In the main conference room of the Himalayan Climate Initiative (HCI) in Kathmandu, Nepal, a quote from by a man who lived halfway around the world hangs on the way.
"It is amazing what you can accomplish when you do not care who gets the credit." – Harry Truman.
Outside the room, a balcony overlooking HCI’s property is covered by bundles and piles of plastic waste. Scattered among them are the workers who sort it. They’d take these conditions over the alternatives any day of the week.
Plenty of Nepalese people know of the depressing environment that characterizes the majority of the country’s waste facilities. "It's a terrible sight," says Bottlers Nepal Limited communications manager Sachin Shrestha.
Trash is stacked up high, it’s difficult to walk, and the conditions are wretched. In a video HCI shows to visitors, waste workers sitting amid a sea of garbage voice their pain that comes from being treated less than human.
“It’s an uphill task, because the waste management system is in complete disarray right now,” says Prashant Singh, founder of HCI.
The youth-based NGO partnering with Bottlers Nepal Limited (the local C
HCI’s purpose for Nagar Mitra, or “Friends of the City,” is to improve the lives of waste management workers—a highly discriminated group—while instilling a more environmentally-conscious mindset in Nepali people. We talked to HCI’s Singh (the only non-Millennial at HCI) about the program and where progress is being made in environmental sustainability in the developing world.
Singh says it’s “quite relaxing” to work with young people and is convinced the organization’s status as completely youth-driven is the key to its success. He brings a holistic approach to the issue of waste management that emphasizes the importance of female leadership within the organization (HCI’s staff is 70 percent women) as much as education about pollution.
Here are some of the biggest insights we got from Singh and CEO Shilshila Acharya during a recent visit:
Small and medium-sized enterprises can play a big role in making progress in waste management in the developing world.
Singh thinks the world of waste management, which is in critical need of better infrastructure in Nepal, is better left to NGOs, at least right now, over companies trying to cut costs.
“There is a role for nonprofit sector of social enterprise to work in the middle of big corporations who of course try to cost-cut,” Singh says. “(Workers) come here, they get double the price, and it’s very transparent.”
For the most part, companies in Nepal are too preoccupied with keeping their heads above water in a struggling economy to be investing in innovative, sustainable solutions for the environment. Singh says that as global companies have made those investments, national companies are starting to get on board. But it’s a slow process.
“Typically, big companies are scared of working with waste workers,” he says. “We are not.”
Singh, who studied at the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard and spent 10 years at WWF, believes small enterprises can bridge the gap between corporations and struggling waste management workers. He began experimenting with a more transparent dynamic between HCI and workers in the Nagar Mitra program by meeting with them every Sunday—sitting on the ground outside his office, discussing and agreeing on a price for the waste that workers collected and sorted that week.
They met for three consecutive weeks, and before the fourth week, Singh received a call. The workers didn’t want to waste their own time anymore, and they trusted HCI to give them a fair price.
But Acharya says that increasing the income of the waste management workers isn’t HCI’s focus. When HCI was getting its waste management program off the ground, its main goal was to pay workers at least minimum wage—8,000 rupees per month—before finding out that many waste management workers in Nepal were making an average of more than 10,000 rupees per month, well above their estimates. The real issue was that people were working in poor conditions, suffering from serious drug addictions, and spending their money foolishly.
“We realized that our focus couldn’t be cash income alone,” Acharya says. “We needed to focus on health benefits, education for their children.”
One woman named Pabitra Bogati, who works at HCI, “always feels like she is treated like family” at HCI. Bogati moved to Kathmandu from the eastern part of the country last year in search of better education for her 20-year-old and 17-year-old sons. HCI provides her gloves, jackets, and boots for work, as well as medical assistance when she’s sick. It’s a comfortable place to work, and Bogati says that on most Saturdays, she genuinely misses the community there.
“From the beginning they’ve been taking care of me,” Bogati says.
HCI founder Prashant Singh
HCI founder Prashant Singh
Support from young people and women are keys to success.
Support from up-and-coming generations boosts any social movement, but it’s essential in Nepal: the median age of Nepali people is 22, years younger than median age in the U.S. Acharya, 29, believes that gives HCI a huge advantage in communicating their message.
“Our generation understands the issues of sustainability,” she says. “When I was in school, all these environmental courses were a part of the curriculum, and that wasn’t the case a few years before that. But now, since that concept is engrained in the minds of youth early on, we don’t have to spend much time debating it.”
Three years ago, HCI was instrumental in campaigning for a country-wide ban against plastic bags that went into effect this year. It’s doubtful that the environmentally-conscious move will be enforceable in the near future or even feasible as there aren’t any clear alternatives to plastic, but it’s definitely a step forward for Nepal. It’s also one of the main reasons that HCI considers it such an advantage to be entirely youth-driven. As environmental studies become integral to education in schools and groups like HCI connect to younger crowds, businesses are slowly beginning to follow—HCI has partnered with a local cement company, which probably wouldn’t have happened if the company owner wasn’t a millennial who’d bought into HCI’s movement.
Nepal is another unique demographical situation, this one a result of the country’s struggling economy. Of the almost 30 million Nepalese citizens, close to 5 million are working jobs outside of the country—mostly in the Middle East and Europe. Almost all of them are Nepalese men.
This means Nepalese society is heavily dependent on women. When Singh was putting together the HCI staff, he didn’t need to take any affirmative action. He simply hired those who came and showed themselves to be most qualified.
“The economy (in Nepal) is literally run by women,” Singh says.
Still, women’s domination of management positions in any enterprise is extremely rare in Nepal. HCI’s female majority has also allowed the organization to make some progressive moves internally, including implementation of menstruation day leave for all of its female employees. More importantly, Singh believes that having a staff comprised mostly of female youth has given the organization a head start on becoming an influential group when it comes to creating solutions in the environmental sphere over the long haul.
“Most of the great ideas come from minorities,” Singh says. "These are things that don’t happen until women dominate the conversation.”
HCI has used Friends of the City in particular as a vehicle for empowerment. In addition to creating Friends of the City in response to widespread exploitation of waste workers throughout the Kathmandu area, the organization has targeted women who have been trafficked in the past with the goal of rehabilitating them into the workplace. Many of these women are part of the sorting process.
HCI’s partner BNL is one company that has pursued a similar strategy of empowering women, teaching female retailers who sell the company’s products how to incorporate better sales strategies into their business models. BNL’s sales team explores the market in search of retailers who need training, and those women attend a 5-hour session at BNL’s complex that is part of The
It’s probably going to take a while for an effective social enterprise model to emerge in Nepal.
HCI has made a lot of progress in waste management in its five-year existence, just recently hitting the mark of 10 million plastic bottles recycled. The group also estimates that it has prevented the release of around 430 tons (according to their latest measurements) of greenhouse gases into the atmosphere through its waste management work.
Still, HCI faces a lot of issues as an organization when it comes to successfully reducing waste in Nepal. Singh says the system “is in total disarray,” from the beginning of the supply chain all the way to the legal system that groups like HCI must navigate in order to do any sort of effective work.
“Even if you find a place to throw (plastic waste), you will stand there for a couple of hours and somebody will come and mix all the waste together,” Singh says. “Then you see there is no point segregating waste. The problem with the waste management is in the entire supply chain.”
It’s also a big challenge to set up social enterprises in Nepal. Non-profit organizations are supposed to simply take grants and report their use. But in order to create an effective recycling system and viable career for its waste workers, HCI is converting its grants into capital and selling and exporting plastic to India. HCI is legally registered as both a business and NGO to legally do that work (one of the very few in Nepal that is), but government permission takes many months to receive as Nepal doesn’t currently have a legal system in Nepal that allows for social enterprises to flourish.
“There’s a lack of understanding about what NGOs do with money,” Singh says. “They just think, “You’re also selling and exporting? You’re not an NGO!”
If someone goes so far as to take legal action, NGOs in Nepal that are moving money around the way HCI is, but without a permit, can get into trouble. Because of the institutional and funding issues that accompany that legal barrier, Singh says it will “probably take a long time” for the national government to create a place for social enterprises in Nepal that is free from risk.