When Mumbai-born Wilma Rodrigues, 56, started her career as a tour guide for the India Tourism Development Corporation in 1983, she was excited at the prospect of showcasing heritage spots to foreign tourists.
While the country’s monuments fascinated the visitors, they were quick to point out the contrast elsewhere—the roads were defiled by litterbugs. “The tourists would ask, ‘This is such a conflict [beauty and garbage]. How do you deal with this?’,” recalls Rodrigues.
The garbage heaps were antithetical to the idea of promoting India’s heritage. “On the one hand, we are proud of our monuments, but on the road you see a completely different picture [of garbage],” she says.
Later, Rodrigues moved on from the job to edit a trade magazine for the Indo-German Chamber of Commerce before working as a journalist with Metropolis. She also got married, moved to Bengaluru, and took up a job with The Energy and Resources Institute, but the imprint that her first job left on her mind did not fade even after 18 years.
Thus, in 2001, Rodrigues co-founded Saahas, a not-for-profit focusing on solid waste management—segregation of wet and dry waste at source, composting wet waste and recycling dry waste, among other things, in Bengaluru.
The venture began by helping supermarkets reduce their plastic waste before progressing to sustainable on-site waste management solutions for bulk waste generators such as large corporate offices. The State Bank of India was Rodrigues’s first big client.
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Given that Saahas soon became a revenue-generating business, Rodrigues floated the for-profit entity Saahas Waste Management Private Limited in 2012-13, even raising seed capital from the Indian Angel Network in 2013. (The Saahas NGO continues to exist alongside the for-profit entity.)
The company currently manages 30 tonnes of solid waste per day (up from 20 tonnes in 2017 and 8 tonnes in 2013) for Microsoft, Accenture and IIM-Bangalore, among 47 others. Saahas employs over 200 waste pickers, who avail benefits such as medical claims and provident fund.
Investors are upbeat about the prospects of the million-dollar (by annual revenues) company. “Saahas is one of the few enterprises in the Indian waste management space to have a scalable business model,” says Vikram Gandhi, founder, Asha Impact, an impact fund that invested an undisclosed sum in the venture last year. “The company is on track to achieve profitability.”
Bengaluru generates 4,000 tonnes of garbage per day, 40 percent of which is from bulk generators. And Rodrigues wants to make the most of this opportunity. “We can do complete waste management for a city or town. We are even willing to do door-to-door garbage collection,” she says.