Innovation in the developing world, as many people may tend to think, comes from either large conglomerates or small entrepreneurial communities which have had the good fortune of venture backing. Especially in a free market economy, such as India’s, innovation is often thought of as the mandate of thriving businesses equipped with the know-how.
In Mumbai, India’s economic powerhouse, the real social innovation is coming from the grassroots. These are people, who despite having little, are the answer to Mumbai’s mounting waste management problem.
The dwellers of the Dharavi slum, the largest in Asia, have created a massive recycling industry. Invaluable for the social impact it has created, the slum’s existence is supported by high-strung officials and ordinary civilians alike. Using simple machines in their home factories, these dwellers are recycling anything from plastic bottles and metal cans to paper and cotton, saving the city from the wrath of its own garbage. Over 80% of the plastic waste of Mumbai is recycled in the Dharavi slum.
As the consumerism of Mumbai’s upper and middle classes disposes of thousands of tons of waste material everyday, energetic young men of Dharavi sift through piles of trash to gather anything with the potential of being recycled. Different types of junk is given a new life and then sold for a bargain. With support from non-profit organizations such as ACORN International, rag-pickers are taught how to manage solid dry waste.
With an increasing number of micro-entrepreneurs entering the recycling business, this industry has seen an astonishing level of organic growth. The slum produces a jaw-dropping $1.3 billion worth of recycled output every year. There are approximately 400 recycling units, and the number is increasing every month.
Spreading across approximately 174 hectares, this slum is like any other. It lacks food and proper sanitation and is rife with squalor. For a few hours everyday, some areas of the slum are supplied water and electricity. Despite making only a fraction of the salaries earned by their counterparts in more developed areas of Mumbai, many of these dwellers are finally finding their way out of poverty through the huge demand for their services. Needless to say, environmentalists are in full praise of this green industry, a rarity in the hustling cites of India.
Having spent a few years in India, I find this commendable. I have not seen the Dharavi slum, however; I’ve seen many other slums, just like those depicted in Slumdog Millionaire. That slum dwellers could become social entrepreneurs within their own capacity to fight for survival never crossed my mind.
The Dharavi example made me wonder; do we always need a team of experts and comprehensive research data to innovate? Is it not about solving the problems in front of us and seeking ways to improve what is defined and traditional? To the Dharavi dwellers, the waste piled up around their homes was not a problem, it was an opportunity. They became rag-pickers and set up mini factories with whatever little they had. In time, they turned Dharavi from being Mumbai’s biggest headache to one of its greatest assets, setting an example for similar communities around the world.
A marketing professional turned entrepreneur, Vyoma avidly supports and practices open innovation. Earlier this year, she founded Colspark LLC (www.colspark.com), a crowdsourcing platform to help companies tap into student talent for ideas and solutions.