Itâ€™s only a 20-minute taxi ride from the Oberoi Hotel, a five-star luxe place where Iâ€™ve been staying in New Delhi, across the brackish Yamuna River to a rundown industrial district in East Delhi where my driver found, with some difficulty, the offices of an extraordinary NGO called Conserve India. The distance may be short but it’s jarring to leave the $500-a-night Oberoi, with its Louis Vitton shop in the lobby and $1,000 bottles of champagne on the wine list, and enter, if only briefly, the world of Anita Ajuha, a creative and determined activist who wants to fight poverty and clean up Delhi’s garbage by connecting its most destitute people with the monied crowd that hangs out at the Oberoi.
How, you ask? By deploying a brigade of rag-pickers to collect thousands upon of plastic bags from around the city, and then turn them into stylish handbags, tote bags, purses, belts and sandals that are sold in boutiques in London, Paris and New York.
Impossible as that may sound, in the space of just a few years, Anita has built a growing business doing just thatâ€”and she recently signed a deal for a joint venture with a major European retailer. Right now, Conserve India employs about 300 people, produces about 5,000 bags a month and brings in about $150,000 in annual revenues. Thatâ€™s real money, given that her workers used to toil under back-breaking conditions for pennies a day.
More important, she thinks can easily double or triple her output with the infusion of capital that will come from her new joint venture with a hip, socially-conscious Danish retailer called Bestseller. Bestsellerâ€™s a big company (15,000 employees) with 3,200 shops in 39 countries. Those outlets can sell a lot of bags.
Most important, thereâ€™s no reason why her idea canâ€™t be duplicated elsewhere in the developing world.
â€œPlastic bags are not an Indian problem,â€ she says. â€œTheyâ€™re a global problem.â€
(By coincidence, after the interview, I had an email about an event held Sunday in Huntington Beach, Californiaâ€”a long way from Delhiâ€”called Paddle for a Plastic Free Ocean, organized by the Earth Resource Foundation and featuring star kayakers and surfers.)
Anita, 47, runs Conserve with her husband, Shalabh, 49. They were not overnight successes. After college, she took a government job, wrote a historical novel about religious tensions in India and worked as a community organizer in Delhi around issues of energy use and conservation, empowerment and the environment. Heâ€™s an engineer, with skills that came in handy when she needed someone to invent machines to turn plastic bags into colorful, water-resistant, durable fabric.
Several of her money-making ventures failed before she hit upon the idea of making bags. She started a local recycling, food-composting system in a Delhi neighborhood, but couldnâ€™t find a market for the compost they produced. â€œDelhi-ites are not into farming or their own gardens,â€ she says. She then tried turning plastic bags into works of artâ€”oil painting is a passion of hersâ€”but realized that the business model wasnâ€™t replicable. She also attempting to sell fabric, but revenues were not sufficient to pay workers a living wage.
A word here about trash collection, such as it is, in Delhi. While the government is theoretically responsible for picking up garbage and bringing it to landfills, that system barely functions. Instead, an army of about 2 millionâ€”yes, 2 millionâ€”ragpickers go around and gather trash, charging families a few rupees a month. (A rupee is worth about 2.5 cents.) They then dump the trash wherever they can, pick through it for anything of value (aluminum cans, plastic bottles, cardboard, broken glass), sell that to recyclers and, most often, burn the rest, which is why the weather here is sometimes described as â€œsmoky.â€
â€œThey are living in the streets and in the garbage all day,â€ Anita tells me. â€œItâ€™s heartbreaking to see.â€ They may be poorly paid but the work they do is invaluable. â€œThe city would be a nightmare without them,â€ she says.
Even so, plastic bags have no value as recyclables, so they pile up, and they take years, if not decades, to degrade. And they are everywhere. â€œFrom the village vendor to the city department store, everyone uses them,â€ Anita says.
Her crews now collect the bagsâ€”they are sent out seeking particular colors, to fill existing ordersâ€”and then wash them by hand, put them through a mechanical process to turn them into fabric, and then stitch them into finished products. Itâ€™s very labor intensive. But because the workers are paid about $70 a month, which is deemed a living wage in Delhi, and because the products can sell for $50 or more, the business model works.
Interestingly, most of the products are sold simply as stylish and unique. Their origins are a secret, perhaps because boutique shoppers would rather not know that their latest purchase began as a plastic bag in a Delhi slums. But a few shops that market them as â€œgreenâ€ have done well. â€œOnce people hear the story, itâ€™s a bonus,â€ Anita says.
A soft-spoken and unassuming woman, Anita is getting some well-deserved attention for Conserve India. I found her through the World Resources Institute; WRIâ€™s India office helped connect her to potential funding sources. Sheâ€™s gotten grants from U.S. AID and was just selected as an Ashoka fellow. Iâ€™m hearing all kinds of interesting stories this week in Delhi, but, so far, Anitaâ€™s is my favorite.