India’s Innovators Bet the Farm to Eliminate $30 Billion Agri-Waste Danger
WHY YOU SHOULD CARE
The world’s sixth-largest economy loses the size of Nepal’s GDP each year to waste-related pollution. But a new generation of entrepreneurs is offering a solution.
For 37-year-old yoga teacher Vidya Paramel, it wasn’t an easy decision to leave her home in New Delhi. But she couldn’t see her 4-year-old boy suffocate, and she refused to hide him away indoors from the smog that engulfed India’s capital every winter. So she moved to Pune in western India. It’s a dilemma millions of New Delhi residents face each year as haze intensifies from the burning of agricultural waste in the neighboring states of Punjab and Haryana and descends on the city. But while the capital is worst hit, air pollution from stubble burning afflicts most major Indian cities, so moving away is only a temporary fix.
Air pollution from the burning of farm waste costs India $30 billion annually — more than next-door Nepal’s entire economy — according to a report published by the International Food Policy Research Institute earlier this month, and it remains a leading risk factor for acute respiratory diseases in the country. The good news? Help is on the way. From using paddy straws to generate bio-coal briquettes or fodder to developing eco-friendly cremation materials, a growing number of startups are promising sustainable waste-to-wealth solutions that could finally help the world’s sixth-largest economy tackle its mounting farm waste head-on. In the process, they’re also holding out a model for other developing countries plagued by piles of agri-waste, from Egypt and Indonesia to Ghana and Nigeria.
In 2018, Neway Renewable Energy, based in Bathinda, Punjab, worked with farmers to clear 20,000 tons of paddy straw in three weeks, turning the waste into bio-coal briquettes. Bengaluru-based Astu Eco launched in February 2017 and builds plates, bowls and kitchen storage boxes out of areca palm sheaths. The company is already working with more than eight farms in Karnataka, says founder Anitha Shankar.
The idea is to create zero waste in the process.
Vijay Limaye, founder, Eco-Friendly Cremation
Saathi pads launched in 2014 and today works with 1,800 banana farmers across four states to create biodegradable sanitary napkins from banana fiber. Made-from-Malai.com, which started in 2017, takes water from brown coconuts — otherwise primarily used for its husk fiber — ferments it and turns it into vegan accessories like wallets and shoes for companies in the Czech Republic and other EU countries.
Eco-Friendly Cremation uses cotton straw, pulse (edible legume) excess, sago extracts and other agricultural waste to create briquettes used for Hindu cremations. It has conducted more than 3,500 cremations in cities such as Indore and Nagpur in central India since its launch three years ago. What’s more, it has begun using the leftover ash from funerals as fertilizer for gardens.
“The idea is to create zero waste in the process,” says Vijay Limaye, EFC founder.
The state of Punjab offers a window into India’s stubble-burning struggle. The state’s farms generate about 20 million tons of paddy straw each year, says Mushtaq Ahmed, CEO of Neway Renewable Energy. They only have about 40 days to clear the waste before the next wheat-growing season. And because the paddy harvest falls in September and October, the fog that develops as temperatures fall in the subsequent months brings the smoke down too, resulting in heavy smog. Nationally, India’s farms generate 500 million metric tons of agricultural waste every year — the weight of 100 million adult elephants.
The impact of air pollution on the health of Indians is increasingly clear. A 2017 study by the Energy Policy Institute at the University of Chicago had estimated that New Delhi residents would live nine years longer if the city met WHO air quality standards. The federal government last year announced a scheme that will focus on conversion of farm waste into bio-slurry, bio-gas and bio-CNG and is estimated to cover 700 districts in 2018–19. The center and several north Indian states also have introduced a ban on stubble burning, and are encouraging farmers to buy partly subsidized but expensive straw-chopping machines at an average cost of nearly $2,000. Most farmers defy the ban, and Ahmed insists there’s no point blaming them unless they’re given alternatives that work. It’s precisely those alternatives that the startups are offering — each with a different strategy and model.
Good intent alone is rarely enough for startups to succeed. Astu Eco is also filling a market gap created by the ban on plastics in multiple Indian states, including Tamil Nadu, Maharashtra, Telangana and Himachal Pradesh, and helping farmers who supply them with areca sheaths. Shankar says the firm has built micro-industries that produce kitchenware from the sheath. Farmers on average earn $200 for waste that they previously burned or dumped in bodies of water. “We see this as the second line of employment for farmers,” says Shankar.
Limaye of EFC is meeting a need that can never end in India: cremation pyres. He was on a bus when he hit upon his idea. He saw a farmer burning his stubble and smoke rising to the sky. “It reminded me of a funeral pyre,” he says. Each Hindu funeral needs about two trees’ worth of wood. “What if we could use agri-waste for the purpose?” he thought.
At Saathi Pads, the founders visited banana farmers before launching their startup and discovered that most were disposing or burning off their trees after harvesting fruit. “Banana trees can only grow fruit once, so after the fruit is grown, the tree is of no use to the farmers,” says Tarun Bothra, co-founder and CTO at Saathi Pads. “So we found an opportunity for us and the farmers.”
Materials researcher and designer Zuzana Gombosova, co-founder of Malai.com, is from Slovakia and already was working with bacterial cellulose when the idea of using coconut water to manufacture vegan accessories struck her during a trip to India. And Durai Singh, an agronomist at Tamil Nadu Agricultural University in Aruppukottai, 30 miles from the city of Madurai, says there’s a lot more that can be done with coconut waste. Even coconut dust can be compressed into fertilizer blocks and exported, he says. Prabhakaran, a farmer from Mangadu, Pudukottai district in Tamil Nadu, agrees that with agri-based agencies taking remains of the coconut crop away right from their fields, his village has no coconut waste — though they’re still struggling with sugarcane waste that they often burn.
The sheer scale of India’s agri-waste represents a challenge for these startups. Just the prospect of transporting paddy straw — each bale weighs 1,550–1,750 pounds — from Punjab made Ahmed shift his company to Bathinda from Chennai, where it was based before. They then set up clusters and machines to process the straw closer to the fields and a larger cluster to generate the bio-coal briquettes. Keeping logistics local was key to their success last year.
Still, some of these products based on agri-waste are costlier than their regular counterparts. While the banana fiber napkins cost $3 per eight-pack (only a little pricier than the normal sanitary napkins in the market), a pack of 20 areca plates costs $5, almost double the price of paper plates.
But the rapid expansion of these startups points to the growing willingness of farmers to partner with them — and of consumers to buy their products, even at a premium. After all, many of the consumers are themselves victims of air pollution. Testifying to that demand, last year Swedish manufacturer Ikea also promised to buy Indian farm waste to use as source materials for its manufacturing process.
And the startups aren’t done. Malai.com is now looking at other agri-waste it can use to grow bacterial cellulose — for instance, pineapple juice processing waste. Ahmed and his team are working with the Punjab government to use coal briquettes as a source of renewable energy and plan to set up 175 plants spanning the state over the next three years. So if you’re in an Indian city and see the air quality improve in the coming years, you know who to thank.