Promoting Entrepreneurship in Waste Management

Image by Mumtahina Rahman from Pixabay

India’s waste management landscape has undergone massive transformation since the Prime Minister launched the Swacch Bharat Mission (SBM) in 2014. Multiple clean up drives were held across the country and substantial resources were earmarked for the sector which had previously witnessed little attention. 

SBM 2.0, which was announced on October 2 this year, further fuelled the waste industry’s expectations – with a whopping Rs 1,41,600 crore allotted for the next five years. Significantly, in its Guidelines, SBM 2.0 emphasizes creating an enabling environment to encourage start-ups and social entrepreneurs: “The Mission will encourage adoption of locally innovated, cost-effective solutions and business models in sanitation and solid waste management by small scale and private entrepreneurs and start-ups, through investments in R&D, technology challenges, and facilitation for inclusion in GeM, in order to take forward the government’s vision of an “AatmaNirbhar Bharat” and “Make in India.”

CII’s International Waste to Worth Conference and Exhibition is trying to promote innovation in waste technologies

In this backdrop, it’s hardly surprising that a lot of entrepreneurs are attempting to convert ‘waste to worth’, incidentally the title of the CII’s ongoing conference which seeks to promote entrepreneurship in the waste sector. 

Though exact statistics on the number and valuation of waste start-ups in India are unavailable, experts note a visible increase in such businesses across the country. Ms P Bineesha, Executive Director – International Institute of Waste Management (IIWM) says, “Waste management is the sector to invest. If u want to make gold right now – it’s from waste.” 

Yet, there are lacunae in the market that need urgent redressal if ground-level progress has to be made in the sector.“There are 3723 ULBs and 2.4 lakh gram panchayats in our country yet there are such few waste management (WM) companies. A handful of large WM companies with a turnover of over Rs 100 crore rule the sector, while there are less than 100 MSMEs.” Ms Bineesha noted during her session on Innovative solutions by Start-ups for Sustainable Waste Management. “India has emerged as the third largest start-up ecosystem in the world and 51 new unicorns are being added to the list each month. Yet, there is no start-up from the WM sector,” Ms Bineesha said.

Waste management is the sector to invest. If u want to make gold right now – it’s from waste.

Ms P Bineesha, Executive Director – International Institute of Waste Management (IIWM) 

The CII Waste to Worth conference is showcasing innovative technologies that have earned recognition for their potential to transform their chosen area of expertise. This includes Genrobotics (robotic scavenging), Ishitva Robotics (plastics sorting through artificial intelligence), AlphaMERS Ltd (mechanized marine waste collection), BacTreat Environmental Solutions (wastewater treatment and faecal sludge management plant), and Ganesh Engineering (biogasification of rural waste).

Yet, in a sector struggling to cope with multiple inefficiencies, there is space for a many more committed entrepreneurs who understand the intricacies of the waste business. For instance, Mohali-based Mr Amardeep Sharma of Dross Technologies. “Dross is a machine that converts mixed waste into ‘black gold,” says Mr Sharma. “The machine converts mixed waste into RDF of high calorific value (up to 6000 kcal) through controlled catalytic and induced pyrolysis followed by a reduction reaction which makes the entire process pollution-free. We have a couple of projects at Army campuses in Haryana and are exploring markets in other cities,” he explains.

There are many entrepreneurs who are trying to promote their innovations in the waste sector, with limited success. The struggle is even more complicate for smaller enterprises who face numerous hurdles in establishing their presence and achieving sustained growth in their business. Limited access to funds, lack of business and marketing skills and access to suitable markets are a few reasons. Successful entrepreneurship in the waste sector, Bineesha feels, is yet to mature and the next two to three years are crucial in terms of how waste entrepreneurship in India evolves.

Ms P Bineesha
Executive Director – IIWM

SolidWasteIndia’s Editor-in-Chief Aafrin Kidwai spoke with Ms P Bineesha, Executive Director – IIWM, on challenges facing entrepreneurs in solid waste management, and the way forward.

Q1. Despite the promising business outlook on India’s waste management sector, why are only a few private entrepreneurs able to really succeed? 

Difficulty in accessing funds is a major factor. There is very little private investment in the municipal solid waste (MSW) business unlike, say, IT, retail or education. Private investors hesitate because there is no credible data available on MSW in India. The process of establishing value and investability in waste sector has several uncertainties. Potential investors are unable to take informed decisions on market opportunity and risk judgement parameters like capacity, real life implementation, volume of sales of recyclables, etc due to lack of data. Everything is left open-ended.

A second reason for the failure of start-ups is their lack of on-ground experience and knowledge of waste and its ‘behavior in the ecosystem’. Waste management is like agriculture in many ways. It takes years of experience and hard work to succeed. One needs to know, for instance, how a ULB and the informal sector operates, the science of waste, acceptance of end-product in the market (like the recycled product as against the virgin) and other intricacies. Most entrepreneurs simply lack that experience – as well as the passion to succeed in this difficult business. They are unable to take it forward and a lot of ventures fail as a result. 

Another uniqueness in this sector is that the generator of raw material and the consumer of the finished product is the same entity – general public. So, if the public is ‘well informed’, then, the business will succeed. That is why there is an over-dependence on ‘cultural and behavioural changes’ in this sector.

Finally, I notice that a lot of entrepreneurs try to sell borrowed technologies that are unsuited for Indian waste conditions. We need to develop indigenous technologies that are suited for Indian waste. 

Q2. Off late, there has been a growing interest from global investors. How optimistic are you of their ability to support innovative entrepreneurship?

Frankly, a lot of these investors are funding technology and app-driven innovations – even though our basic SWM systems are not in place yet. I believe India is not ready for a lot of these ultra-innovative technologies which are often poorly suited for the needs of the Indian waste market. We need technologies that are linked to our culture and can accommodate the informal sector. Further, we need to implement these technologies on the field – and scale these up before labelling them as successful.

Also, a lot of these investors are confined to start-ups in big cities, just like the big waste management companies. Very few people want to work in smaller towns since they are not financially viable. 

Q3. What are some of the steps that can be taken to fix the SWM system to encourage entrepreneurship? 

First and foremost, let’s get the data in place and streamline it into the system. It’s taking time but a beginning has been made. We have managed to get the data gaps addressed for certain streams like biomedical, hazardous and electronic waste but we haven’t been able to do this with MSW since there are wide variations in every city’s culture and socio-economic profile.

Also, in the absence of private investors, the government must support entrepreneurs and create an enabling environment for them. For instance, provide new businesses with an opportunity to work with municipalities. Importantly, entrepreneurship should be encouraged in the initial years of our education system. IIWM is doing a lot on this front through its presence at nearly 11,000 college campuses across India.

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