When architect Fahim started his career, he noticed a gap between his academic learnings and its use in real life. For two years, he tried hard to connect those dots, but failed. He realised there was a huge gap between what the textbooks told him about architecture and design and what the landscape around him looked like.
He started observing carefully. He realised Dhaka city suffered from many structural problems, and without solving them, trying to create beauty through architecture would be a futile exercise.
One of those problems was waste management in Dhaka city. The whole process was clumsy. But, sadly, no one was working in this sector to improve it.
To provide a solution to this problem, he initiated the idea of GarbageMan in late 2017, with a vision to create a cleaner and greener Bangladesh and offered a modern, scientific and efficient approach towards waste management system. For Fahim, it was important to raise awareness in people about the importance of sorting household waste, to digitally organise the disparate group of actors in the waste collection supply chain under a single platform, and to encourage recycling.
Since then, a core team of seven people have been working hard to fulfil GarbageMan's goals.
Currently, it is also offering three services – Regen Vermicompost, Recycling platform and Zero waste consultancy. And till now, it has collected 30 tonnes of waste – 99% of which has been recycled – impacting 47,000 lives.
Fahim started the idea of GarbageMan as a pilot project at the rooftop of his house, involving only 12 families. He taught those families how to segregate waste between organic and inorganic. Once he found success in that project, after six months, he started competing on numerous start-up platforms and received seed funding.
Meanwhile, he started attending sessions on social businesses too. Eventually, he decided to monetise this idea so that it becomes sustainable. Then he put a full stop to his career as an architect and gradually turned into an entrepreneur to change the face of waste management in the city, by integrating his academic knowledge.
"At university, I mainly studied function, aesthetics and ethics. To me architecture is just not about designing buildings or cities, it is about solving problems within those. And waste management is a challenge for a sustainable Dhaka. Hence, GarbageMan is working to formalise and provide a possible solution," remarked Fahim Uddin, CEO of GarbageMan Limited.
In 2018, GarbageMan grabbed the attention of users by its very first product - regening vermicompost, which is made of recycled organic wastes. It helps to grow plants faster, maintains the pH level of soil and keeps it moisturised.
According to GarbageMan, one kilogram of this vermicompost helps reduce around three kilograms of waste from ending up in landfills. And one can collaborate in this great cause by spending Tk65 only.
Parallelly, it started another service – recycling plastic waste. It is providing a modern solution through online recycling – 'Trash to Cash.' Around 400 regular users have already signed up there. Its users receive appreciation points or discount coupons in exchange for waste, which can be used later for certain purchases.
For this, users just need to segregate waste, save the recyclables like plastic, paper, glass, aluminium, and notify GarbageMan to collect those, by setting a schedule as per user's availability.
Later, designated volunteers come and collect all the materials from the provided address. Users can even set a schedule using its app, GarbageMan BD, an initial version of which was launched in November, last year. Fahim says the team is working on this app and hopes to launch it properly by this year.
As this recycl chain is more scalable and economically viable, GarbageMan aims to empower the local scrap dealers and formalise this whole process by using this app. But it has so far proven difficult to attain because of behavioural issues among the scrap dealers.
"In the beginning, as we did not have the capital to reach each house and make people concerned about segregation of waste, we shifted our focus and started working with people who are already in this business and would find an interest in working with us, for commercial purposes," said Fahim.
"Yet, it is tough. However, we are working on this and hoping to create a trusted platform for national and international traders too, which will save time and money," he added.
This supply chain is maintained in four stages at present - collecting garbage, aggregating garbage, sorting and shredding, and sale. Once this app is launched properly, it will come down to three stages and will be more formal. Hence, it is more important to educate the scrap dealers.
GarbageMan has been trying to train and build up the capacity of scrap dealers in partnership with the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP), since 2019. The training tries to help scrap dealers handle the recycling model safely, and make their business model approachable.
Moreover, Fahim and UNDP are trying to create a bridge between exporters of recycled plastic and scrap dealers of Cox's Bazar and Ukhiya, so that they can work on bigger arenas.
Due to the pandemic, both the services of regening vermicompost and recycling plastic waste were halted as they did not want to put their volunteers' life at risk.
"However, this pandemic was our learning phase. Our recycle platform has seen a boom, we got a chance to reach more people and made people more aware. It has taught us to work on a bottom-up approach and also helped us to add another wing to our venture, titled zero waste consulting," said Fahim.
"Here, we are working with the World Food Programme and ICCO Cooperation as technical partner to solve the food packaging waste in the Rohingya camps," said Fahim.
Through this venture, Rohingya people collects all the food packaging waste from camps' households, gathers at GarbageMan platform and turns those into aluminium sheets. Later, moneybags, partition walls, shelves, pillows, schoolbags, grocery bags and laptop bags are made from this for commercial use.
In this upcycle process, refugees are directly involved. They are trained to make these products and also tell GarbageMan about their daily needs.
"Once we teach the method to segregate waste, most of our work will be done. But I believe private organisations should get government's support - financial, technical and official - easily," remarked the CEO.
GarbageMan is not planning anything big, rather focusing on one step at a time. It is hoping to resume its production of regen vermicompost at double capacity, by the next month. Currently, it is trying to design a lab, in Uttara, for research and development of recycled products and a factory for producing vermicompost.
"Specifically, our target for 2021 is to make people in communities aware about segregation of waste and build GarbageMan's capacity," said Fahim.