Uncovering smart cities with Siddharth Hande
A brief encounter with Sid, the social entrepreneur
It was 20th January 2018, and my first time at the Pragyan Youth Summit, which comprised of a host of events pertaining to its theme “Mission Smart Cities”, including the maiden edition of the PYS Youth Talks by a rising social entrepreneur, Mr. Siddharth Hande, at The Westin, Chennai. Hande is the founder and CEO of Kabadiwalla Connect — a waste management solutions provider — that is recognised by MIT and The UN Foundation, among other eminent international organisations. Kabadiwalla Connect aims to provide smart waste management and recycling solutions for urban India, leveraging the power of the informal sector to do so.
When I walked into the Summit that morning hoping to gain some insight into the topic at hand, I had no idea how the day would change me, and how an 8-minute encounter with this person would instill a sense of responsibility in my mind. When I finally met the young entrepreneur in question, I was stricken by his charisma and profound passion for what he did.
After he heartily congratulated Pragyan for its ability to organize the Summit, I decided to begin by asking him about how it all started for him.
Can you describe the incident that inspired you to take it upon yourself to solve the problem of waste management?
“Back in college, we used to organize beach clean-ups every week — that was the initial thing. We had a youth group in college called “Reclaim our beaches”, and all my learnings from that are critical to my interest in waste, and my experience in learning how to build scalable solutions in this sector.”
Do you think the Government can effectively tap into ICT that powers Kabadiwalla Connect, to tackle the problem of waste management at a larger scale in commercial/residential spaces?
“Yeah, I definitely think so. We see the Government as a key client for us growing. What we are essentially trying to do in Chennai is a proof-of-concept, and the Government is already showing a lot of excitement in adoption. What it is looking for is a use-case, so what we are trying to do, is providing that use-case.”
Your app, Recykle is a cost-effective method that can be employed in urban areas. How do you bring it to the rural areas?
“Recykle solved a problem very well for a particular demographic in India, which is the middle-class, upper middle-class, and the millennials who may want to do waste management. But a different market, let’s say, for the older person, or a person who doesn’t have access to a smartphone, what we are trying to do is an IVR based system. We are calling it Recykle Dial. It is basically a phone line, where you call and there are multiple tonal dials. There have been many proven studies on effectiveness of that in different sectors.”
Have you faced any impediments in your journey to improve waste management?
“One of the big things we faced was that, waste management wasn’t as sexy as other industries. The ability to find capital was initially a little tough for us; we had to be innovative there. For example, when we went to a lot of impact VCs (venture capitalists), waste management was not a focus area, so we were automatically cut off. So, we have managed to raise a lot of grant funding, we shifted our focus to finding these grant fundings to bring down the risk. The VCs find it too risky to put in money for causes like these. So, that’s our approach.”
Do you think the model of waste management that is workable in India, is applicable to other developing countries?
Yeah! We (Kabadiwalla Connect) think that the informal sector is the key untapped labour force for waste management, for circular economy, or smart cities.
“For example, the core tech that we are using in Chennai is now being piloted by a French company in Abidjan, Africa. There is also interest for our product in Jakarta. So, there is a lot of interest. We won a grant from the World Bank under the Global Partnership for Sustainable Development Data. So our learnings here can have impact in many developing countries.”
Having gained immense perspective about waste management and how they contributed to the creation of smart cities, I then proceeded to ask the successful geospatial analyst about the attitude of youngsters in choosing their career paths.
When you are in school, the most important decision that you have to make is whether you want to be an engineer or a doctor. In such a circle, how do you think youngsters can pursue careers that they are passionate about?
“It is a product of the times. When our parents were growing up, there was a genuine concern, that if you are not a doctor or an engineer, there’s no money that you can make to grow. That is not the case right now, and more than that, a lot of kids are just not happy working in a big corporate job for a big salary. So there is a movement from what is called purely profit, to purpose. I think that as time goes, it’ll be easier for people to follow their passion, and make money while they are doing it.”
What is your word of advice to the youth?
“Just follow your dreams, please. Don’t get married when you don’t want to, don’t get into a degree you don’t want, or if you are getting into that degree, constantly find out what you want to do. A lot of people are still forced into Engineering, but that doesn’t mean they have to work in a typical corporate company for the rest of their lives. Just be practical about what you want to do, learn as much as you can during that time, and take that risk of following your passion. That’s very rewarding.”
I decided to conclude by asking him about his views on the theme of the Summit, “Mission Smart Cities”, to which he replied,
“There is a lot of movement on it; we are in that space. What I’m looking for in conversations is, what Smart Cities means in the Indian context, because what happens a lot is, there are these generic solutions for different cities in the world, but the Indian cities are very unique. So it’s about deploying technology meaningfully, to make it smart.”
Later that day, Mr. Hande went on to give an enlightening talk about Kabadiwalla Connect and various issues in waste management that captivated the audience. I went home with increased mental clarity, feeling privileged to have had the opportunity to interact with him.