By incentivising the housekeeping staff of hotels, restaurants and cafes, the Jaipur-based startup builds a financially viable business model to address the challenge of waste segregation
The startup plans to enlist 350 bulk waste generators as clients in the next 6 months and provide a stable income opportunity to at least 5 informal wastepickers
“Poetry speaks to you either at first sight or not at all,” a leading literary figure had once said. For Angraj Swami, it was the sight of mounds of garbage on a Delhi dumping ground in 2011 that set him on an enduring engagement with waste. The founder and CEO of the Jaipur-based startup Ecowrap claims to have cracked the code for, perhaps, the most challenging aspect of waste management: Segregation at source.
The four-year-old company ensures that hotels, restaurants and cafes take up the responsibility of segregating huge volumes of different kinds of waste they generate daily and put them in respective garbage bins on their premises. Ecowrap has achieved a high level of efficiency in this regard by training an employee of the HoReCa unit. Called the Green Champion, the person’s incentive is the opportunity for extra income, which is 40% of the amount that the startup pays the hotel for the sorted trash.
Before Covid struck, Ecowrap was doing business with 170 establishments. Currently, 92 eateries are availing of the startup’s services. “Initially, we were paying the units for the waste, and they were happy to be able to monetise something that was a source of headache. Later, we converted the hotel’s share of financial incentives into tokens, which could be redeemed to buy FMCG products that we supplied at competitive prices,” says Angraj. In the latest arrangement, the company has onboarded FMCG vendors who can do business directly with the hotel owners by paying a commission to Ecowrap.
It’s noteworthy how the startup has emerged as a one stop solution for waste segregation, collection, tracking, recycling, and up-cycling in such a short time. Till now it has diverted 2700 MT of waste from landfills. Its solution for source segregation is not only a viable business model, but also a blessing for the HoReCa units in the light of the Solid Waste Management Rules 2016. These rules put the onus on households and commercial establishments “to segregate waste into three streams and handover segregated waste to authorised rag-pickers or waste collectors or local bodies”. Further, it is mandatory for “all hotels and restaurants to segregate biodegradable waste and set up a system of collection or follow the system of collection set up by local body to ensure that such food waste is utilized for composting /bio-methanation”. Any failure to do so would attract steep fines.
As part of its services, Ecowrap creates a waste audit report — a detailed survey of a facility’s regular waste stream — for each of its clients, bringing about traceability and transparency in waste management.
Ecowrap’s financial model rests on a steady stream of uncontaminated waste. The startup’s primary source of revenue is the recycling industry, which must rely on importing scrap in the absence of high quality locally segregated materials. The irony couldn’t be starker since India generates 277.1 million tonnes of waste annually, according to a 2018 World Bank report — a figure likely to witness a sharp spike in the coming years with rapid urbanisation. Only a minuscule percentage of this monumental waste is fit for treatment and recycling. The biggest obstacle for the recycling industries is the unorganised nature of waste collection and segregation leading to scrap contamination.
Contamination happens when high/low value waste gets mixed up with undesirable elements. “It has largely to do with our attitude towards waste. The key is to make people understand the importance of community involvement and participation in solid waste management. This participation can only come about through incentivisation,” says Angraj who had worked with housing societies in Jaipur before pivoting to target bulk waste generators. While dealing with households, he was able to catalyse a change in outlook by dangling the proverbial carrot.
Angraj’s understanding of ground realities chimes with Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s observation in 2016 when he said that budget allocation alone cannot achieve cleanliness. “Behavioural change is the solution. It should become a mass movement,” was the PM’s recipe for an anti-litter revolution.
After a successful start, Ecowrap was hit hard during the pandemic when hotels had to down shutters. With revenue reduced to a trickle, some quick thinking by Angraj and his core team — comprising school friend Ajay Buri (Chief Operating Officer), Manoj Sabu, (Business Development Officer), and Chandrakanth (heading logistics) — led to upcycling activities. “We trained women self-help groups in rural Rajasthan who turned discarded tyres, glass bottles and textile waste into chairs, flowerpots and rugs, respectively. These items were later sold to the hotels and restaurants,” says Angraj, adding that now 16 women are part of this livelihood initiative, each earning up to Rs 7,000 per month.
The lockdown also forced Angraj to look for investors since bootstrapping was no longer possible. It was but natural for him to gravitate towards Social Alpha, which had been taking a keen interest in Ecowrap’s work. “Today, apart from providing a seed fund, Social Alpha is mentoring us to set up a digital platform to streamline operations and build a scalable business model,” he says.
The key to Ecowrap’s growth is the tech platform — a virtual marketplace that integrates all its services as well as helps in the onboarding of new clients. It will enhance the startup’s reputation as an FMCG-cum-waste management supply chain.
Social Alpha’s role
“We are currently focusing on the next phase of the company’s growth that lies in creating a scalable and asset light model through tech integration,” says Madhushree Narayan, portfolio manager for Ecowrap.
Ecowrap was one of the start-ups Social Alpha mentored as a part of the TISS Challenge in 2020. It was also among the top 20 startups at the Techtonic — Innovations in Waste Management, a nationwide challenge organised by Social Alpha and H&M. It is already a part of Social Alpha’s CivicTech portfolio.
“The decision to invest was taken only recently as Angraj and the team prepped to set up a digital platform, which will bring down his operational cost and build efficiency in collection and traceability of waste,” she says, adding that a large portion of the money will go into the tech project.
Ecowrap also aligns with Social Alpha’s thesis on building supply chain efficiency in waste management and processing. “We are looking at creating a system that enables adoption of sustainable and scalable decentralized solutions in tier II and tier III cities in the waste sector,” says Madhushree.
After a lean phase, things are indeed looking up for Angraj. He has signed a deal with Krimanshi, a Social Alpha portfolio company, to supply organic waste for its plant to be set up in Jaipur this year. In the next six months, the startup plans to enlist 350 HoReCa units as clients. This would translate into additional income for at least 350 Green Champions and stable livelihood opportunities for 60 women engaged in upcycling and at least 5 informal wastepickers.