Kabadiwalla Connect puts technology to the service of informal waste collection

The start-up Kabadiwalla Connect is revolutionizing urban waste management, relying in particular on mapping technologies. Based in Chennai, India’s fourth-largest urban hub, the young company offers a social and environmental model that holds an appeal beyond the country’s borders.

Chennai (formerly Madras), the capital of the State of Tamil Nadu, is a megacity of nine million inhabitants that generates 5,000 metric tons of urban waste on a daily basis. Just like many other large Indian cities, 90% of the waste collected ends up in inefficient landfills. Often incinerated on site, aggravating the air pollution and providing very little energy recovery, it causes serious public health and safety problems. Not to mention the pollution caused by uncollected waste… The situation is the same in most urban centers in Southern Asia and Africa.
In these areas, the informal sector is a key link in the waste management chain. Two thirtysomethings from Chennai sought to thoroughly understand the ecosystem of this “invisible” economy. Their investigations have given rise to Kabadiwalla Connect (KWC).

Understanding the informal waste management ecosystem

Since his teenage years, Siddharth Hande, KWC’s co-founder (see interview) has been involved in cleaning up the waste polluting his city’s beaches. He then saw the potential of recovering this waste and began to take a closer interest in the informal economy, which allows the most destitute to earn a living by selling the waste collected all over the city. To increase this system’s performance, Siddharth realized that it had to be organized, even though — by its very nature — it falls outside any regulations. A specialist in urban data management, the young Indian then came up with the idea of mapping the districts of Chennai down to the meter to draw up a list of all the stakeholders in the informal recycling value chain. Then, once identified, providing them with a whole logistical framework to guarantee outlets for them. The company Kabadiwalla Connect (KWC) started up in 2014. Its long-term goal is to reduce the volume of waste sent to landfill by 70% across the Indian subcontinent. In other words, 48.16 million metric tons of material recovered.

The Kabadiwalla, a pillar in the value chain

Kabadiwalla means “waste aggregator-entrepreneur” in Chennai’s dialect. They own a shop in the city and buy the material salvaged by street pickers, the first links in the recycling value chain. The kabadiwallas are key players in this chain; KWC’s added value lies with them: over and above collection, they prepare a raw material destined for wholesalers-dealers who are able to purify these recycled materials and sell them to reprocessors.

“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. “Plastic represents the second best earnings of all salvaged materials, behind copper. 500 metric tons of PET bottles alone have been salvaged since our business began,” he continues.

A source of inspiration

Some 2,000 kabadiwallas have joined KWC to date in Chennai. 100 of them have decided to further professionalize their work: they have computer applications specially developed by KWC that allow them to plan their everyday work and better set the prices of their material. KWC is also helping them improve the quality of the sorted material and work as a network to increase the amount of waste purchased (see interview).

“Our focus for development is to continue to professionalize the kabadiwallas, which means continuing to expand the urban mapping and more precisely quantifying the impact of their activities. We also benefit from Veolia’s experience as a world leader in waste management to ensure our growth. The model that we are offering can most likely be exported to other cities with a similar economy, which is why we joined forces,” adds the young founder.

Laurent Auguste, Veolia’s Director of Development, Innovation and Markets, explains: “The informal sector is a reality in certain Asian countries. It makes it possible to salvage materials, especially plastics such as PET, that are of value. KWC’s know-how is a source of inspiration. We are exploring with them how to adapt their model to Senegal and Indonesia.” Siddharth Hande and his colleagues from KWC are convinced that if cities from the Global South want to set the example in terms of preserving natural resources, they have no choice but to rely on the informal sector. It is beneficial for the climate and pollution, while having a positive social impact.

Key figures :

68.8 million metric tons of waste generated per year. It is set to reach 160.8 million metric tons in 2041, i.e. a 133% increase. 50% is organic waste. 91% of the waste collected ends up in open landfills.

Since Kabadiwalla Connect’s business began in 2014 500 metric tons of PET bottles collected by the informal economy sector between 2014 and 2017 2,000 kabadiwallas listed, 100 of whom have specialized and professionalized with KWC.

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* “Sustainable Solid Waste Management in India”, Janvier 2012, Columbia University, New York.