Notes from the Field: Kanpur, India

How one Acumen Fellow is cleaning up the Ganges and bringing dignity to an ignored community

Kanpur, India, about a five hour train ride from Delhi. I am visiting with Acumen Fellow Ankit Agarwal and his co-founder Karan Rastogi, who saw a problem here in India. Across the country, people bring flowers to temples on a daily basis — gifts for the gods, blessings for life, for celebrations — to the tune of more than 800 million metric tons per year. These flowers are thrown into the Ganges and India’s other sacred rivers, a beautiful religious ritual that is having an unfortunate effect. Because as the flowers rot, they fill the rivers with waste, dumping toxins like arsenic, lead and cadmium from pesticides, thus causing pollution and enormous levels of water-borne diseases.

Born and raised in Kanpur, Ankit and Karan looked to develop a solution and have created a beautiful new company, HelpUsGreen, which is a model of the circular economy that could help build a sustainable world. Because the flowers have been used for worship, they are seen as sacred and cannot be just sent to a landfill. HelpUsGreen works with local women to collect the flowers from the rivers and then upcycles them into a number of useful products such as incense sticks, soap and soon vegan leather goods.

I wish you could meet the women. They told me how differently they feel as people to be respected. They love coming to one place rather than have to move from house to factory to house. They feel fresh and clean and like being around the flowers. They are humble about learning the skills needed, admitting it took some longer than others, but now they love that they’ve mastered rolling the incense sticks. Even more, they love that the sticks return to the temples as blessings again. So many blessings!

What I do know is they are now part of me, their desire to be seen, to have dignity — ever reinforcing the importance of this work.

If we only looked at the problems around us, as Ankit and Karan do, and saw them as incredible opportunities to make change, more of us would find the meaning and purpose that sometimes feels elusive to too many in our fast-paced world. More than that, in our interdependent world, we need more circular economy examples that integrate all stakeholders and not just shareholders into the way we do business.