The news of multiple farmer suicides in Mandya, Karnataka, in 2015 shook Divya Shetty. Hailing from a family of farmers, it touched a raw nerve as her grandfather, also a farmer, died by suicide when she was a young girl.
“My grandfather had throat cancer. My family borrowed a lot of money for his treatment but it was not enough. He then took the decision to end his life. After that, my parents were clear that I should not get into farming. They ensured that I got a good education and wanted me to have a white-collar job. So, I completed my engineering and worked at an IT firm,” says 31-year-old Divya.
But that year was the turning point in her life and she decided to quit her job and do something to help farmers.
A few kilometres away, in the same city, Bengaluru, Vishnu Vardhaan, who hails from Chennai, was also moved by the farmer suicides. He says that working in an American company made him reassess his life decisions.
As fate would have it, these two youngsters met at an event in Bengaluru that was held to discuss farmer issues. Later, they set up three successful start-ups together and also got married in 2019.
Saving the planet, one pencil at a time
The first of their startups was Indian Superheroes, which was set up by the end of 2015 in Coimbatore. It helps organic farmers sell their produce to the customer directly, cutting out the middlemen.
In this regard, they helped over 800 farmers with the help of NGOs.
While helping farmers, they realised the problem of paper waste and water scarcity. So, they wanted to use waste to make value-added products.
“While working with farmers, they used to speak about the water scarcity. On the other hand, we saw so much paper waste while working in companies. We thought of using that paper waste to build something. So, in June 2018, we built a pencil from recycled paper and started Plantcil (plant in a pencil) which is now rebranded as ‘Pepaa’. The company has now grown into a range of stationery products and gifting solutions,” says Vishnu.
‘Pepaa’, Vishnu says, is the sound you hear when recyclers come around asking for waste papers from residential areas.
But it was one of the farmers they work with who gave them the idea of embedding a seed in the pencil so that it can grow into a plant after being discarded. Now, all their products come with a seed.
Pasumai Suresh, a farmer from Ramanathapuram, Tamil Nadu, says, “Pepaa is an extra source of income for a lot of farmers. Many farmers were just growing flowers, and have now started selling seeds to the company. We can sell a variety of seeds and earn a good profit too.”
Divya adds that Pepaa started with an investment of Rs 1,000 in 2018 and has grown into a company with annual revenue of Rs 2 crores.
Empowering 10,000 ragpickers & kabadiwallahs
Soon, companies started asking the duo to help recycle their waste, like plastic, metal, etc. Today, Divya says they help companies with both pre-consumer and post-consumer waste.
“Pre-consumer waste is the one produced in factories during production. We collect the waste and send it to recycling facilities. Post-consumer waste is the ones that are present in the market once a consumer uses a product. As per the government’s Extended producer responsibility (EPR) guidelines, companies must take back these wastes. That’s where we help,” she explains.
They collect waste from companies and markets and send them to recycling facilities. The companies can track all the data about their waste, which couldn’t be done earlier.
Thus Cercle X, a cloud-based, circular waste management platform, was born in January 2020. They enable brands to achieve zero waste. Through their ScrapMarket App, 10,000 metric tonnes of waste is getting processed every month.
“Earlier, when local players picked up waste, there was no data and traceability. We provide digital data to companies with the help of blockchain technology and data can’t be tampered with,” says Divya.
Cercle X works with brands and governments to manage waste through digital interventions.
Divya adds that they have empowered 10,000 ragpickers and kabadiwallahs so far by giving them fair wages through the platform.
“The network of recyclers and companies are not connected. We connect them. Also, people in the unorganized sector, like ragpickers, kabaadiwallahs don’t get proper recognition or money. We also work with a lot of women. We can provide them good money for their products,” claims Vishnu.
Cercle X is now in the process of raising a pre-series A round of investment now. They have grown 914% from last year, the duo claim.
But beyond all the growth and recognition, Divya shares how she took her 67-year-old father on the first flight of his life in a viral LinkedIn post.
Her father was elated to have finally got the chance to travel by air. She wrote, “I have learned the value of every rupee we spend, thanks to my father. He saved every penny to educate me… And that deep rootedness has made me a better entrepreneur at Infinite Cercle (Cercle X) because I know the value of every rupee we spend,” says Divya.
Edited by Yoshita Rao