhancement initiatives for the waste picker community.

Srishti students and faculty at their first interaction with CARE India in Feb 2022. | Photo: CARE India

For four months, the students immersed themselves in three waste picker communities in Bengaluru, and came up with a range of practical, scalable solutions - from tools to teach bookkeeping and basic math, to offering solutions to enhance existing livelihood avenues such as pig-rearing and reconnecting waste pickers and their children to their ancestral musician profession by making instruments from waste, which in current circumstances are an expense they are unable to bear. 

The students’ projects gave a fresh perspective to the work we do at Saamuhika Shakti, and also added a rich body of knowledge and research from the field about waste pickers, their lives and lived experiences. 

One of our guiding principles at The/Nudge Institute is “better together”. We believe collaboration creates fresh perspectives, new ideas and ways of looking at a problem. With Saamuhika Shakti already working as a Collective Impact project, collaboration is simply written into how we work. 

How it started: The WastEd Project

In early December 2021, The/Nudge Institute facilitated connections between Srishti faculty and CARE India’s team. In January and February of 2022, Srishti rolled out the WastEd Project as an option the fourth-year students could choose for their final projects and thesis.

While seated within the academic context of design education at the Srishti Institute, the WastEd Project also aimed to be an avenue for students to engage with a real-life problem, employ their learnings to respond to real-life challenges, and learn to collaborate with a consortium of change-makers.

Srishti and CARE India then developed a scope of work that met the needs of both the CARE Entrepreneurship Development Program initiative as well as those of the students.

As students visited project locations and interacted with waste pickers, care was taken to ensure the waste-picking community was not overwhelmed or overburdened. 

The students also worked closely with CARE India’s ground staff to establish trust with the community.

The students’ work

For CARE India, the collaboration was an opportunity to expose the waste pickers they work with to new product and business ideas, and also assess if training sessions could be conducted in more creative and out-of-the-box ways. 

As part of the Saamuhika Shakti collective, CARE India’s team has worked with hundreds of women waste pickers across Bengaluru - first, introducing them to the idea of pursuing alternative income streams in addition to waste-picking to boost their earnings,  helping them understand the art of saving and investing, working with them to form self-help groups and collectives, getting these collectives registered with banks to avail government benefits and hand holding the small businesses they begin.

This was no small venture and the students of Srishti needed weeks-long immersion in the field to understand not only the nuances of CARE India’s work but also what waste pickers wanted to do with their time and talents. 

The students were divided into groups and assigned one of three localities in which CARE India works: 

  • Rajeshwari slum in Banashankari
  • Devraj Urs slum in Sumanahalli
  • Kondappa Layout

The students attended workshops held for waste pickers, took part in collective meetings, followed individual waste pickers around to understand their work and challenges. They spent hours speaking to the community to understand the Saamuhika Shakti collective impact project and the lives of waste pickers. 

Fresh perspectives

One student was able to build a deep relationship with the community to the extent that he uncovered an ancestral musical profession that the community had to give up, as they moved away from their villages. 

The community calls themselves Chennadasuru, and were historically door-to-door performers of devotional folk songs called bhaktigeetes. Music was their primary source of income. But the move to the city in search of greener pastures hampered the transfer of musical knowledge, further exacerbated by the prohibitive cost of instrument prices. The student designed drum circles and workshops, “jammed” with members who still retained their musical skills. The student also crafted ways to create musical instruments from waste. 

Instruments made from waste. | Photo: Vedant Manwadkar/Srishti Manipal Institute of Art and Design

In one such jamming session, the student played a tamburi created from discarded paint cans and collaborated with Devanna who sang and played the harmonium. Devanna, a waste picker now but who was formally educated in singing, broke down during the session as he was reminded of his past life in the village. 

The student went on to create a livelihood initiative called ‘Laya’, which will enable the community to earn an alternate income through the making and selling of musical instruments such as tamburis, kanjiras and shakers from waste, while also helping them reconnect with their traditional profession and developing a sense of pride towards where they came from. Do check out the project here

Another student focused on Kondappa Layout’s hair-picking community. Hairpickers, mainly women, walk street to street, visit homes and buy hair in exchange for utensils. The hair is upcycled into wigs. It’s a much lesser-known aspect of waste-picking and recycling and is a labor-intensive job involving long days and many kilometers of walking. The women’s most important marketing tool is their voice and the words they use to garner attention to what they do. The student who focused on the hairpickers looked at creating a narrative that brings their lives to the foreground by humanising data, including how much they walk, homes they visit, number of successful deals and failures, how many times they do their work call and so on. The student also proposed a range of tools hairpickers could use to aid their marketing and negotiating skills, including an idea to hand over a business card to customers. 

Nidhi Muktikar, the student who worked with the hairpickers, deeply researched their jobs to map how the current value chain looks.

Other projects included using locally found beads or seeds in visual tools for financial training, making an existing income stream of pig-rearing more systematic and sustainable through better-designed pig stables and training tie-ups with government veterinary institutes and converting temple waste into agarbattis and other upcycled products.

The students lent a fresh perspective to problems CARE India and other partners have been dealing with on the ground and helped open up the minds of the waste pickers to many more ways of supplementing their incomes. 

Learnings and the spirit of collaboration

This collaboration is an example of the power of Collective Impact and brought with it immense learnings and takeaways for everyone involved. 

For the students of Srishti, there were three main takeaways, including understanding the context of the project, shifting focus from the product to the community and incorporating feedback from multiple stakeholders. 

Srishti faculty members said they provided the students with background information before sending them to the field. “We facilitated this through dialogue and critical reading material such as writings by Dr. Kancha Ilaiah and Dr. Ambedkar. We exposed them to interactions with activists who work with marginalized Dalit communities and case studies of other similar initiatives. The field reality was dire and for the students, it was challenging to cross socio-cultural boundaries in a short time. But they faced it with commitment and perseverance,” said Junuka Deshpande and Swati Maskeri, faculty in charge of the project. 

A major milestone in the students’ learning process was understanding that this project required the focus to be the community members themselves, and not the end product. “We kept reiterating that the focus is the people, their well-being and livelihood and that the community had to see the relevance of the creative concepts,” the faculty members noted. 

In sharing their work and progress with, and receiving feedback from, multiple stakeholders, including the CARE India team, The/Nudge Institute, and design consultant Devika Krishnan, the students learned to assimilate a variety of feedback and incorporate it into their process, no matter how challenging. 

As an implementing partner, CARE India’s main takeaway was how a tie-up with a design and communications school could be harnessed to improve outcomes for informal waste pickers. 

As the backbone, The/Nudge Institute ensured connections were made and the essence of Saamuhika Shakti was in focus throughout. We also learned important lessons about bringing new collaborators into the fold, and the freshness it can bring to a project. 

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