How do you dispose off flowers and garlands that are used for worship in your home? Perhaps, you wrap it up in paper or in a plastic bag and throw it into your bin or worse, throw it into a water body.
It is a common sight in India to see heaps of garlands and flowers that adorned a deity lying dumped outside many places of worship, trampled by humans, animals and swamped with flies. Some throw the flowers in rivers and stagnant water bodies contaminating and choking them.
When two friends and temple goers, Ankit Agarwal and Karan Rastogi, saw this ugly sight in and around many places in Kanpur, they wondered what they could do to transform these flowers that were considered holy for a little while before they were cast off in rubbish heaps.
Tata Social Enterprise Challenge
The duo worked on a strategy that turned the discarded flowers into other items like incense sticks, items used for havan or sacrificial fire and also, bathing soaps. Thus was born their venture in the social sphere, HelpUsGreen.
HelpUsGreen was the winner of the fourth edition of the Tata Social Enterprise Challenge 2015-16 held last week at the Indian Institute of Management Calcutta (IIMC), taking home the top prize money of Rs two lakh.
A joint initiative of the Tata Group and IIMC, the Social Enterprise Challenge celebrates India’s most promising early-stage social enterprises which can bring about long-term solutions to India's social problems.
“Social entrepreneurship is about innovative solutions to social problems,” said Professor Ashok Banerjee, director, IIM Calcutta, at a function to felicitate the winners. However, Dr Mammen Chandy, director, Tata Medical Center, Kolkata, urged students of management “to find fulfillment in social entrepreneurship rather than only seeking personal material gain.”
Ecstatic with his win, Agarwal said, “We have won many competitions before but Tata Social Enterprise Challenge is like the Filmfare of social entrepreneurship.”
The co-founders of the Kanpur-based HelpUsGreen, Karan Rastogi and Ankit Agarwal gave up their independent ventures to focus on a social enterprise. They claim HelpUsGreen was started solely to preserve the country’s rivers by ‘flowercycling’ the waste from places of worship into bio-fertilisers and lifestyle products.
Flowers are a symbol of devotion and reverence, and it is believed that they should be discarded into water bodies to respect their sanctity. Every year approximately 80, 00,000 tons of waste flowers are dumped in rivers choking them to death.
“Sadly, these sacred flowers rot in rivers killing fishes creating havoc in the fragile eco sphere of the water body and cause enormous pollution,” says Karan Rastogi, co-founder, HelpUsGreen. The pesticides and chemical fertilizers used to grow flowers mixes with the river water making it highly toxic.
Rastogi and Agarwal's expertise and eagerness to solve a problem helped them devise ways to find a solution. “We developed several ways to utilise these disposed flowers to ensure that devotion doesn't turn into pollution,” says Rastogi.
At first, HelpUsGreen used the discarded flowers only for vermicompost. But they soon found that in the harsh Kanpur winters, worms died and vermicompost was not possible.
At the Centre of Aromatic Plants in Uttarakhand. Rastogi and Agarwal learnt the process of converting discarded flowers and recycling them into bio fertilizers, bathing soaps, etc. After the training, they launched the venture with individual investment of Rs 2.5 lakh each that their parents gave them to set up the firm.
Traditionally, incense sticks are made from charcoal and a fragrance is added to it before they are packed and sold. Rastogi and Agarwal decided to come out with a 100 percent natural product and used powders from dried flowers to make the incense sticks.
They found that their venture could also help provide employment to women in nearby villages. To give employment to women, Rastogi and Agarwal set up Self Help Groups (SHGs) so that they could engage with women in the locality who were in need of a job. Currently the venture is managing five women self-help groups of sixteen members each.
The biggest challenge that the start-up faced in the initial stages was in collecting the discarded flowers. Local municipal authorities have the right to pick up flowers that are thrown in rubbish heaps or on public streets. It was a cumbersome process for Rastogi and Agarwal to get permission from the authorities. They then decided to go to temples that were smaller in size and were not in the ambit of the municipal authorities.
Currently, the social venture collects flowers from 13 temples and three mosques. Almost one ton of flowers are collected daily and transported to the backyard of Rastogi and Agarwal’s homes. After sifting out waste and other materials, the flowers are divided into two heaps – for making incense sticks and other items, and for vermicompost.
Rastogi and Agarwal sold the first batch of incense sticks online at helpusgreen.com and were surprised with the response they received. Besides incense sticks, a few other products are sold online. HelpUsGreen sells incense sticks in 10 fragrances and luxury cold pressed handmade bathing soaps in eight fragrances. Then there is Yagya, a vedic bamboo-less incense stick made from a blend of herbs, flowers, tree barks, etc, and also incense cones and other products for worship of the Gods. A natural vermicompost for plants, Mitti, is another product from the start-up. Some of the funds from the sale of products is used to educate children of the women who work with the start-up.
Plans are on to set up a centre for vocational training so that children are skilled to take up other jobs, too. HelpUsGreen is planning to raise funds so that they can have a facility where women can come and work.