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Technology and Garbage Dreams in the Silicon Valley of India

A cloud-based initiative is steering rag pickers away from scavenging, and providing them with tools as micro-entrepreneurs.

The Indian city of Bangalore is home to more than 15,000 waste pickers — overall, India houses 1.5 million waste pickers. They earn their daily living by sifting through the city’s 4,000 tons of solid waste for recyclables they can sell for payment.

About 20 percent of the waste generated daily by Bangalore residents is diverted from landfills by informal waste workers. Otherwise, the remnants of the city’s rubbish-filled landscape would fester in its landfills, as there is no other existing method for recycling goods. This surfaces a larger problem. Historically, waste is not segregated at the source and the two sectors that serve waste management: The formal authority known as Bruhat Bangalore Mahanagara Palike, and the waste pickers and scrap dealers struggling to minimize the gap between waste output and the city’s capacity of processing infrastructure.

Meanwhile, rag pickers have no access to fundamental rights or social benefits, and due to their hazardous working conditions, a day at the office means potential exposure to tuberculosis, chemical poisoning and other biological infections. Rag picking often turns out to be a family profession, imposed on children between five to eight years of age, permitting families to double up on breadwinners.

On the flip side, increasing participation from citizen bodies and social enterprises in collaboration with the authorities are exploring solutions for the waste-management crisis. Recently, Bangalore was the first Indian city to mandate segregation at the source across residential communities and commercial institutions, using technology to invest in infrastructure around decentralized waste management, amidst growing citizen awareness.

Observing an area fraught by default traditions encased in disorganization, we at Mindtree decided to take our existing cloud and mobile platform and partner with Hasirudala, a federation of 10 Bangalore-based NGOs. The goal: Bring further legitimacy to a challenged profession, and improve the lives of 7,000 rag pickers.

Enter I Got Garbage. This initiative is steering rag pickers away from scavenging, and providing them with tools as micro-entrepreneurs, and with livelihood opportunities at levels across the waste value chain.

Under the I Got Garbage initiative lies a custom cloud platform, built on open source technology and delivered via low-cost Android phones. Rag pickers can access a structured marketplace — the first platform of its kind in India — to manage their business operations like waste collection, and presenting digital invoices for their services.

Pickers no longer comb through the garbage dump to collect recyclables. The project matches pickers with households and businesses seeking waste services, and links pickers to small shops for selling recyclables. The latest business model added to waste management, introduces home delivery of composting kits, flower pots and flower seeds to interested buyers.

At the heart of the entire engagement is a livelihood platform with the potential to create similar value for the “one-person entrepreneur” across domains, but not limited to the rag picker.

By transforming rag pickers into recycling managers, their average income is increased from an estimated 5,000 Indian rupee to 9,000 Indian rupee per month. Converted to dollars, rag pickers are making less than $150 per month, but the higher income makes the difference between their children going to school, rather than abandoning their education and going to work. Plus, in half a year total waste recycled by our service partners bounced from 700 to 1,300 tons.

Today, I Got Garbage hosts around 5,000 rag-picker profiles and 7,000 households working with partners offering services in waste management.

The cloud-based IT platform forms the backbone for all the applications used by social enterprises to carry out their daily business transactions. Seeing the success of this program, move from the enterprise to working for good simultaneously speaks to areas where technology is still remote and the potential to generate connections in a fragmented system.

To learn more about how the I Got Garbage initiative transforms a rag-picker into a recycling manager, watch the video below:

Prashant Mehra is a social intrapreneur heading Mindtree’s I Got Garbage initiative. His 19 years of industry experience include work in strategy consulting, program management, and building large-scale software products and platforms. I Got Garbage aims to take ragpickers away from scavenging, and bring them to the source of waste as uniformed service providers. The cloud-based IT platform offers capabilities such as an ERP for ragpickers, Citizen Engagement Platform, Waste Management Services Marketplace, and a Ragpicker Benefits Tracker. Reach him @fractalworks.

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