Deepa Gangwani: Fomenting Change for Indian Trash Collectors

BY William Harless  March 21, 2013 at 9:15 AM EDT


Deepa Gangwani explains how her group Together as One field-tested a cheaper cook stove.

A shocking incident involving her maid and a trash collector helped set Deepa Gangwani on her quest to help the poor communities near where she lived in India.

By her mid-30s, Gangwani, the daughter of two Indian shopkeepers, had picked up an MBA from Stanford and spent several years consulting for health care and renewable energy companies. She was professionally a success but — surrounded by her country’s poverty — was suffering an existential crisis, asking whether she was doing anything really meaningful with her life. That was three years ago.

No longer working from offices in cities like Mumbai and Kolkata, Gangwani took the NewsHour’s call from a small municipality in southeastern India, where she was networking with one of the many nongovernmental organizations she hopes will take a look at a bioenergy system she’s helped engineer over the past few years.

It’s made of a set of composting bins and a distillation tube that turn foods scraps and agricultural detritus into ethanol and animal feed and that Gangwani envisions being set up in towns across India to help generate a more stable source of electricity. These systems would also establish a more dignified type of work for India’s trash collectors.

Gangwani first took an interest in trash when she was volunteering for a community organization helping to improve the quality of living of the women trash collectors in her hometown of Pondicherry. These are women who go door-to-door collecting trash by hand and who are often looked down upon in India.

At a meeting with some of these women in 2009, Gangwani learned that the maid at her own home had, in a fit of annoyance not long before, dumped a pile of garbage on another trash collector’s head. She was shocked this had happened in her house, where she felt she treated those who worked with her with respect.

“We consider ourselves to be very civilized and to treat people with dignity, and yet we haven’t been able to overcome some of these very deep prejudices that exist,” Gangwani said, speaking about the middle class milieu she’s witnessed.

Gangwani decided to quit her consulting job and launched Together as One, her bioenergy nonprofit, which she intends to make self-sustaining through the sale and partial ownership of the ethanol-producing systems, designed together with researchers and students at the Indian Institute of Technology in Mumbai and with $60,000 in venture funding from Echoing Green, a New York nonprofit that helps social entrepreneurial startups.

About 10 workers are needed to operate each system, which Gangwani says will produce enough ethanol to provide energy to 100 families a year. In India hundreds of millions of people live without stable electricity.

With the design finished and a test system successfully running at a research institute in Pune, India, Gangwani said she and other nongovernmental and community organizations are embarking on recruiting waste workers across the country to manage a series of hub-and-spoke energy systems centered around these energy-generating machines. Workers at each site would truck agricultural leftovers and food scraps from surrounding fields and towns to the centralized fermentation site, where they’d dump the garbage into a series of giant covered bins. A yeast culture is added to this organic garbage, which ferments for three days, and the resulting liquid is fed into a distillation column, where it’s heated and transformed into ethanol.

No towns have yet installed one of the systems, but in practice, villagers could buy this ethanol and carry it home, using the fuel to power farming equipment, stoves and other small utilities. Of the solid waste that’s left after the ethanol is produced, a portion could be sold as animal feed, and the rest would be converted to methane, used to power the entire system. With much of a town’s organic “wet waste” gotten rid of this way, the town’s other trash pickers wouldn’t have to dig through as much sludge to gather the plastics and other recyclables they sell.

Thanks to earlier government subsidies for community-scale biogas plants, Indian townships are already comfortable with the idea of local bioenergy plants. The problem, according to Gangwani, is the existing bioenergy plants primarily produce a gas, which has to be pumped out to the villages, not a liquid fuel like ethanol that can be sold in a can.

“We run into villages where we’ll see a biogas plant five kilometers away from someone’s home, and they’ll have a string of pipes running over all kinds of towers, piping the gas into homes in all sorts of dangerous configurations,” she said.

Gangwani intends to manage Together as One as a nonprofit but says the organization — which is registered in California, where two of its five-member board live — will keep an ownership stake in the energy systems it distributes so that it can recoup its investment costs and continue to grow, sustainably. Her goal is to install 100 of the systems in 2013, and she envisions installing 20,000 in India over the next three years and licensing the technology to organizations in other countries.

Vivek Wadhwa, vice president of academics and innovation at Singularity University in Moffett Field, Calif., said he thinks the Together as One concept is great but might be difficult to implement on a large scale if it’s dependent on the involvement of nongovernmental organizations.

“If I was talking to (Gangwani), I would encourage her to go ahead and do it and try it out in a couple of small towns and villages, but I’m not optimistic she’ll be able to get it spread widely unless she comes up with some kind of invention that’s so easy to replicate” it can be set up without much NGO involvement, he said.

“It’s easy to build some technology; it’s easy to reach a few people. The question is how are you going to impact the whole of India. How are you going to take it beyond one region and take it to another region? This is where the problems always are.”

But Gangwani isn’t daunted and said the goal is for each local energy system to generate profit enough to operate on its own.

“We recognize that the need right now is to generate capital at the grassroots level,” she said. “It’s not just that we’re looking for a way to provide lighting or the ability to charge a mobile phone. What we’re really looking to do is to leap out of this background of energy poverty to one where people could actually generate additional opportunities for their livelihoods.”

Slide show by David Pelcyger. The NewsHour’s Agents for Change series highlights individuals helping communities solve problems, build businesses and create jobs. We’ll feature 10 of these social entrepreneurs just starting to make their mark, and invite your recommendations for others — tweet us @NewsHourWorld and use hashtag #AgentsforChange. Or you can post them below in the comments section.