Monday, September 27, 2010

Interview With Poonam Bir Kasturi, DailyDump

Featuring Women Entrepreneur

Poonam Bir Kasturi
Founder, DailyDump

[Category: Embracing Environment Level Challenges
Waste Management: When Waste Is Not A Waste]

Daily Dump was formed to promote household waste management through composting. The most remarkable aspect of Poonam's waste management process is the carefully designed terracotta products, which keep the hygiene in and keep the smell and maggots away! Moreover, Daily Dump is happy to share its know-how. All information, including how to start home composting or a similar business venture is freely available, for free, under a creative common licence.

Daily Dump has 15 “clones” [as Poonam calls it] around India and abroad — autonomous businesses that are following and sharing the Daily Dump model for waste management. In the four years since Daily Dump started, it now has around 4,500 customers; and over 3,500 kg of organic waste has been composted. But this has not come without the sweat and tears. Unwillingness towards waste management and apathy towards waste seggregation [even with educated class] are just the two out of many other hurdles, which Poonam has thwarted successfully. Read to understand more about her entrepreneurial venture.

Q. Let me start with your background. Please tell us something about your education and past work experience. Do you have entrepreneurial roots?
I am trained as an industrial designer. After graduation i set up a craft based design company called Industree with two other partners. I quit after 5 years and set up Playnspeak a proprietorship concern to make products for the home and meanwhile I also was the founding faculty of Srishti School of Art, Design and Technology in Bangalore. My experience with teaching and working in both industrial and craft sectors inform my work on consultancy and design projects. Daily Dump is an endeavor where I am experimenting with how design can play out in ways that perhaps were not really explored before. People often ask me if this will make any impact, to which I say, if Amitabh Bacchan and Rajni Kant endorse composting, it will. So, I am actually looking for someone who will convince these people to do it.

Q. Is this your first entrepreneurial venture? If no, then which were the earlier ones? Are you still involved in them?
Daily Dump is practically my fourth venture. My first venture was Industree. My second entrepreneurial venture was Srishti. My third venture was Playnspeak, which is about products, ideas and processes, seeking patterns in life and learning from them to create products. Daily Dump is a brand of Playnspeak. I am no more involved in Industree and Srishti.

Q. What did you learn from your earlier ventures?
Yes, I learnt a lot from my earlier business. Each of my previous experiences helps me do my job at Daily Dump better. I have learnt more from my mistakes – mistake one, don’t ever get bullied. Mistake no 2 – don’t waste your time with people or projects that are not well thought through.

Q. What exactly is your business model? How would you define it? What is your revenue model?
Don’t have a business model – truly. I see this business as the business of making sense. I think the only way I can define what I do is use someone who has been more eloquent in defining what I feel. Here is Michael Chricton in his book Prey – He says, “The fact that the biosphere responds unpredictably to our actions is not an argument for inaction. It is however a powerful argument for caution, and for adopting a tentative attitude to all we believe, and all we do.” So, the project is tentative. I have no idea where it is eventually going to go – but I do know that if we want some change in behavior, we have to focus on making things more accessible and doable and non-threatening.

To give formal touch to your question, I would say that our business model is that of manufacturing and selling composting products and services.

Q. How did you arrive at the business idea of Daily Dump? How did you get the idea of starting a business out of household waste management? When was Daily Dump formed?
Daily Dump started in 2006 April. Bangalore produces over 2000 to 3000 tonnes of waste everyday. The centralized government composting plant can handle only 500 tonnes per day. The rest reaches dumps that are illegal. 50% to 70% of the waste generated in the average Indian urban home is organic wet waste. Bangalore had large houses with gardens and many people composted in pits in their backyards. Now, they just throw the waste out onto the pile at the end of the road. The government tried to introduce a "Swacha Bangalore" campaign of collecting segregated waste at the doorstep. Our research revealed that citizens lost faith in this system once they saw that segregated waste is mixed up again in the truck that transports the waste to the landfill site.

Hence it made a lot of sense to get people into managing their own waste; to make them self-driven composters, not motivated by any extrinsic reward/ device; to make it a 'cool' activity, rather than a chore (that is cumbersome, time-consuming etc).

This project evolved without a project report – I see this project also as a culmination of the conversations I have had with many of my students and peers over the years and the varied ideas that have informed and excited me as a person. Ideas from systems theory, sustainable development, design methods, sacred geometries, craft development, Indira Darshinis (standup Indian fast food places), the open source movement, micro-enterprise, facilitative processes and design - have all influenced the project.

Q. What products and solutions do you offer?
We offer a range of products based on the kind of waste to be composted. We have Leaf Composters, Gamla, 3-4 Tiered Composters, Leave-it-pots, Manthan and many garden accessories also. You can visit our website, www., to view the features and functions of all the products. Other than products, we offer services also for educating and troubleshooting with our products.

Q. I have seen some of your products and have used it too. They are mostly simple to produce and have no mechanical add-ons, which save us from further using any kind of battery or electricity at all. What was the philosophy behind keeping the products so simple and down-to-earth?
That is because perhaps I believe in the following:
The distinguished systems theorist Russ Ackoff describes a common trap that guides all the work our globalised world tends to do as "doing the wrong thing righter."

"The righter we do the wrong thing," he explains, "the wronger we become. When we make a mistake doing the wrong thing and correct it, we become wronger. When we make a mistake doing the right thing and correct it, we become righter. Therefore, it is better to do the right thing wrong than the wrong thing right. This way we learn and actually get righter. Most of our current problems are, he says, the result of policymakers and managers (and designers) busting a gut to do the wrong thing right.”

Its not that I do not know enough of motors and that I am not comfortable with putting a light that comes on when "compost is done". And such a product does exist in America - its two years old and is called NatureMill.

The rationale behind my process and strategy is that if we are people - a living species - who have been endowed with discernment - then it behoves us to understand technology, science, sociology, politics, economics, etc and also understand the limits of each of these in different situations.

So I chose to design this project in the manner I did because

1. We are living in a world where technology has its place. But composting is a natural process – it’s been perfected by the universe and natural systems in a profoundly evolutionary way. I asked what do I need to do to it, to make it part of everyone's behaviour? (in India, in Bangalore to start with- not the world) If I can achieve this without adding lights - then what should the design be - of the product and the system? And if I added a light what must I also do …… (that is my next project!).

2. Also terracotta - after my initial tests with materials - was the best material to support the decomposition process. Plastic failed miserably. That plastic fails miserably for storing and cooling water still does not prevent us from using plastic for storing water in our urban environments. Here I had to design around our "convenience" hang-up - with design through visualization and tapping into cultural icons - of rituals and emotional empathy with the garden, outdoors, clay, etc.

3. We can all personally own and enjoy a window into this natural process - we can dig our hands into the pile and feel the heat and generate our own understanding of ourselves, the earth - why should a designer stifle this window and dress it with something else? The design question was - how can a designer enlarge it?

4. We can delve into another tacit knowledge system that has stood the test of time because of reasons that cannot all be articulated - the technology of small production - with terracotta. If I really wanted to enable this existing network and system, I had to design a production and distribution system that I would not eventually control - hence the decision to create an open-source method for knowledge dissemination - of drawings, communication material and business information.

5. It was more fun this way - when I visited the Media lab in MIT some years ago - I was amazed at the money and the technology that they had - and the work they were doing to make "intelligence" sit within and without products and materials. So I asked myself what I could "do" with the "intelligence" that sits within my bio-pscho- system that seems to be the result of an evolutionary system!!!

Q. Which cities are you operating in presently? What is your plan for expansion? Do you see scalability in your model?
Daily Dump is a brand; a service, a set of products and a way of life that we hope people begin to subscribe to. Its crowd-sourcing – hopefully it will spread all over because of this. We hope to move into community composting solutions and also work on making larger waste issues more accessible to the ordinary person; how to separate plastics, toxics etc., and what to do with them.

Q. Daily Dump is a kind of waste management process, where every household can take the ‘charge’ of managing the daily waste. This is an interesting and a smart move. But did you have tough time convincing and selling the idea to the household sector, even to that of the educated lot?

Yes. The educated are the worst. Absolutely the worst. They think they know everything.

Q. What prompted you to go for entrepreneurship? As you know, I’m writing this book/blog to inspire more women into taking up entrepreneurship, what would you like to say to other women regarding taking up entrepreneurship as their career?
I hate work environments where you have to listen to a bunch of rules and do glorified clerk activity. I can only follow orders from someone I respect completely. There are only 4 people in this world that fit that bill. So what is the option?

Q. Did you start this venture alone, or with a co-founder?
I started DailyDump alone.

Q. How did you manage all the work of a startup on your own? When did you hire your first employee?
We started with 3 people in the core team, 2 in the support team, Potter families and Our families. My first employee was my old customer at the managerial level. And my other 2 employees are also old customers!

My family had to bear the brunt of compost testing during a particularly wet monsoon. The jokes about maggots got better every day. The looks of disgust and turned up noses at the smells thankfully stopped once we started getting it right. The house itself looked like a pottery godown!

My sis-in-law Kavita Kasturi, nephew Dhruv and husband Dr Anand Kasturi made our visual story emerge with √©lan. And Jaggi the photographer shot our “perception make-over” shots very generously, thanks to Ramesh Kalkur.

Daily Dump has had many people contribute along the way. We would like to acknowledge their help and suggestions.

Q. How did you fund your business (starting from when it was incorporated)?
Daily Dump is self-funded.

Q. What have been the teething problems – finding the business partner, financing, recruiting, selling etc. Which in your experience has been the most difficult challenge to overcome?
The most difficult was to actually convincing my first 100 customers. I was alone, and working on my job as a co-founder of Srishti. It was very slow and took a lot of lungpower.

Q. Are you profitable now?
Enough to pay my salaries and pay for research. I do not draw a salary as yet.

Q. Last, but very important, a little about your family – how did you manage to strike a balance between the home, kids and your venture?
I am a Punjabi and married into a very conservative and ritualistic south Indian family. My work and what drives me is something I get no empathy on. I guess that was expected given the strong cultural differences and also the fact that I come from a very liberal and fun-filled family. So now, I just do my thing and interact with people who I can have an authentic engagement with. My husband and my son have been very supportive and that carries me through.

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