“We make religion sustainable,” says Ankit Agarwal, the 28-year-old cofounder of Indian startup Kanpur Flowercycling. Agarwal and his partner Karan Rastogi collect millions of tons of flowers left temples and mosques, then turn the waste into products like incense sticks, soaps, and eco-packaging, under the brand HelpUsGreen. In the process, they stop pesticide-infused roses and marigolds from polluting the already dirty Ganges river and provide jobs for lower-income women who previously didn’t have them. It’s the winner of the consumer products category of Fast Company’s 2018 World Changing Ideas Awards.
The founders saw that flowers left at religious sites are a unique waste challenge. For sacred reasons, they can’t simply be thrown into landfills, so they end up in the river. Agarwal and Rastogi looked for second-uses that are respectful to the flowers’ original purpose, like incense sticks that can be used for worship.
The friends now employ 1,200 women to collect the flowers, many of whom traditionally didn’t have formal employment. “Many of them are more confident now,” Agarwal tells Fast Company. “They’re earning more than their husbands. They get some say in the decisions that are made in the home and they’re saving money so they can send their children to school.”
Religious flower waste doesn’t sound a particularly promising basis for a startup. But in India, religion is a serious business and the scale of flower waste is truly monumental. Agarwal says Kanpur Flowercycling already collects some 7.2 tons of flowers a day from two dozen sites. But it’s just scratching the surface. By 2020, he believes the startup can gather 50 tons a day and branch out into new products. It is currently developing a leather-like material that can be turned into handbags and shoes.
“We’re receiving dozens of calls and emails every day from people across the country–and Bangladesh and Nepal–who want to replicate our model. The world needs 10,000 startups like us,” he says.
Correction: We’ve updated this article to remove the fact that the women employed by the company are lower-caste. We apologize for the error.