Ankit Agarwal and Karan Rastogi have turned recycling waste flowers from temples in Kanpur into a profitable business venture. Their brand HelpUsGreen makes organic incense, vermicompost and Florafoam - world's first biodegradable alternative for toxic thermocol.
In 2015, when Ankit's friend from the Czech Republic came visiting, they went to spend some peaceful time by the Ganges. It was
Makar Sankranti and the Ganges had her own set of visitors - her faithful devotees.
The sights and sounds around the bank of the Ganges were enchanting yet concerning. The splash of colours, serenading sounds of the bells and the hymns - the atmosphere was festive.
Armies of devotees thronged the Ganges to take a dip, young boys dived deep, some filled the holy water in plastic containers and yet others took a sip of it! The sight was engaging but Yakub, Ankit's friend, was concerned. He noticed devotees offering flowers to the Ganges and a truck offloading tonnes of waste flowers from temples into the river bed.
A friendly suggestion from Yakub to do something about the flowers disposed of in the Ganges turned Ankit and Karan into entrepreneurs.
"My immediate reaction was to call up Karan, my childhood friend, who is a regular to the temples. It took us about seven months of research and development (R&D) and we came with our first product, Mitti (vermicompost). Then we moved to incense sticks and now we are moving to thermocol. We are also researching on making bio leathers out of temple flowers," said Ankit.
The idea blossomed but the entrepreneurial path was not without its share of thorns. When family and friends heard about their plan to quit their corporate jobs and collect waste flowers from temples, they thought the duo had 'lost it'.
Nonetheless, they took off on their entrepreneurial journey with their savings of Rs 72,000 and 12 tonnes of flowers procured every day from hesitant temple patrons who were not sure what the two 24-year-olds were up to.
To start off, Ankit and Karan rented a farm near Kanpur. Today, they have a facility in Bhauti, Kanpur where they get about 4.2-4.7 tonnes of waste flowers every day from 39 temples.
"We extract all the petals, nutrients, fragrance etc from the flowers and use them to make the incense. The stem, leaves and other leftovers are used to make vermicompost," said Ankit.
HelpUsGreen is creating a circular economy, a model wherein they are using religious waste, providing employment and generating profits, he said. HelpUsGreen employs underprivileged women and also provides facilities like insurance, bus service, medical benefits which according to the women staff is 'too good to be true'.
Incubated by IIT Kanpur and IIM Kolkata, HelpUsGreen is backed by investors like Social Alpha, Balmer Lawrie and Draper Richards Kaplan Foundation to name a few. With money coming in, HelpUsGreen is investing heavily in R&D. Their next product is Florafoam. The founders told CNBC-TV18 that they are already getting hundreds of calls from potential clients for their new product.
Since inception, this B2B (business to business) company has been a major exporter. But now, HelpUsGreen is all set to become a B2C (business to consumer) company from October 1.
The company will be rebranded as "Phool". Their products will be available on all ecommerce platforms and in retail shops. This Diwali, Ankit and Karan are targeting revenue of Rs 2.4 crores from their incense products and Rs 6 crores from Florafoam.
Ankit will soon be representing his business at the United Nations General Assembly as one of the leaders for the finest talent in the social impact space. That's not all, the two partners have also been nominated by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation for the second annual Goalkeepers awards, to be held in September in New York.
The future plan is to spread operations to Varanasi, Mathura and Vrindavan. "Varanasi produces about 21 tonnes of waste flowers every day and Vrindavan gives us about 12.4 tonnes every day. So we have a massive job to do. Our plan is to employ at least 5,000 women by 2022."Ankit and Karan's entrepreneurial journey has made it to the Stanford Social Innovation Review, 2018. The two childhood friends were also featured in the Forbes 30-under-30 2018 List.