Wealth Issue 2016: The Originals

Flower Recycling: Ankit Agarwal, 26 Co-Founder, Help Us Green

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“People thought we were crazy—who spends time working with rotting flowers from the river?”

EVERYTHING WAS READY for the launch of Help Us Green in early 2015. The company had started collecting flower waste from the banks of the Ganges in Kanpur. It had begun recycling the waste, turning it into incense sticks and organic vermicompost. The founders, Ankit Agarwal and Karan Rastogi, had successfully trademarked the term ‘flowercycle’. And local women self-help groups had already been contracted for both collecting waste and manufacturing the products. But there was one thing missing. The duo was still waiting for a sheet of paper they had planted a few weeks ago to sprout into a tulsi plant. The first shoot signalled that their work was now ready to be shown to the world.

“We realised that there was no point in recycling if the packaging we used would once again end up in the river. Hindus won’t throw paper which has the face of a god on it into a dustbin. They’ll put it into the Ganges or under a Banyan tree. We thought, ‘Why not invent a paper that they can plant after having used the product inside?’ So we infused tulsi seeds into the paper pulp. This would make our attempt at recycling a 100-per cent complete project where nothing goes to waste—the flower is burnt to ashes as incense and the paper grows into a medicinal and religious herb,” explains Agarwal, who was born and brought up in Kanpur.

Agarwal met Rastogi as a child at a Math tuition class. But neither guessed back then that they would end up as co-founders of a start-up. After they finished school, Rastogi moved to the UK to study Business Analytics at Warwick University and Agarwal pursued an Engineering degree followed by a Master’s in Innovation Management at Symbiosis Institute of Business Management in Pune. It would be another few years before the urge to become entrepreneurs would hit either of them.

“Personally, I grow bored easily. That’s why I love to innovate and have been doing so all my life. I have a couple of patents to my name already. I need something new, something exciting to work on all the time,” says Agarwal, who is now 26 years old. After working for three years at Symantec Corporation in Pune, he returned to Kanpur in 2013.

“I became interested in environmental innovation after working on a research project that looked at the impact of discarded old tires on pollution levels,” says Agarwal, “I realised then that small things we take for granted can have a really huge influence on the environment. How many of us actually think about where our garbage or waste ends up? We just put it into the garbage [can], after that it’s out of our lives and our thoughts.”

One day, a friend from Oikos International, a student-led NGO whose executive board Agarwal is a member of, visited him in Kanpur. “We went down to the Ganges bank and she pointed out the amount of flower waste in the water. I suppose to a third party the flowers were more glaring than for someone who had been seeing it their whole life. You sort of grow used to the image and it doesn’t stand out as much,” says Agarwal. He went on to research the subject of flower waste and discovered that approximately 800,000 metric tonnes of flower waste (along with faecal coliform bacteria) end up in Indian rivers each year from the 108,000 official list of temples in the country. The flower waste, mostly marigolds and roses offered for darshan at temples each year, unfortunately aren’t as organic as one might assume. “The Rs 9,000 crore floriculture industry in India is growing at approximately 5 per cent annually. How do you think farmers are meeting the demand and are able to produce flowers at an ever growing rate? The answer is obvious. They use chemicals, pesticides, insecticides and harmful fertilisers—and these eventually end up, through these flowers, flowing into our rivers.” According to Agarwal, the chemicals from the flowers then bond with iron and oxygen in the water to create a deadly toxin that kills fish and gives rise to several water-borne diseases. “Studies show that gall bladder cancer is the highest along the banks of the Ganges. Everybody thinks water pollution is caused by industrial waste or discarded idols of worship. Nobody thinks that beautiful flowers can also a source of toxicity. It’s just a flower—how much harm can it possibly do? Tell that to the thousands of fish, aquatic plants and children who get affected each year by flower pollution,” says Agarwal.

Entrepreneurship is true magic, the power to turn belief into reality

SHORTLY AFTER HE finished his initial research on the volume of flower waste in Indian rivers and its effects on the ecosystem and health, Agarwal teamed up with Rastogi to start an 18-month research project on the ways in which flower waste can be put to good use. The two spoke to several botanists, farmers, temple committees, flower traders and fertiliser manufactures in the city to understand both the extent of the problem they were dealing with and the practicality of flower recycling or ‘flowercycling’ as a solution.

“The first product we worked on was organic vermicompost that we came to call ‘Mitti’. For six months, we tested different types of dung—cow, goat, sheep, chicken and even horse—to get the best nitrogen-phosphorus-potassium value of the vermicompost. Eventually, we came up with our ‘17 natural ingredient recipe’. The flowers were composted using earthworms and the compost was packed by local women,” says Agarwal. Mitti remains the company’s bestselling product and is a safer alternative to chemical fertilisers, thanks to its ‘zero carbon footprint’. Interestingly, one of the ingredients in Mitti, coffee grounds, is also recycled from various coffee shops in the city. “Coffee helps improve the nitrogen levels in the compost,” explains Agarwal, adding that any plant grown using Mitti is organic because the compost has zero chemicals added into it.

Soon after launching Mitti, the team expanded the product range to include incense sticks and cones made of flowers instead of the traditional carcinogenic coal. The hand-rolled flavoured sticks are currently sold under the brand Sticks and Stones, and offer a wide variety of scents such as khus, lemongrass, cedar wood, eucalyptus, green apple and lavender. The products are priced between Rs 200 and Rs 250 a unit and are available online.

“In the last one year, we’ve recycled 535,000 kg of waste flowers from the Ganges. We started with Rs 80,000 in hand and clocked profits of Rs 63 lakh this year. The venture has been successful, but there’s lots left for us to do,” says Agarwal, who is currently working on developing an alternative to Styrofoam using flower waste that will self-degrade in under six weeks, as opposed to the usual 80 years. The team also wants to extend operations to include another 2,000 km along the Ganges banks and provide employment to 30,000 women. “We’re looking at raising our first round of funding this year. But it hasn’t been very easy, since most backers want us to go from hand-rolled to machine-made. At present, 40 per cent of our costs are because we make everything by hand. If we employ machines, the cost will come down to just 2 per cent. But we’ve stayed firm that our goal isn’t only recycling but also providing employment.”

Despite the daunting task of finding the right investors, Agarwal adds that being an entrepreneur is like being a magician to him. “I’ve always been inspired by the Harry Potter books. Initially no one believed in the idea. People thought we were crazy—who spends time working with rotting flowers from the river? But we took the plunge, and we were ready to do everything, from sweeping to becoming delivery boys. And we proved everyone wrong— because a year later, we’re still going strong. Entrepreneurship to me is true magic, the power to turn belief into reality.”

The Wealth Issue 2016: For the full list of portraits of the Smart-up Generation, click here