Madhumita Puri talks about Trash to Cash, a venture that gives people with disabilities an opportunity to earn a livelihood — by recycling waste material into marketable products

One often comes across a dressed up cycle rickshaw laden with colourful artefacts parked bang in the middle of various fairs in Delhi. Behind it stand two or three members of a cross disability group doing brisk business – quoting prices in speech or sign language, accepting cash or dishing out change.

A closer look at the products reveals cassette tape reel transformed into innovative bags, pens crafted from fading newsprint, file covers designed from throwaway fabric, Holi colours and rangoli powder manufactured from yesterday’s flowers — in short, trash refurbished to earn cash.

Trash to Cash is a venture that was recently chosen as the first winner of the United Nations Economic and Social Commission for Asia and the Pacific (ESCAP)-Sasakawa Award in the Disability-Inclusive Entrepreneurial Business category in Asia and the Pacific.

CEO of the enterprise Madhumita Puri, who received the award in Bangkok, pioneered this effort of giving people with disabilities an opportunity to earn a livelihood even as they recycle waste material into marketable products. “In combination with our environmentally conscientious approach, this business model is not only profitable, it is sustainable,” she says.

The proof of her words lies in the centre she runs in north Delhi’s Shakti Nagar and in the story of trials, errors, triumphs and failures that she and the 120 member workforce have faced through a long, adventurous voyage from the ‘90s till date.

The beginning

A clinical psychologist not content with working in the genetics unit of a hospital, Madhumita ventured out on her own to start The Society for Child Development and a school called Prabhat for persons with intellectual disability. She chose north Delhi because it severely lacked services for the disabled, especially for migrants and others who belonged to the fringes of society. “Quality education was missing, so we developed workbooks that would guide the students and teachers along. But over the years I realised that parents were not convinced, especially the daily wagers who were preoccupied with eking out a living. They felt school for these kids didn’t serve a purpose as their future was in any case dim. That’s when I took the plunge into vocational training and Trash to Cash is an outcome of this.”

At first Madhumita found that though she received accolades from many, no money was forthcoming. “There was not enough for raw material, so we started collecting dry waste that costs nothing – audio, video tapes, paper, fabric, vinyl banners, flower garlands discarded by neighbourhood temples. That became our raw material, which we then converted to utility items that we designed and perfected along the way.”

A flowering idea

Turning fresh flowers into colours for playing Holi and powder for rangoli at Diwali has become a mainstay for the organisation. But it did not come easy. It all started with trying to clean the surroundings of the space given to them by a Good Samaritan in Rajpur Road when they started out with the vocational centre. The priest at the temple close by was in the habit of piling up the garlands brought by devotees out on the street. Madhumita and her team decided to dispose them off in a river nearby, but when they visited the water site they found it contaminated beyond belief.

“The river was so dirty that we brought the flowers back and wondered what could be done with them. Could we use it as raw material for a product? I carefully studied its strengths and found that though the fragrance could not be tapped, the colour could. A lot of Internet surfing and research led me to learn how to make dry Holi colours from it, thus we started the Avacayam Project — organic colours for Holi — and haven’t looked back since.”

Today Trash to Cash collects flowers from 60 temples and 11 hotels across the city and teams up with six NGOs in the disability sector to produce packet after packet of eco-friendly colour. The recent award which was administered with the Nippon Foundation has, in fact, given the flowers project a larger play. With the grant of around $1,00,000 that it is going to receive from Nippon,

Madhumita wants to expand the business to locations outside the Capital, establishing business hubs in Karnataka, West Bengal, Madhya Pradesh, Tamil Nadu and Uttar Pradesh.

Training, the key

With 65 per cent of the workforce comprising people with disabilities, the organisation has been able to evolve methods and processes that involve the strengths of each person with disability. “That’s why we have a cross disability group. For instance, in making Holi colours people with visual disability do the cutting and packaging, while the cognitively functional make the colours. In other products too, we have adapted machines for them, training each one to pay attention to the smallest detail, focussing also on their internal discipline to finish the work they start. In this way we can involve all disabilities – cerebral palsy, autism, hearing, visual, intellectual, even old age,” explains Madhumita who, like many in the disability sector, strongly feels that each one should be empowered to make their own decisions and each one’s decision must be respected by all. The biggest barrier is often the family, which does not allow the person to venture out and make a life of their own even while they give the needed support. At Trash to Cash the 120- strong workforce (of which 90 are persons with disabilities) take home a living, contributing to the family income (as the sole earning members, in some cases).

Revenue model

To ensure that each one takes home a pay packet every month is not an easy task, and though sometimes the pay-day date varies it happens without a glitch. Trash to Cash depends on retail, wholesale and exports to ensure that the cash flows into the pockets of those who need it. “We never miss an opportunity to sell and we never close any door or window, for if we don’t sell we won’t get paid. So, that’s the challenge and everyone is in it together,” Madhumita says. The CEO herself, however, does a voluntary job, making her living by writing and editing for medical journals.

The ESCAP-Sasakawa award could be a turning point for the organisation, for it will now have the opportunity to go beyond a hand-to-mouth existence. “For me,” says Madhumita, “this disability inclusive work has been very enriching — a personal journey, others’ journeys and many shared journeys.”