Why I loved working for the Earthian Challenge
If you haven’t heard of Wipro Earthian, it is a Nationwide Sustainability challenge inviting students to prove their mettle in the field of sustainability and I happen to be a part of the winning team in the year 2016. Now it is simple to say that I loved the work because it was for a good cause, but that is not the primary reason.
More than the cause itself, it was the journey we took to achieve it made it fun and worthwhile. It included strategy, operations, data analytics and building relations with the people involved. We had a team of two, Jahnvi Jethanandani from IIM Shillong and I representing IIM Shillong with our faculty coordinator Dr. Sanjeeb Kakoty. My role primarily was in project management, operations and analytics.
1. It wasn’t just execution. We got to strategize.
Wipro Earthian is a sustainability challenge where a team has to identify a local sustainability issue and propose solutions to tackle it. We had a team of only two people along with a faculty coordinator to guide us. Among an array of sustainability challenges which the city of Shillong was facing, we had to explore one specific issue in-depth.
After briefly exploring issues like water management, traffic, education in sustainability, transportation etc. we decided that we want to go ahead Solid Waste Management in Shillong.
The reason for this decision was important, this issue not just had the maximum impact on the city but unlike others, a model for solid waste management for Shillong would be replicable in other cities of the North-East as well and will have the potential to generate the maximum impact overall.
Strategy was all along the path of the competition, figuring out who were the primary stakeholders, what are the goals that we were trying to achieve which organizations and people do we need to partner with.
2. Uniqueness in the Challenges
Every issue has different nuances that make it unique. But more or less you find a solution that has been applied to a similar situation and tweak it to suit your particular challenge. This was not the case here.
Shillong falls under Schedule VI of the Constitution of India- which lays down a framework for autonomous decentralized governance with legislative and executive powers- this includes issues like water, land, waste management, local customs, and culture.
This means, like any other city in India, waste management cannot go through an integrated or centralized route through the municipality or any government structure. Furthermore, the terrain of Shillong creates a barrier in transportation which is not seen in the major cities.
Apart from these unique barriers, there was language. Both of us were not familiar with the Native language “Khasi” and the native culture and practices. Creating a solution sensitive to the culture of the region would require understanding its needs in depth.
3. Managing operations and logistics
There were two parts to creating a solution, collecting information to identify the problem and partnering with intermediaries to build an end-to-end solution that yielded the most benefit to all the stakeholders.
Collecting information (Apart from secondary research, of course) required meeting government officials, local residents and shop-owners, intermediaries in the waste management process including entrepreneurs, vendors, recyclers and the rag pickers working in the landfill to get a hold of the challenges and perspectives of the stakeholders.
Building a solution meant getting in touch with people who could provide us ideas in what can be done to optimize the output of a waste management system, who will be the people involved in implementing such a system and most of all meeting the residents. If the people of the city were unwilling to participate in the solution, the solution was dead in its tracks. We met with entrepreneurs who had previously worked in this area, we tried convincing leaders of the different communities to participate in the solution, we met with local organizations to use their knowledge of the local community.
At the end we had zeroed-in on a solution called Bokashi composting which required lesser trenching space to build manure in just seven days. This required segregation of the waste at source needing heavy participation from the members of the community.
4. Data Analysis… Yum
This is the part that was most enjoyable for me. Given the undeveloped condition of the waste management process in Shillong, we did not have much data on our hands. Instead, we merged all the data we could find from reliable sources on demographics of the city and waste management trends in similar locations to find the closest and realistic estimates on the current situations.
Then came building the solution. Bokashi composting was only a part of the solution. We needed answers to questions like:
Who would segregate the waste? Who would collect it? Where would it be trenched? Who would buy and sell the manure? Who would profit from the revenues? Who would sponsor the infrastructure?
All these answers came with data.
We included all the costs involved, returns on the sale of recyclables of manure under different conditions and locations, incentives of the labor force involved in the process.
We complied all our research into six models that gave different results in terms of monetary benefits and feasibility and compared it to the existing conditions. Method G is representative of the existing conditions.
You can find all the analysed data in the original report here.
It was not just that the solution proposed for decentralizing the waste management process of a city to a community level was recognized as one of the best in the Nation. But also, this solution was awarded an additional TN Khoso award for being the most practically implementable solution.
Start to finish it was a great experience, and it goes to show what a good team can achieve. Credits to my teammate Jahnvi Jethanandani and our mentor Dr. Sanjeeb Kakoty, who made it possible.