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Strengthening the informal waste ecosystem for better management of post-consumer recyclable waste in Urban India | A case study in Chennai

To develop technology that improves lives in the informal waste ecosystem, and helps divert waste waste away from the landfill.

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*Please Upload User Experience Map (as attachment) and any additional Beneficiary Feedback in this field

Explain your project idea in two sentences.

Improve upon our ICT technology that helps streamline waste management in Indian cities, and supplement it with an IVR educational platform, as well as a toolkit for the kabadiwallas

What is your organization name? Explain your organization in one sentence.

Kabadiwalla Connect | Smart waste management solutions powered by the informal sector.

Is this project idea new for you or your organization? If no, how much have you already executed on?

The project builds upon our ICT technology that helps connect households to their local kabadiwalla, as well as our B2B solution, which allows kabadiwallas to easily sell to our Materials Recovery Facility. New components will be the IVR educational platform and the kabadiwalla toolkit.

What is the problem you aim to solve with this idea? How would you define this problem as urgent and a priority in your target community?

We aim to solve the problem of improper waste management in Indian cities, which currently generates close to 70 million tons of waste every year, over 90% of which gets sent to the landfill. Concurrently, we hope to improve the lives of stakeholders in the informal waste ecosystem.

What is the timeline for your project idea? What are the key steps for implementation in the next 1-3 years?

The key steps to implementation for us would be: 1. Product-market fit: which will include user testing and product prototyping with the intended target groups (1 year) 2. Pilot roll-out and review: Which would include deploying the IVR platform and Kabadiwalla toolkit along with our ICT platform in a test neighbourhood and collect feedback for review (6-10 months). 3. Go-to-market strategy: Using feedback from the pilot develop a comprehensive strategy to deploy our offerings city-wide (3-6)

Describe the individual or team that will implement this idea (if a partnership, please explain breakdown of responsibility).

The Kabadiwalla Connect leadership team would implement this idea, along with inputs from it's advisory team. We will look to collaborate with the Municipal Corporation of Chennai, who we are already engaging with as we pilot our ICT platform and, who develop IVR technology.

What do you need the most support with in this project idea?

  • Program/Product/Service Design

What is your primary goal over the next 6 weeks of Refinement?

  • Collaborate with others in the sector

How do you currently measure (or plan to measure) results for this project?

We currently measure impact from our ICT platform by the number of active users that use our B2C app (recykle), as well as the number of kabadiwallas that enroll with us to use our B2B service and sell material to us. For our IVR educational platform, we plan to measure daily users, as well as collect information on it's impact through routine surveys and interviews. With the toolkit, we plan to work with kabadiwalla's enrolled and track impact on productivity, health and safety.

How has your project proposal changed due to your user research during the Beneficiary Feedback Phase?

No, we currently work with our user group very closely already, and changes to our intervention will probably come once work starts in earnest and we are able to study our user group needs in much more detail.


Waste and climate change:

At a global scale, the waste management sector makes a relatively minor contribution to greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions, estimated at approximately 3-5% of total anthropogenic emissions in 2005. However, the waste sector is in a unique position to move from being a minor source of global emissions to becoming a major saver of emissions. Although minor levels of emissions are released through waste treatment and disposal, the prevention and recovery of wastes (i.e. as secondary materials or energy) avoids emissions in all other sectors of the economy. A holistic approach to waste management has positive consequences for GHG emissions from the energy, forestry, agriculture, mining, transport, and manufacturing sectors.

Indian Cities and Waste Management:

The generation of Municipal Solid Waste (MSW) is overriding the population growth rate in all mega-cities in India. In Chennai (India) for example, the population growth between 1991 and 2001 was 21%, while its waste generation grew 61% between 1996 and 2002.

Furthermore, the economic and demographic growth of cities, coupled with changing lifestyles of people, changing land use patterns and technological advancements have led to an increase in the complexity of urban MSW management. Nationally, MSW generated in cities increased from 6 teragrams in 1947 to 48 teragrams in 1997 with a per capita increase of 1– 1.33% per year.

Improper Solid Waste Management is a systemic problem for all of India’s cities, and a study found that 91% of all solid waste is collected and dumped unscientifically in open landfills. Currently, an estimated 18% of waste going to Chennai’s landfills everyday can be recycled, and on average this number varies between 15%-25% depending on which city’s waste is examined. Landfills in Indian cities are fast reaching maximum capacity and there is a critical need to manage post-consumer waste effectively.

At an aggregate level, most of the waste generated in urban India are from households and apartments. However, municipal infrastructure, as well as it's protocols to collect segregated waste from these small and medium waste generators is severely lacking. 

Scrap Dealer (Kabadiwalla) Ecosystem: 

Apart from official systems of waste management in India’s major cities, which is handled by the city municipality, there is a robust ‘informal’ economy of traders in recyclable waste materials, that mainly consist of waste pickers, scrap dealers (Kabadiwallas), and wholesalers traders. Their main incentive is financial profit- waste pickers collect materials, which they sell to kabadiwallas.  The Kabadiwallas sell the materials to specialised wholesalers, who in turn sell the materials to recycling factories. Together, these traders form an important ecosystem of handling recycled waste in the city. 

Despite their contribution to ensuring that less waste enters the city landfills, they remain largely ignored in mainstream discussions on waste management. The Kabadiwalla ecosystem remains invisible in Indian cities with its impact unquantified and very little is done to improve its efficiency in delivering an effective way for residents, commercial establishments and Industries to send less waste material to the cities landfills.

Explain your idea

Predicated on a systematic approach to mapping the informal sector, and considering primary scrap aggregators as the crucial agents of change in the informal waste ecosystem, we have, over the last two years developed two key interventions that have the potential to disrupt the current status quo — which will help small and medium waste generators manage their waste responsibly in cities in India. We have currently mapped over a thousand kabadiwallas in Chennai. Our solution consists of the following. 1. A free app that helps waste generators in the city connect to their closest primary scrap aggregator (kabadiwalla). The app employs a conversational interface that provides people simple information on how to segregate and compost at home, making it easy to connect to their closest kabadiwalla, as well as allow them to sign up for local events like composting and rooftop gardening workshops. Another important function of the app is that it recommends prices that different types of recyclable material should be sold at to help residents get good prices for their materials. 2. India's first ‘smart’ Materials Recovery Facility (MRF) that uses ICT (a set of android apps, call service and admin dashboard) to efficiently purchase recyclable waste from even the smallest aggregators in the ecosystem at a transparent price-point and ensuring pickup within 24 hours. Our MRF provides a formal route for informal aggregators to sell to. We operate like a buying club — offering the best prices to even the smallest of aggregators. We currently have processed over 100 tons of PET plastic to date. We are proposing to improve upon our ICT offering through the BridgeBuilder Challenge, as well as develop an IVR educational platform in collaboration with ( that contains important information on materials handling — through which we hope to bridge the gap between methods employed by informal kabadiwallas and waste-pickers and the more formal processors in the city. Finally, we also hope to develop a toolkit that Kabadiwallas can use to improve their productivity, as well as their health and safety practices at their scrap-shop.

Who Benefits?

From a social perspective the beneficiaries are: 1. Small and medium waste generators in Chennai - small waste generators like houses, small shops and commercial establishments will be able to use our service to find their local scrap-aggregator and dispose of their recyclable waste properly. They will also be able to get the information and services that they need to help them manage their organic waste at home. 2. Small scrap-dealers and their waste-pickers and itinerant buyers in Chennai – our MRF and technology interventions directly helps create better incomes and provide a more effective sourcing mechanism for the small waste pickers and aggregators in the city. From an environmental perspective our solution helps streamline the management of recyclable and organic waste generated at households, apartments and small businesses in the city, keeping it away from the landfill and the city's rivers and oceans.

How is your idea unique?

We are India's first social enterprise that's built around the informal sector in both B2C and B2B revenue streams. A more comprehensive comparison to other models is provided in the attachment.

Idea Proposal Stage

  • Piloting: I have started to implement my solution as a whole with a first set of real users.

Tell us more about you

Kabadiwalla Connect is an award winning, technology based, waste management solutions provider located in Chennai, India. Inspired by the local Kabadiwalla, who are small scrap aggregators found in Indian cities & cities in the developing world, our ICT platform helps lower barriers that prevent residents from participating in recycling and composting— leveraging the informal waste ecosystem and helping divert waste from the landfill. Our work has been recognised by several leading organisations like MIT, The World Economic Forum, the Smart City Expo Network, Autodesk, Launch, and the Global Partnership for Sustainable Development Data.

Expertise in sector

  • 1-2 years

Organization Filing Status

  • Yes, we are a registered company.


Join the conversation:

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Hi Siddharth and Team! We’re excited to share with you feedback and questions from the BridgeBuilder team and an external set of experts. We encourage you to think about this feedback as you continue to improve and refine your idea. You are welcome to respond in the comments section and/or to incorporate feedback into the text of your idea. Your idea and all associated comments will all be reviewed during the final review process.

Based on expert career, work and experience, is this a new approach or bold way of answering the challenge question:
• This appears to be a new approach to addressing the question of how to increase the segregation of waste streams to fuel recycling processes in mega-cities such as Chennai. However, this is an approach that will require significant user uptake, manufacturing of equipment, and a broad spectrum public education and awareness campaign. As such, there are multiple potential fail points with this approach that if not adequately addressed prior to a wide-scale launch of the program will result in disruptions or even failures. We would love to hear more from the organization on these potential risks in the implementation process – there’s a great chance they’ve likely thought through, and it would benefit their proposal to have that info here.

Desirability and Viability of proposal:
• Should the implementation of this idea prove successful, the intended output has the potential to seed a paradigm shift in how waste is managed in mega-cities - decreasing waste going into landfills, creating jobs, and increasing individual household income. Huge.
• While the idea is plausible, implementation will be complex as it will require manufacturing of equipment (plastic shredder), uptake of the mobile application, creation and dissemination of toolkits, etc. If the idea takes off in the initial phases of implementation, it should be able to become self-sustaining. However, this is entirely reliant upon a successful roll out of the idea from the outset. We’d be excited to see how this unrolls.

Feasibility of proposal (is this an idea that could be brought to life?):
• I would like to see the implementation of this idea further developed. I believe it has a lot of merit, but it is unclear whether the challenges associated with implementing a complex, multi-faceted program such as this, have really been thought through. I’d be interested to see a more granular address of a few flags raised in regards to application, implementation and social implications.

Other questions or suggestions our experts felt would support the assessment or success of your idea:
• What types of policy implications might arise? Would love to see context or research on this piece.
• How do you select sub-populations or partners for early stage prototyping?

In case you missed it, check out this Storytelling Toolkit for inspiration for crafting strong and compelling stories: Storytelling is an incredibly useful tool to articulate an idea and make it come to life for those reading it. Don’t forget - June 16 at 11:59PM PST is your last day to make changes to your idea on the OpenIDEO platform.
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Looking forward to reading more!

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Dear expert panel,

Thank you so much for your feedback, and the many positive comments on our approach to solving the waste management crisis in India.

We agree that it is indeed a complex problem to solve that has many moving parts, and over the last two years our approach has been one of evidence based testing and research, and our current interventions and roll-out strategy reflects this process.

Two years ago, we started with a simple question — how much post-consumer waste does the informal sector process at an ecosystem level, and can we use technology to help more residents in the city connect to their closest scrap-dealer. To that end, we started mapping kabadiwallas (small primary scrap shops) in the city and asking a lot of questions about what the nature of their ecosystem was. It included questions about materials collected, price-points, support networks and demographics.

A map of Kabadiwallas in the city that we have mapped so far can be accessed here - [usr: kabadiwallaconnect | password: kabadi2017].

We started writing about what we were learning as well:

We are now working with our research advisor to write up a white paper on our findings, which we plan to publish in a scientific journal. We believe that this is an important aspect of our work as there is still a very simplistic understanding of the 'informal' sector at large, and our work can play an important part in advancing the discussion on informality and the role of ICT.

Through this exercise we began to understand the contours of the informal ecosystem in Chennai (and by extension urban India) and realised that there is an interesting opportunity to develop a technology based for-profit business that's centred around the informal sector. The details of this intervention and the technology used is in an attached document (KC_Brief). Our more ambitious goal is to prove that with technology and a little nudging, the informal waste ecosystem in urban India (and perhaps other cities in the developing world) represent a cheaper, inclusive and more efficient way of resource recovery.

Our initial research was funded through a grant from the World Economic Forum ( and now to build on our research on informality and the opportunity for technology we have won a grant from the World Bank and the UN Foundation (

As mentioned before our approach has been one of evidence based research, and with regards to our business we have seen traction on our B2C application and interest from residents to use the technology to start selling into the informal sector. More exciting, we have seen interest from other groups like local municipalities, NGOs and large apartment buildings to use our B2C application, which opens up interesting opportunities for a SaaS based model.

With our B2B solution, the results are clear, it is fairly easy to work with kabadiwallas, and we have procured and sold almost 150 tons of material at our pilot Materials Recovery Facility. Through our partnership with the Launch Circular innovation ecosystem (, we are working with some phenomenal partners to build out a customised and commercially viable MRF that can procure all grades of plastics that Kabadiwallas collect.

The development of the IVR system and Kabadiwalla toolkit are the next steps we would like to take in this process, as it can add tremendous value on both our B2C and B2B efforts, and we hope to work with the IDEO team to make this happen.

I'd like to conclude by saying that while I will in no way dispute that it is indeed a complicated landscape, but by focusing on approaching our interventions with this kind of evidence based approach we have seen some success, and we believe that it is actually not that hard to design solutions that work with this mindset.

The implications of our work has the potential to make a tangible difference into the policies and strategies for working with the informal sector in resource recovery and the circular economy in general, and we hope to have the opportunity to work with the IDEO team to help magnify our impact.

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