‘Blue Planet is very ambitious’

Headquartered in Singapore, Blue Planet Environmental Solutions is one of India’s fastest-growing waste management companies. Founded in 2017 by Madhujeet Chimni, Bharadwaj Chivukula and Prashant Singh, Blue Planet’s portfolio includes four Indian waste management companies: Rudra Environmental Solutions, Yasasu Green, Zigma, and Xeon Waste Managers. Among the international companies under its portfolio are Big Red, DRS, Wah & Hua, GlobeCycle, Blockwalls, Qube Renewables and Smart Creative Technologies.

SWI’s Editor-in-Chief Ms Aafrin Kidwai spoke with Delhi-based Global CEO and Co-Founder of Blue Planet Environmental Solutions, Mr Prashant Singh about the company’s mission to achieve zero waste to landfill and through its integrated waste management approach.

Q1. You were based in California for over two decades. What prompted your decision to return to India and join the waste business?

Blue Planet is our first venture together in India after two successful businesses abroad. We entered the Indian waste market after seeing a huge opportunity for growth. Earlier, this was a highly under-served sector but following the SWM Rules 2016, we are very positive and bullish.

There is a big opportunity for bringing efficiency and shattering the silo-based approach that was followed earlier. We’re taking this as a challenge and have been fairly successful in the last four years. People appreciate the efficiencies and right mechanisms of delivering service that we bring to this sector.

With the focus of this government and policymakers on waste, I believe the next decade will belong to India and the waste business. While our company is based in Singapore, my presence here showcases our company and board’s commitment to the Indian business.

Q2. How do you select companies to partner with?

There is a lot of science and art in deal-making before we select a company to partner with. We are extremely careful and selective and have screened over 45-50 companies before making four selections in India. A lot has to do with where these technologies or offerings fit in the jigsaw that we are building in terms of our integrated waste management platform.

We assess whether their technologies are scalable? Can they go up to a commercial scale? How well do these teams work together in a synergistic way in terms of consolidation when we bring our integrated offerings together? Also, how well does the management team work together?

It is very important for us to ensure that these companies are able to align with the dream and vision that we have for the Blue Planet platform. This alignment is very crucial for their success and ourselves. So far, we have made 10 acquisitions: four of them in India, three in UK, two in Singapore, and one in Malaysia.

Q3. What kind of support do you provide the companies that you align with?

Over the last 2½ – 3 years, we have been able to make huge progress in terms of building an integrated waste management service platform for India. After we align with these companies, we provide them with backend support in terms of HR, finance, accounting, and compliances. We help give them a broader picture of the market. For instance, book orders by bringing all the portfolio companies together, additional sales, etc. Another important aspect is operations. We bring efficiencies by having common project management, execution, and procurement teams that can negotiate better, predict the availability of raw materials, and source materials efficiently, etc, which is a struggle if they are doing it on their own, especially in challenging times like these. We are in a much better position to ride the wave because of these synergies that we bring to the table for our portfolio companies.

Ajithsingh Nagar Dumpyard Reclamation Project, post-completion image provided by Zigma which is one of Blue Planet’s portfolio companies

Q4. In terms of technology, what kind of support does Blue Planet provide?

We look at ourselves as a global waste technology player. Our main forte is technology-driven execution in waste management. There are two aspects to this: One, enhance existing technologies in order to make them more efficient and improve service delivery. Second, customize international technologies to make sure they work in India.

One of the biggest challenges in India is people get technologies from abroad and assume they will work here but that fails. Fortunately, a lot of promising new companies have come up, new technologies are being adopted and people are getting more receptive and embracing those partnerships better than before.

Also, earlier, one of the risks was related to low-adoption rates in municipalities but that is changing too. I think people’s mindsets are changing and there is a lot of support for innovative technologies. Start-ups are being formed and incubated in our sector.

Q5. You are also working with the Niti Aayog and CII for policy-level interventions. Could you tell us more about that?

To give this sector the thrust it deserves, the role of policymakers and policy-level interventions is important, along with the stick of compliance.

Earlier, people looked for band-aid solutions in our sector, which failed. For example, in MSW, from the point of generation, till it reaches the landfill or processing site, there are 5 – 6 players involved. Nobody wants to own the waste management process. We must ensure that the value chain is minimized as much as possible so that ownership, control, and monitoring become part of the service delivery model. This is happening in a few cases already.

We have worked with Niti Aayog to bring one of India’s first integrated waste management model concession agreements (MCA). We are also working with industry bodies like CII and the Principles and Scientific Adviser in the Prime Minister’s Office to ensure that the right kind of frameworks are in place.

Q6. Tell us about the MCA.

The MCA is a good starting point in terms of building a new ethos around waste projects. Earlier, civic bodies used to put the entire risk on them. A lot of agreements were signed but those projects never saw the light of the day because they weren’t financially sustainable.

The MCA helps empower and equip the right party to manage risk better in terms of timely execution, technology selection, fundraising, etc. They can be made accountable for those things but cannot be held responsible if the waste is not coming to them for processing.

Q7. What, according to you, are some of your biggest achievements in the last 5 years?

Picture credit: by 4028mdk09. https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=29608477

We love flying below the radar and very few people really know exactly what we do. Having said that, we’ve made a dent in the domestic and international market in several ways:

  • In a short span of three years, we have processed more than 50,00,000 tons of waste in India and six other countries. This constitutes more than 3.7 million tons of CO2 being avoided, which is something we are really proud of.
  • We have successfully built a truly integrated waste management platform that provides an end-to-end waste management solution. Mostly, companies either acquire licenses or get into joint ventures but we deploy our own technologies in solving the waste management problem because we can customize those solutions better and build better business models out of them.
  • Our vision is Zero to Landfill and we are able to upcycle or process almost 100% of the waste. We have already achieved around 85 to 90% of our target but there are still a few pieces of the puzzle that we are trying to solve.
  • We are making a net positive impact on our society as we work on the principles of the triple bottom line. We are not only a profit-making entity but also contribute to our planet, social ecosystems, and everyone associated with us. For example, we don’t treat ragpickers as our competition. Instead, we work with them and train them so they become a part of our structured society in terms of social and financial upliftment and inclusion.
  • We are one of the top five players in India in terms of revenue, In Singapore, we are number two and process more than one-third of Singapore’s waste. In industrial waste, we are number two in Malaysia in terms of the second-largest facility in Penang. In decentralized waste to energy, which is the smaller units of between one to 10 tons, we are one of the largest players we have more than 85 installations across 15 different states in India. We have closed two of the truly integrated projects in the southern part of India with the order book of more than Rs 2000 CR that we are we have started to execute as we speak today.

These are some of our achievements so far. However, I want to add that the future looks even more promising. There is enough in the pipeline, plenty of backlogs, and promising opportunities in biomining. We have been a pioneer in legacy waste management, we are a dominant player in fresh waste and we are trying to solve future waste problems by creating more awareness, science, and behavioral change through our Blue Nudge project. This is a truly integrated platform that we provide.

Q8. What are your future plans for India?

There are a few opportunities that we are exploring – a couple of which are in India and some abroad. It will help us achieve the scale we want in terms of consolidation of our existing presence and expanding our presence in more geographies.

Our philosophy has been to build and buy together. Our growth happens organically when these companies come together and we are able to close bigger deals together. As we build our platform, we identify a few gaps which further help us strengthen our offering through additional acquisitions.

Representational Image. Credit: https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=168816

Q9. What are some of the challenges you have faced in the Indian waste sector?

I like to see challenges as opportunities that need to be harnessed in the right manner. In the last 5-7 years, a lot of progress has been made, particularly in technology-driven execution. The older methods of making quick money from waste are gone. Today, there are serious players with serious commitments and longevity in their offerings.

The second aspect is support from the government, which is critical for success in this sector. There are a lot of discussions on this subject, for example, in terms of central financial assistance (CFA), GST, or innovative tax breaks for start-ups. It’s gratifying that despite being such a young company, we are being given a voice and asked for our opinions in the right forums. There are a handful of people who are positioned as well as we are, in terms of addressing future needs of the waste management sector. That is the second challenge which, I would say, is an opportunity.

Another important aspect is awareness and engagement with consumers like you and me. One of the biggest drivers is awareness in terms of behavioral change. Another factor is owning the waste disposal, that is, the polluter pays principle. I believe most people will be willing to pay to receive the right kind of service. It is an important change in mindset which we need to evolve towards.

Another challenge is the type of workforce in this sector. Fortunately, we have been able to hire, train and grow our employees in a very consistent manner over the last 3-4 years.

Overall, it’s been a learning experience since we didn’t have a waste background. It was a steep learning curve for us and we had to unlearn a lot of things so that we could understand the Indian way of doing this business. It has not been easy, especially in this sector, but we have been blessed to be able to partner with the right people – and leaders – in terms of capability and expertise.

Q 10. What’s your outlook for the growth of the waste sector in India?

Waste is a very attractive and highly capital intensive sector. We’ve got inputs from global private equity (PE) funds and need a lot of support from global Development Financial Institutions (DFIs) and sovereign wealth funds to help support this whole initiative. I’m also very optimistic that with the PM’s COP 26 commitment, the waste management sector will continue to grow and tangible progress will be made.

We are very bullish on the future of Compressed Biogas (CBG) in India. I think this is where we will see a lot of policies being pushed which will help us support and build business models around.

Banks and other financial institutions as well as PE funds will play a crucial role in the future of our sector. They have burned their fingers in the past which makes it a little difficult but of late we have seen people want to change the lens through which they look at this sector. If we are able to showcase a couple of successful examples in the next 2 to 3 years, we’ll be able to have a sustainable business model. Blue Planet is very ambitious and we continue to have fun while building this business.

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