When two childhood friends, Ankit Agarwal and Karan Rastogi, saw flower waste choking water bodies in and around Kanpur, they decided to do something about it. And the idea they came up with to clean the mess has today turned into a much-acclaimed, socially-responsible enterprise that has created a niche for itself across international markets.
Anishaa Kumar | March 2017 Issue | The Dollar Business
In early 2015, two youngsters from Kanpur set out on a journey to find a solution to the growing menace of flower waste that was polluting the water bodies around the temples in Kanpur. Devotees would offer flowers at temples, which at the end of the day would find their way to the already polluted Ganges and other water bodies. For young entrepreneurs, Ankit Agarwal and Karan Rastogi, this desire to ‘do good’ gave birth to an innovative brand – Help Us Green. Come today, this barely 21-month-old company has entered the specialised market of organic incense and fertiliser exports and managed to make an impressive start at it.
The seed of an idea
It was a visit by a friend from Denmark in 2014 that sparked the idea of Help Us Green. It was this friend that had suggested him [Agarwal] to do something to help clean the ghats (river banks) along the famous Ganges in Kanpur that had become extremely polluted with factory and flower waste. Agarwal shared the idea with his childhood friend, Karan Rastogi, and together they took up the challenge of coming up with a sustainable business model that would help clean up the waste. The way forward had to be an eco-friendly process of creating a product from the waste. And after a year of research, Help Us Green launched a range of 100% handmade organic fertilisers (biofertilisers) and incense sticks that were made from the flower waste collected from the river.
Hard fought wins
While the duo tasted success with apparent ease, the initial days were tough. Although lack of money and the many regulatory hurdles played their parts, convincing family members and people around them proved to be the biggest challenge. Before starting Help Us Green, Agarwal worked at Symantec, the global cyber security giant, while Rastogi, who had graduated from Warwick Business School (UK), had come back to India to join his family shoe-manufacturing business. Naturally, when they expressed a desire to leave behind their stable careers and start a business in an altogether unexplored segment, family and friends were shocked. Even temple authorities were surprised when the duo first approached them to take the flowers to manufacture incense. “They didn’t believe that two young boys could do such a thing,” says Agarwal.
With an initial investment of just Rs.80,000, the duo had to use innovative methods while starting out in order to save money. Even packaging in the initial days was done using discarded boxes from a local liquor packaging unit. They also made a deal with the owner of the farm they operated from, to provide two tonne of compost every month in exchange for using the farm. In addition, they promised to assist him in getting his farm Ecocert certified, making it Kanpur’s first Ecocert certified farm.
Help Us Green started their journey with two products: Mitti (a vermicompost fertiliser) and Sticks and Stones (incense from flower waste). While the vermicomposting process is simple, according to Agarwal, what makes Help Us Green different is that they use 17 different waste elements. Agarwal explains, “One of the elements we use is coffee residue. We collect all the coffee residue from coffee shops, such as Café Coffee Day and Barista in Kanpur, and add it to the vermicompost. We use waste elements that help boost the NPK (nitrogen, phosphorous and potassium) value of the fertiliser.” Another differentiator for all Help Us Green products is that they are Ecocert (Ecocert is a French certification for organic and environmentally-friendly agri-products) certified.
As these two products gained acceptance in foreign markets, the duo ventured into producing Yagya – incense sticks made from cow dung – on being advised by many to “produce something for the Indian market too”. With Yagya, they also ventured into an innovative form of packaging. Like most incense sticks packets in India, Help Us Green uses a religious image on the packaging. Agarwal tells, “Whenever there is an image of god on a poster or a card, Indians find it difficult to throw it away. We thought we could solve this problem. We infused Tulsi (basil) seed cellulose with the packaging cellulose. So, once someone has used our product Yagya, they can then simply sow the packaging, water it and basil saplings will grow from it.” Quite an innovative way to reduce packaging waste! Currently, the duo is also working on organic soaps for which they are awaiting government approvals.
The company's current set-up in Kanpur consists of 128 workers alongside groups of men and women who collect flowers and waste to be converted into these products. While rose and marigold flowers are used to make incense sticks, all other biodegradable waste is used for vermicompost. When it comes to incense, disposed flowers are collected, dried and rolled into incense sticks. Till date, they have collected and recycled nearly 435 metric tonne of flowers from 29 religious sites in and around Kanpur.
The project not only helps in keeping the river clean, but also provides employment and education to their employees’ children. The education and employment initiative for children that started as a way to win the confidence and help the manual scavenger community, who work for Help Us Green, has now become a part of the company’s ethos.
Agarwal shares, “We began with teaching the basics like the alphabets to children, but it wasn’t motivating enough for our workers. So, we started connecting the children with other manual labourers like gardeners, masons, etc., so that those who were above the age of 16 could work with them.” That worked, and today they enjoy a strong bonding with our employees and their families.
Hard Work Pays off
Since the launch in 2015, Help Us Green has witnessed an impressive growth. With a focus on exports, the company's first year saw revenues of Rs.63 lakh, of which 98% was from exports. Earnings for the second year, FY2017, has already crossed Rs.2 crore, with domestic sales expanding to 10%. Help Us Green currently exports to Germany and Switzerland, and plans to expand to more countries once the production increases.
Last year, Uttar Pradesh Chief Minister Akhilesh Yadav, impressed by their initiatives, met and promised the duo two acre of land to set up the unit in Varanasi. An increase in production, they say, is expected once the new unit in Varanasi is up and running in April 2017.
Agarwal and Rastogi had also undertaken a pilot project in 2016 in Vijaywada, Andhra Pradesh, during Pushkaralu, a 12-day religious festival on the banks of Krishna river. While the project was a success, Help Us Green has decided to focus on UP for now, as the company currently does not have the bandwidth for the same. “Maybe next year,” adds Agarwal. As of now, the focus will remain on exports from UP.
"The decision to focus on exports came up during our research process," shares Agarwal. The demand and acceptance for eco-friendly products were higher in the developed markets. That is not to say there are no competitors in these markets. Agarwal feels that the competition has been mainly from Germany, as it has been one of the pioneers of organic and eco-friendly products. But if one is to just look at ‘flower recycling’, he believes that that their products are unique.
Unlike most companies that are new to the business, getting a foothold in the export market has been relatively smooth for Help Us Green. With United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) and Ecocert certifications in place (and a Fairtrade certification on the way), they claim to have not faced any issues with regulatory guidelines. For Agarwal, who is a board member of Oikos, a St. Gallen, Switzerland-based international sustainability and education organisation, international contacts came in handy during exports. With Kanpur being home to an inland container depot (ICD) and guidance from a local Kanpur-based company in getting an export licence made the initial process really smooth. “Exporting is easy and offers more profits,” says Agarwal.
Is a smaller market for organic products in India, especially fertilisers and incense, a reason to concentrate more on profitable exports? "No", says Agarwal. The demand, according to him, is instead growing in India. “In India, there is a market for everything. If you go to Flipkart, there is a niche market for incense sticks too, and you will find at least 10 sellers,” he shares positively.
Workers segregating flower waste collected from temples, mosques and river banks at Help Us Green's Unit in Kanpur. The company's current set-up in Kanpur employs 128 workers apart from supporting several groups of garbage collectors in and around the city.
Agarwal however mentions that for a small start-up like Help Us Green, concentrating on exports has had more advantages as you need to deal with a fixed number of buyers and don’t have to keep track of mssultiple issues and requirements at one time. Help Us Green, currently works with only three main international importers.
Of course, being export-oriented does not mean that they are not interested in the domestic market. While they do not have a particular marketing or selling strategy for the domestic market, the products are available for buyers on sites like Flipkart, Snapdeal and Amazon. One can also find their products across the country – from upcycling and eco-friendly store Goli Soda in Chennai, to Handmade Hope in Vadodara and e-commerce NGO and social enterprise, Hope Collective in New Delhi.
In The Limelight
In the process of making a mark in global markets, this innovative social enterprise has also received a number of accolades. For a young start-up, they have an impressive line-up of awards to their credit, from the ISB iDiya Challenge 2015 to the IIT Indore Kalpavriksha Challenge and the IIT-Kanpur Social Challenge 2015. However, Agarwal says that participation and winning haven't been about publicity for the brand. He feels that entering these competitions helps a young start-up like theirs improve upon their products and processes as these competitions are judged by experienced people from the industry. The feedback they receive, Agarwal says, has played a very important role in shaping the company. “We have never tried to sell our products to people by saying that buy this product because it comes from the Ganges or we have won many awards and competitions. We want them to buy it because it's a good product,” adds Agarwal.
Time To Blossom
With the growth in demand, Help us Green is working on its capacity expansion plans. According to Agarwal, during Diwali 2016, they had received huge orders from companies like Landmark Group and TCS. While the orders were for as many as two lakh boxes, Agarwal says, with their current bandwidth, it would take them nearly a year to manufacture the same. Currently, they ‘flowercycle’ around 1.5 tonne flower waste every day, which they hope can be increased to at least 15 tonne a day once the Varanasi unit starts its operations. A ten-fold increase should be enough to take care of the current demand.
The company is also planning to expand to various cities on the banks of the river Ganges, Haridwar for instance, in the coming days. Other producers are also jumping into the fray. But Agarwal is not worried. “We get 10 to 15 calls every day from people who are trying to replicate the model,” he says proudly. Agarwal believes that the company has been a game changer when it comes to managaing the problem arising out of flower waste in the country. “It’s a win-win situation,” he believes if more entrepreneurs come ahead to seize the opportunity. And indeed, over the last few years, start-ups like Mumbai-based Green Wave and Lucknow-based Mission Sakshama have entered the domestic recycled flower incense market, while Help Us Green has been making its presence felt in the international domain.
"Exports to EU accounts for 90% of Help us Green's annual revenue"
On The Fast Lane
For young entrepreneurs, who are planning to get into the field of exports with an innovative product, Help Us Green is a beacon of success. Agarwal believes that if a company can develop a product that is truely unique, the global market is the right place to be. Being unique and having a USP is the key to success feels Agarwal. “Many people are now trying to copy ‘Help Us Green’ but they are unable to get the right product quality, packaging and positioning in place. There has to be a perfect mix,” explains Agarwal. It may be too early to consider Help Us Green to be the perfect model of social entrepreneurship, but the startup definitely seems to have hit the right note with all stakeholders. And it's just a matter of time before it changes track and moves into the fast lane.