The world needs 10,000 startups like HelpUs Green

Ankit Agarwal is the founder of Kanpur Flowercycling Pvt. Ltd, a social enterprise that owns the brand HelpUsGreen. HelpUsGreen preserves the Ganges River from becoming a religious sewer by flower cycling the waste from temples and mosques that is dumped in the Ganges River into patented fertilizer and incense products. This, in turn, provides livelihoods to manual scavenger families in India. Ankit was awarded the UNEP, Centre for Environment Education ‘Unsung Heroes’ Award and has won the Wharton India Economic Forum People’s choice Award 2017, Tie Global Spirit of Manufacturing Award for Social Impact, and the prestigious Abby Gold 2016. Below are excerpts from an interview with him.

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Tell us about your idea to start HelpUsGreen?
Every year, about 8 million tons of flower waste is dumped into India’s largest river, the Ganges. We saw that flowers left at religious sites are a unique waste challenge. For sacred reasons, they can’t simply be thrown into landfills, so they end up

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in the river. Karan (Rastogi, Founder-Partner) and I had this radical idea about why not make something out of this temple waste. We looked for second-uses that are respectful to the flowers’ original purpose, like incense sticks that can be used for worship. Our company preserves the Ganges River by collecting the floral waste from temples and mosques that is dumped in the river and flowercycling (upcycling) it into patented fertilizer and incense sticks. This, in turn, provides livelihoods to manual scavenger families in Uttar Pradesh, India. Since the Ganges is considered sacred in India, cleaning the river not only provides employment to manual scavengers, but eliminates the entrenched attitudes and discriminatory practices that still bind families to this degrading occupation. The community benefits from a reduction in disease, predictable income, social acceptance and, most importantly, dignity. The project is scalable and brings a hope to revive the Ganges.

Since the flowers are fished out of the Ganges and have been in places of worship, people are drawn to the ‘holy’ factor as well. When we started three years ago, it was a simple exercise to make use of the enormous temple waste generated in our region. But today, it has become a movement of sorts: we have many people experimenting in their own cities and working on replicating our model.

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What is your product line like? What are your new products in the pipe line?
From charcoal-free incense to biodegradable packaging, our company has a multi-issue approach. Beginning October, we have added three new products to our existing range called Phool, which currently comprises jasmine, nargisand tulsi incense sticks, cones and vermicost with neem extracts. Keeping up with the DIY culture, we are also encouraging customers to learn flowercycling at home. A DIY incense making kit will come with both the recipe and ingredients. Available in three variants — tulsi, rose and lemongrass — the child-friendly kit is priced at ₹295. Also on the list are five grow kits (diabetic-friendly, Indian herb, Italian herb, Indian medicinal and a mosquito repellent option), which will come with three herb pots and vermicompost (₹255 each). A premium range of Ayurvedic incense sticks made with plant resins, berries and barks of medicinal trees (targetted at calming specific doshas) complete the range. Wrapped in seed paper, a pack of 20 sticks will cost ₹350.

Green Leather which is breathable, with a high tensile strength, can be moulded and dyed in numerous shades. The plan is to manufacture hides to be used by luxury fashion houses and leather goods craftsmen in India and abroad. Vegan leather is a rising movement and, at present, there are not many sustainable alternatives to leather. We are in talks with a few high-fashion brands abroad and see great potential for bio-leather in the country.

Give us some inputs on the products on Green Packaging that you are developing.
Developed by a team of IIT engineers, Florafoam is a biodegradable material created from temple and agricultural waste, and 27% cheaper than regular thermocol. It is high-performing, mouldable and durable. It will soon be used to package electronic goods such as air conditioners and TV sets. Based on our in-house tests, along with being biodegradable, it can be buried in your garden post usage. We are now setting up our first production unit (to make 11 tonnes a day) in Kanpur, U.P. and it will be operational by next January. Until then, we will be working on samples for our buyers, and expanding units to Varanasi and Vrindavan.

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You have made huge strides on social development. Tell us about it.
Our priority is not just cleaning the Ganges, but also empowering local women. We now employ 1,200 women to collect the flowers, many of whom traditionally didn’t have formal employment. Many of them are more confident now. They’re earning more than their husbands. They get some say in the decisions that are made in the home and they’re saving money so they can send their children to school.

Future plans?
We at Kanpur Flowercycling already collect some 7.2 tons of flowers a day from two dozen sites. But it’s just scratching the surface. By 2020, we believe that we can gather 50 tons a day and branch out into new products. We’re receiving dozens of calls and emails every day from people across the country–and Bangladesh and Nepal–who want to replicate our model. The world needs 10,000 startups like us.