Five Tips for Waste Management Entrepreneurs: NEPRA’s Sandeep Patel shares his mantra for success

In 2006, Ahmedabad-based Sandeep Patel launched his waste management business. By his own admission, the initial years were tough, but Sandeep persisted. Fifteen years later, Nepra Waste Management Pvt. Ltd. finds itself among India’s largest and most reputed dry waste recycling companies. In November 2020, NEPRA won a whopping USD 18 million in Series C funding from Circulate Capital and Aavishkaar Capital, making it the highest-funded waste management start-up in India.

Within the last two years, NEPRA has expanded its waste recycling operations from one to five cities. Currently operating in Vapi, Indore, Ahmedabad and Pune, the company plans to soon establish its recycling centres in Mumbai and Bhopal. A winner of the Forbes India Leadership Awards’ (FILA) Entrepreneur with Social Impact Award in 2019, Mr Patel prefers to look upon waste through the lens of opportunity, rather than merely value creation. 

“There is a big opportunity, not only value, in waste,” Mr Patel tells SolidWasteIndia. He adds, “Also, it is about creating the right environment. People need to realize that if we don’t solve the waste problem now, within the next five years India will find itself in a horrible situation. This is an issue related to quality of life. We need more entrepreneurs to quickly solve India’s waste problems.”

Sandeep Patel, Founder-CEO, NEPRA

Mr Patel confesses he got into the waste management business for commercial reasons, not to create a social impact. However, he soon realized that the impact of his work was tremendous. “I understood that unlike other businesses, waste management has a direct, positive impact on the people and environment. There is no escaping this fact. The right way of doing this business is being transparent and ensuring we also solve associated problems, such as the condition of waste pickers.” 

Mr Sandeep Patel

“Waste management is a huge sector and each entrepreneur needs to really figure out where his/her strength lies,” feels Mr Patel. “You cannot do a copy-paste job from what NEPRA or others are doing. For instance, look at the regional players and focus on where their strength lies. Try using the best practices of existing players while ensuring that you save yourself from the pitfalls of the people who failed.” Mr Patel emphasizes examining the failures of the other waste management companies and understanding why they failed. “Maybe it was due to over-commitment or getting under the pressure of the whole system… Don’t commit to any kind of relationship where the pressure is going to be on you to operate without any consideration of support from the other side,” he opines. 

SolidWasteIndia’s Editor-in-Chief Aafrin Kidwai asked Mr Patel for his top five mantras for success in waste management. In a sector buzzing with entrepreneurs, here’s his advice:

#1: Build the right partnerships

A successful entrepreneur always takes other people on-board and works with them in their own journey – be it suppliers, buyers, employees, etc. Partnerships are important and you must figure out the relationships that you need to build with recyclers or others in the waste value chain. Initially, people hesitated to work with us but we convinced them to trust and partner with us. Gradually, more people from the unorganized sector started approaching us and we welcomed them. We allowed them to pursue what they were good at, and today – after so many years I am proud to say that a lot of them still work for us and their businesses have grown substantially. For instance, some of our early collection workers are now collection vehicle owners. 

#2: Know your financial model

NEPRA’s Materials Recovery Facility, Indore

Waste needs to be made profitable and entrepreneurs need to identify where the money is coming from. For instance, where the waste is sold, costs involved, etc. Also, if a company invests in a city but the municipality refuses to take responsibility for the ambiguous waste quality it provides and leaves the onus on the company, it is a business risk. Every waste entrepreneur should be mindful of this. 

Operational efficiencies are also very important. For instance, instead of spending money on advertising and marketing, we invest in creating awareness at the ground level. There is more value in giving a little bit extra to a waste picker or household than spending on a marketing agency.  

I believe it is not worth making mistakes that were made 15-20 years ago by the earlier players which negatively impacted the waste sector. We have paid a heavy price for it and now that things are slowly coming back on track, NEPRA wants to contribute to an ecosystem with the highest standards based on best practices.

#3: Invest in technology

It’s interesting to see how the waste management ecosystem is changing in India. I believe that technology is a key enabler in this and helps bring consistency and scale to our waste business. 

From the beginning, NEPRA has been a tech-driven company. We have invested heavily in building our infrastructure accordingly. While we use sophisticated technologies for waste processing and segregation, we also rely on mobile apps and other software for internal process management, data analytics, etc. For instance, we use Enterprise Resource Planning (ERP) software which promotes better decision-making and execution. It maps our work, identifies mistakes and overall business process re-engineering. Since the beginning, we have kept changing our processes and imbibed the same in our technology which helped reduce human error and improved consistency.

As a waste entrepreneur, it is tempting to cut costs and initially avoid investing in technology. However, this is a big mistake. Technology gives you more flexibility to evolve and thus recover your costs faster.  

#4: Learn to say ‘no’ 

NEPRA is good at what it does and welcomed in every city. Yet, there is always pressure from municipalities to deliver near impossible results with several limitations and narrow timelines. I have learned to say “NO” to them. I conduct my business on my own terms and have tried to design a model that is independent of them. 

We do not accept projects that we believe are unsustainable or when we feel that municipalities are dithering in their decision-making. We stick to our ground, especially if the terms and conditions are open-ended and unfeasible. However, once we take on a project, we deliver – no matter what the hurdles. I think this has worked well for us. 

#5: Learn to let go

Whether it’s power, responsibility or failure, every entrepreneur has to learn to let go, and continue to evolve in their journey. I feel like I change my role every six months! I have built a team I trust and pass on my responsibilities to them, which is critical since we are scaling-up right now. 

The waste industry in India is still evolving and we have to keep pace with it and set higher benchmarks. Swacch Bharat has come at the right time and we need more entrepreneurs to step in and make an impact.

Photo and Video Credit: NEPRA

Read Previous

NGT: Expedite bioremediation of Delhi landfills

Read Next

BBMP taken to task by NGT over poor SWM