For Hyderabad born and raised Mahek M Shah, the path laid out before him was clear. A B.Tech in Mechanical Engineering from IIT-Madras, he landed a well-paying job at a derivatives trading company in which he went on to develop algorithmic trading tools.
Like many IIT graduates before him, he wasn’t entirely satisfied and had dreams of establishing his own firm. Though he set up an e-commerce start-up, it “failed miserably” after a year and a half, says Shah, in a conversation with The Better India.
Following his failed e-commerce stint, he left for Italy to do his MBA, studying product design and design management before coming back to India. Undergoing this course helped him plug the gaps that had sunk his previous attempt at running a startup.
Upon his return to India, Mahek joined as a product manager in an IIT-Madras alumni-run company in Hyderabad where he developed a couple of apps and products, and soon, he came up with the Swachh Bharat App.
“During my free time, I spoke to my friends and relatives, seeking their suggestions on developing a tech product which can solve an everyday problem. Majority of the people spoke of their concerns surrounding potholes and the garbage situation. Using my experience in developing mobile apps, I wanted to build an open governance platform which we can be powered by Twitter, to get authorities to respond to citizen complaints,” recalls Shah.
On 28 September 2014, a little less than a month before Prime Minister Narendra Modi announced the Swachh Bharat Abhiyan, Shah launched the App, through which citizens could take a picture of a given civic problem. Twitter would auto-compose the message, tagging various authorities including the Prime Minister’s Office.
“It garnered a great response, and within weeks we had thousands of users pasting their complaints. Even today, the app continues to operate with around 1.5 lakh users,” he says.
Subsequently, his team analysed all the complaints and found out that more than 70 per cent of them were aimed at overflowing garbage bins, and the waste strewn around them.
That’s when he came up with the idea of a smart bin which can send data to the cloud about the levels of garbage in the bin and using an Internet of Things (IoT) module to notify residents, sanitation workers and municipal authorities.
“My objective is to use IoT in waste management and bring together all key stakeholders in this ecosystem–citizens, sanitation workers, supervisors, contractors, municipal authorities, and even the recycling industry. The common sight of overflowing and uncleared bins with garbage strewn all around is an eyesore in many cities that we want to avoid,” he says.
His startup, Antariksh Waste Ventures was established in December 2017, and incubated with IIT-Madras Incubation Cell in January 2018.
Before developing the product solutions, his team visited Chennai, Warangal and Hyderabad, and spoke to sanitation workers, municipal authorities and citizens to get a sense of how the current system works. As he learnt from each stakeholder, it became the foundation upon which he developed the current product that would offer all the necessary solutions.
For its pilot project in the Thiruvanmiyur beach area of south Chennai, the startup is fitting sensors on poles over multiple garbage bins. The sensors will send out alerts to the citizens, workers and supervisors concerned through a set of apps, thereby notifying all parties concerned whether the garbage bin has reached full capacity or not and by what given time and date it will have to be cleaned out. The pilot is now nearing completion.
“Let me give you a simple example. Say, the garbage bin in your locality has reached 95 per cent capacity. It will notify sanitation workers or the garbage truck drivers that the garbage bin is scheduled for clearing in their mapped area. The citizens, meanwhile, will receive a notification alert an hour before the garbage bin is scheduled for clearing so that they can dispose their garbage. Finally, the municipal official will receive alerts on bin levels under their area of jurisdiction,” says Shah, explaining how the system works.
On the technology itself, this Times of India report says:
“The IoT module, a microchip used to send and receive data through wireless technology, is fitted to garbage bins along with a combination of sensors. While the sensors keep track of the load and level of garbage in the bins, the module sends out alerts based on signals from the sensors, to the user through an app. We can retrofit the technology to an existing bin or to a fibreglass bin we have designed.”
Before developing the system, his team checked out other technologies in the market to see whether starting something like this was feasible or not.
“There is LoRa (Long Range) technology which uses radio frequency bandwidth and it’s specifically for smart cities in which the amount of data that can be transmitted is low, but over long distances. Another one is NB-IoT, Narrow band IoT network developed to connect IoT devices and sensors for mass deployment. It uses the existing telephone network. These two available technologies would make smart bins a real possibility. We built our systems on these technologies,” explains Shah.
Since it uses less power, the modules in the bins can last for 110-130 days (upto 370 days upon optimisation) before they recharge the batteries.
“We have conducted a lot of experiments in the pilot, collecting over 250,000 data points. The sensors have worked properly in the extreme heat and humidity of Chennai, and there were no malfunctions when it finally rained recently,” he says.
Besides, the app they are developing has some very interesting features for those who have downloaded it, starting with raising awareness on waste segregation at source, the necessity of wearing safety gear and alerting supervisors about the need to give their workers a new set of safety equipment, among others.
More interestingly, it is developing a subscription model that citizens can opt for on the app, whereby they can tip the sanitation worker coming to collect their garbage.
Say a given area has 20 sanitation workers. As a citizen I can subscribe to a Rs 100 tip per month. With 100 out of a 10,000 households in the area subscribing to this model, it comes to around Rs 500 worth of tips a worker receives every month.
The successful Chennai pilot was funded and supported by Chander Swamy of the Rialto Group, Krishna Mohan Ramachandran, Chief Resilience Officer at the Chennai Corporation, ATOS India Private Limited and the IIT Madras Incubation Cell.
Although the startup has a few product-related edges to sharpen like increasing battery optimisation, it is ready to execute orders under the government’s Smart Cities missions. However, there is a regulatory roadblock as well with tenders requiring firms to acquire a certain minimum level of experience and turnover. This leaves all startups out.
“For the time being, we may have to partner up with a bigger player and integrate our waste management system with its bid. However, there has recently been a rule change at the Central level resulting in exemptions on the experience and turnover clauses. But it hasn’t reached the state and municipal levels yet,” informs Shah.
Meanwhile, the startup is also actively looking for funding. There are not many keen investors on the horizon since this involves dealing with state or state-run agencies, but on the subject of waste management, this startup is on the cusp of something big.
With the smart bin at the centre, it could help all the stakeholders concerned execute their job properly—citizens, sanitation workers, supervisors, contractors, municipal officials and even the recycling industry. Digitising this informal ecosystem, raising the skill and monetary capabilities of sanitation workers are things we can all get behind.
You can contact Antariksh Waste Ventures here.
(Edited by Saiqua Sultan)