'This has taught me that we're not alone' - Roshan Miranda, Waste Ventures India

Waste Ventures India aims to reduce landfill in the city of Hyderabad through its waste collection, processing, recycling and composting services, while providing an income to about a quarter of all the city’s waste pickers. Founder and CEO Roshan Miranda on providing essential services in high-risk situations, surviving a dramatic drop in business, and finding a way to look after every single employee. 

“We locked down voluntarily first, even when it was not mandatory. We wanted to be responsible – if by chance one of the communities had a Covid-positive patient, it would have been quite easy for us to transmit the virus because we go from one community to another, doing multiple pickups in a day. 

When [official] lockdown did come, we actually thought it was going to be a short-term lockdown. At least for the month of March, we could sustain ourselves. But from April onwards, it became challenging because what we had anticipated was not the case. The law continued to be extended. 

We are a team of 80 staff, working with around 1,500 third-party waste pickers. The waste pickers themselves could not have survived more than two weeks in a lockdown. And even that is a long time because they depend on a day-to-day revenue.

We used to collect 2,000kg of waste per day from one client. Now we are picking 100kg… Coronavirus completely killed the whole sector

Collecting waste is an essential activity, so [after 12 days of not working] we had a pass to continue. We ensured zero contact pickups, and personal protective equipment and sanitisation for our workers. But most of us depend on public transport to come to work, so most people couldn’t get in unless they lived close by and could walk. That created an issue – our warehouse got full because there was no processing happening. We had to stop collecting waste. We had to go down to less than 30% capacity – even now we are at less than 50% of our usual capacity. To put this into perspective, we used to collect around 2,000kg of waste per day from one of our corporate clients. Now we are picking 100kg.

An additional issue was our revenue, which comes from two sectors. One is a service charge that we charge to corporate clients, and that dwindled down completely because most businesses were not functional. The other is our recycling revenue, which stopped working completely because of the lockdown. Coronavirus completely killed the whole sector. 

 

What worked for Waste Ventures India:

  • Regular contact with employees about upcoming payments
  • Securing emergency funding from an investor to pay salaries
  • Working with donors to help feed the most vulnerable workers and their families
  • Returning to work at decreased capacity

 

Taking care of workers

What we decided in the beginning of the lockdown was that nobody was going to be laid off. So even during the lockdown, we continued to pay sustenance – not the full salary, but a certain amount that we calculated for every employee’s household so that they could at least sustain themselves through this period.

We made sure that communication was very clear between us and our workers. At the end of every month, we spoke to each one of them. I have spoken personally to everybody now. That was critical for us. I think it really helped – we told them exactly what amount we were transferring into their bank account so that they could expect it and then plan around it.

At the end of every month, we spoke to each worker. I have spoken personally to everybody now

One of our investors, Yunus Social Business, has so far distributed US$650,000 among 14 companies, and we were one of them. That’s a large sum of money when you want to have impact at the bottom of the scale. So we are now able to pay salaries for the next three months. At least our workers are taken care of.

But our waste pickers are people at the bottom of the pyramid. Around 70% of them went back to their hometown at the beginning of lockdown, with around 300 staying back to help with waste collection. I don't think they're getting one meal a day. We worked with two donors who told us they can provide meals, and that we could pick up the meals and distribute them. So every day our vehicles went and picked up food for around 300 families. We supplied this to them for 25 days, and provided more than 5,000 meals.

It was one of the most gruelling times, but very rewarding as well. Because we could work to make sure that families do not go hungry.

Now, most businesses can come back to work. The schools, shopping centres and theatres are still closed but small businesses are starting to operate. We have 50% of our staff working one day and 50% working the other day. Coming back to 80% operational is a good scenario for us to be in in the next six months.

This is a storm we have to let pass. And what this has taught me is that we're not alone. Because, as long as you're doing good work, you do find people who are willing to help.”

Roshan Miranda was talking to Sasha Gallick. Read more about Waste Ventures India.

Header photo: Waste Ventures India.

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