How one Indian start-up is revolutionizing informal waste management

Supported by Veolia, Indian start-up Kabadiwalla Connect is modernizing the informal waste collection and recycling sector and making street collectors key in the process. A great step forward for big cities in the global south.

Our focus for development is to continue to professionalize the kabadiwallas.

Chennai is the state capital of Tamil Nadu, in southern India. This mega-city of 9 million people generates 5,000 metric tons of urban waste every single day. But 90% of the waste collected ends up in open dumps where it is incinerated in the open air, adding to air pollution and causing serious public health and safety problems.
Here, as in most major cities in South Asia and Africa, garbage collection is one of the main activities found in the informal sector. An "invisible" economy that two Indian researchers, Siddharth Hande and Sonaal Bangera, sought to understand.
Street collectors contribute to better waste management and earn sums that are sometimes above the poverty line. "In Chennai, according to our survey, the informal sector recycles 19,000 metric tons of plastic and generates 4.3 million dollars in revenue each year,” highlights Siddharth Hande.
Based on this observation, the two young Indians sought to improve the living conditions and incomes of the people working in the shadows and integrate them into existing waste management channels. They created a start-up called Kabadiwalla Connect (KWC), with the aim of making the informal sector more equitable and efficient and thus enabling Indian cities to reduce the amount of urban waste going to landfill by 70%. "Kabadiwalla" means "waste aggregator-entrepreneur" in Chennai’s dialect.
To improve the performance of a system that, by its very nature, escapes regulation, the two entrepreneurs realized it had to be organized. As a specialist in spatial data analysis and urban planning, Siddharth Hande decided to map Chennai neighborhood by neighborhood, identifying all the actors in the informal waste recovery and recycling sector - from street collectors to specialist dealers.

 

Professionalize kabadiwallas

KWC is based on kabadiwallas, the waste pickers that represent the first link in the recycling value chain. Some 2,000 kabadiwallas have already joined KWC in Chennai. Around a hundred have decided to specialize and professionalize.
KWC has developed computer applications that allow them to plan their everyday work and better set the prices of their material. It is also helping them improve the quality of the sorted material and work as a network to increase the amount of waste purchased.

"Our development focus," says Siddharth Hande, "is to continue to professionalize the kabadiwallas, which means continuing to expand urban mapping and more precisely quantifying the impact of their activities.” KWC also benefits from the experience of Veolia, global leader in waste management, which shares its observation about the role of the informal economy in waste management and is considering adapting the start-up’s model for Senegal and Indonesia.
 

Main picture: © Photothèque Veolia

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