‘Grassroots Innovation’ and ‘Waste is Resource’
Category : Internship Experiences
When I first arrived in Naddi after resigning from my comfortable sales job at a tech giant in Mumbai, I had limited knowledge about the development sector and the catastrophic environmental challenges daunting our planet. The radical decision to leave a prosperous career in advertising technology and join Educare as an intern was fueled by my persisting urge to find a deeper purpose in my professional life.
I started the Solid Waste Management project of resource recovery with my two French project partners, Graham and Gaston. At first, none of us had the slightest idea that our project would manifest into what we have managed to achieve today. After the initial two weeks of intensive research on the subject, we concluded that we wanted to design a zero-waste system for the Naddi village on the pillars of the concepts of ‘Circular Economy’ and ‘Waste is Resource/Food’. Generated waste should either enter a biological cycle where it decomposes and provides nutrients to the soil, or a technical cycle that ensures a closed-loop manufacturing system of upcycling and downcycling. Essentially, our goal was to use the waste to support the biosphere and the technosphere – a biomimetic approach we had recently studied.
With our foundations solid and goal set, we now had to work on innovating a localized solution for this global challenge. This was the point when our Chief Director, Mr. Bhullar, introduced us to the concept of systems and design thinking, and we decided to break our goal into two tasks. First, to design a prototype of – what we now call – a ‘RRC’ (Resource Recovery Center), a platform for collection and segregation (within 30 categories) of resources. Second, to create a system around the RRC to facilitate effective and smooth collection, segregation, storage, transportation, and sustainable disposal of resources. Adopting and practicing this newly learnt approach helped us streamline our efforts, improve our focus, and see a holistic picture of what we had set out to accomplish. We were able to connect the dots and virtually actualize a systemic flow of resources from consumers to destinations of their sustainable treatment. While community engagement and behaviour change was an important component of our project, the main objective for us – as told by Mr. Bhullar – was to set up a sustainable system of resource recovery that could be continued by future interns (as it was done by Sami from Finland and Shivani from Canada).
Because we had limited resources and limited knowledge in design, it took us several attempts to develop and perfect the existing RRC. It was a continuous process of design, implementation, evaluation, and amelioration – a cycle, but a forward moving one. Moreover, in order to create a system of intelligent disposal, we made multiple trips to the nearest wholesale waste buyers and recycling facilities to understand the market for the resources we intended to sell, as well as to establish a transport system with them. Not only did these trips acquaint us with the monetary value of each material, but also helped us gain new knowledge concerning the recycling industry, allowing us to better develop the RRC.
As illustrated in the images below, all our RRCs differ from each other aesthetically but are founded upon the same model. In order to succeed, we had to be flexible with our design but rigid with its essence. We had to move away from the ‘one size fits all’ approach and customize every RRC based on the context (location, free space available, community restrictions, and the resources at our disposal). Nothing comes easy when you work as an intern for an NGO in rural India. Yet, that is a virtue in itself; it forces you to become resourceful in your work and encourages you to do more with less. Such an environment also gives rise to frugal innovation – an approach I have been familiar with since childhood, but had deeply rooted within me after this stint. What I learnt from this experience is something that no classroom could have ever taught me.
It is true that an inter-cultural environment can spark greater creativity and innovation – the outcome of our project certainly justifies it. I am glad that I had the opportunity to work with people from different nationalities and forge some lifelong friendships – I am sure that I will have couches to crash on when I visit Europe.
Project Manager, Solid Waste Management