Profiles Lead
Meet the youth driving the change in India Image Credit: Supplied

Preserving the colours of India

Ankit Jha, CEO and Founder of eMithilaHaat

One of India’s most popular folk art forms, Mithila or Madhubani art is practised in the Mithila region in the north Indian state of Bihar. Illustrating the lives of Hindu deities, rural culture and festivities, and flora and fauna through geometrical patterns and abstract figures, vibrant Madhubani paintings are traditionally made on canvases, handmade paper and even cloth using natural colours derived from flowers, leaves and pollen, and common kitchen ingredients such as turmeric, lime, sandalwood powder and rice pastes.

“I am a native of the Mithila region, which comprises five to six districts such as Darbhanga, Madhubani and Sitamarhi,” says Ankit Jha, CEO and Founder of eMithilaHaat. “I grew up watching my aunts and cousins making beautiful Mithila paintings, which I, as a child, admired a lot.”

Jha, 28, started this platform in 2013 to preserve and promote this dying art after leaving his job as a software engineer in Bengaluru.

I wanted to do something for them so that they could earn a decent livelihood and protect their self-respect as skilled Madhubani artists.

- Ankit Jha, CEO and Founder of eMithilaHaat

“While I was working in Bengaluru, once I casually asked my cousin about one of my aunts who practised Madhubani art. As a child, I used to sit with her for hours watching her draw and fill colours in various motifs. I was shocked to learn that she no longer painted as she was unable to make ends meet,” he tells GN Focus, adding, “Every artist had more or less the same story. I wanted to do something for them so that they could earn a decent livelihood and protect their self-respect as skilled Madhubani artists.”

Jha, who studied at DAV Public School in Siwan, a town in Bihar, before moving to Belgaum in Karnataka to pursue his degree in computer engineering, says, “Art never dies. It is either forgotten or it loses its shine in the tides of time. The same could have happened with Mithila art. However, we have done our bit to save the art form by bringing a handful of artisans back to their canvases.”

Apart from retailing Madhubani paintings and women’s dresses and jewellery inspired by this unique art form, at eMithilaHaat Jha runs workshops for the corporate sector, schools and non-government organisations (NGOs) under the project Anukriti to create more awareness about this art form. “Artists get business because eMithilaHaat motivates them to keep practising this art. The smiles on their faces are something that keeps us going.

“We are planning to incorporate a couple of changes in the working model of the platform, which is currently open only to a select group of artisans.

“We will soon make it public for all Madhubani artists, who can register as one of our elite artists,” says Jha, who has so far worked with more than 200 artisans, helping around 80 families.

From registering the company to getting approval for its payment gateway, Jha has had to overcome many challenges to start this business. “It was a tough decision to quit a permanent job and venture into something completely new,” he explains.

“I am not a business person but very emotional. And eMithilaHaat is the product of my emotions. But I learned the hard way that one shouldn’t be emotional when it comes to business affairs. However, I have always kept this in my mind that my business should not affect my relationships with the artisans as they are the reason why I started this venture.”

Awareness of social welfare schemes

Aniket Doegar, Co-founder and CEO, Haqdarshak

Ram Das, a construction worker in the state of Uttar Pradesh, was forced to beg after he was declared disabled due to an accident at the worksite.

“He had four children and a wife to look after,” says Aniket Doegar, Co-founder and CEO, Haqdarshak. “Our team helped him apply for a private scheme that provided him with a tricycle for mobility, some clothes for the family and also some money for day-to-day expenses. At least with the tricycle he could move around and finding a job was a possibility for him.”

Haqdarshak is a technology company that helps citizens discover, apply for and benefit from eligible government and private welfare schemes. “We do this through our mobile-based platform that collects family/citizen information and identifies the schemes the respondent is eligible for, based on the information gathered,” explains Doegar.

An alumnus of Delhi’s Shri Ram College of Commerce, the 29-year-old entrepreneur worked with the prestigious Teach for India foundation as a fellow. “Working directly with the community in the urban slums of Pune allowed me to understand the on ground reality of the disadvantaged. In order to help, as a fellow, I started creating awareness and helping citizens apply for the Right to Education (RTE) scheme. This made me realise the large gap between the rights granted by the Indian law and the implementation of those rights,” he says, adding, “For basic information about these schemes, citizens were being overcharged by formal and informal agencies on ground in villages and slum communities. Moreover, the majority of people were completely unaware of even their basic entitlement and those who were aware, didn’t actually know how to apply for the schemes.”

After the fellowship, he worked at the Gyan Prakash Foundation, an organisation bringing the joy of learning to underprivileged children, and Indus Action, a non-profit entity working in India’s policy implementation space. “These experiences provided me with a greater insight into the development sector. Soon, I also understood how technology could play a key role in bridging this gap after meeting my co-founders and this is how the concept of Haqdarshak came about.”

In order to provide comprehensive support, the company trains village-level entrepreneurs or Haqdarshaks who gather the information about the applicant, and then guide the beneficiary through the application process for the schemes they are eligible for. However, people also have the option to apply for the services on their own, based on information provided free of cost through the platform.

“The fact that Haqdarshak is the reason why someone is getting a monthly pension or an admission to a private school or financial support to build a house is what keeps me and the team going.”

As of this year, the company has reached out to more than 100,000 people in ten states in India. Out of these, over 50,000 applications for welfare schemes have been processed and more than 21,000 citizens have received benefits from these schemes worth more than Rs300,000,000 (about Dh15,464,300).

The fact that Haqdarshak is the reason why someone is getting a monthly pension or an admission to a private school or financial support to build a house is what keeps me and the team going.

- Aniket Doegar, Co-founder and CEO, Haqdarshak

For fellow entrepreneurs, Doegar has a valuable advice to navigate the bumpy ride of starting a venture. “When we started Haqdarshak, our vision was completely focused towards creating entrepreneurs who will use our app and then help citizens. We thought we could quickly scale this. But we failed and had to pivot to various models to sustain revenues. So, one learning was not to depend on just one model and keep trying various others to see what works and what doesn’t.”

Solving India’s energy woes

Arjun P. Gupta, Founder and CEO, Smart Joules

Arjun P. Gupta founded Smart Joules in 2014 to make energy savings easy and profitable, while enabling the transition to a more efficient economy.

“Millions of Indians lack reliable access to energy whereas businesses routinely waste a large share of what they consume, owing to use of outdated technologies, inefficient operations, poor design or wasteful behaviour,” Gupta, Smart Joule’s CEO, tells GN Focus. “Eliminating energy waste offers an opportunity to enable large-scale social development while improving economic outcomes for these businesses.”

Gupta pursued an interdisciplinary education and has experience in technology, business and policy in the energy field, both in India and the US. “I completed two bachelor’s degrees, environmental engineering and economics from UC Berkeley, and a Masters in Engineering Systems from MIT,” says the 33-year-old entrepreneur.

The Delhi-based energy start-up offers a pay-as-you-save solution to businesses wherein it designs, finances and executes comprehensive energy-efficiency projects in their premises in return for a percentage share of the savings it delivers to them. “We take all the risks and our clients enjoy guaranteed savings from day one without having to make any investment,” explains Gupta. “Technology solutions we implement include central air conditioning, pumping, ventilation, lighting and other end uses.”

We take all the risks and our clients enjoy guaranteed savings from day one without having to make any investment.

- Arjun P. Gupta, Founder and CEO, Smart Joules

India has a big chance to lift hundreds of millions out of energy poverty while saving scarce natural resources and mitigating climate change simply by using energy more efficiently. “This includes making new infrastructure efficient with the use of good design practices and retrofitting existing energy systems. Improving efficiency is a top national priority since approximately half of our national climate change commitments can be met through this route alone.”

Smart Joules has established a leadership position in the hospital energy management sector in a short span of time. “We have shown that with a strong business model, energy savings can be substantial, says Gupta. “We have developed the resources and skill sets to replicate this success across other energy consuming industries.”

Gupta stresses the importance of building a strong team in the early stages of a business to ensure that the foundation for growth for any venture is strong. “It is critical to keep a laser-sharp focus on client problems, and constantly question and improve your solution-set to find a scalable business offering.”

Quashing the social taboo on menstruation

Aditi Gupta, Co-founder, Menstrupedia

alking about menstruation is still considered a taboo in India. “When I had my first period at the age of 12, I was asked to keep this a secret from other people, including my father and brother, as if this was an unspeakable sin,” says Aditi Gupta, an Ahmedabad-based social entrepreneur who has taken it upon herself to generate awareness and knowledge about the subject as well as issues surrounding puberty and growing up, helping millions of girls and young women in India and abroad to stay healthy.

“Growing up in the small town of Garhwa in Jharkhand, a number of restrictions were also imposed on me, such as not to touch or eat pickles, sit on a sofa, visit the places of worship and participate in festivities and social functions as I was considered impure during those five days,” said Gupta, 34, in one of her TED talks, highlighting that women often behave mindlessly due to the lack of awareness about this normal body process as well as strong stigmas and myths related to menstruation, which are passed down from generation to generation.

Such an outlook is humiliating, impacting the impressionable minds of girls. “There’s a culture of silence around this and that’s why girls are simply unaware of the hygienic ways to manage their cycles.”

While a girl usually gets her first period at the age of 10 or 11, India’s educational curricula don’t address this biological process until the higher grades, explaining mostly in an academic manner without analysing the practical aspects of dealing with the cycles.

It struck Gupta that even after coming from an educated family, if she had to undergo so many challenges as a child, primarily because of the lack

of awareness of this body process, there would be millions of girls in India who would be suffering too.

While pursuing her postgraduate studies at Ahmedabad’s National Institute of Design, Gupta and her friend (now husband), Tuhin Paul, conducted a year-long research project on the awareness level of menstrual health in young girls in schools in India’s urban and semi urban areas.

“We found out that three out of ten girls were not aware about periods, when they had their first period. This ignorance is as much an urban phenomenon as it is rural.” The lack of effective educational materials on menstrual health further complicates the matter, often preventing parents as well as teachers from discussing this issue openly with children.

“We wanted to bring an attitudinal change towards the subject. Being communication designers, we took it upon ourselves to create educational materials with objectives to eliminate the sense of shame associated with it, helping young girls to learn about this topic in an interesting way.” So they created a comic book, specifically targeting girls between the age of 9 and 14 years, discussing everything a young girl undergoes while transitioning into womanhood.

Their interaction with girls during the research project in college gave them an opportunity to gather several interesting stories, anecdotes and customs associated with it, which they used in their comic book. Stories in the book revolve around three girls, Pinki, Jiya and Mira, and a young Dr Priya, who guides the girls through their process of growing up.

“We took great care to ensure that the content was culturally sensitive and least objectionable. Readers of this book shouldn’t feel ashamed to read it in front of others,” says Gupta.

Beautiful illustrations and cartoon characters made it easy and comfortable for parents and teachers to overcome their own inhibitions, discussing the subject with children in an objective manner.

The comic books are impacting the lives of more than a million girls, teaching them about this critical issue through cartoon characters. We are working with five state governments in India, while Menstrupedia comic books are available in 14 languages and in 6,000 schools.

- Aditi Gupta, Co-founder, Menstrupedia

Meanwhile, Gupta and Paul quit their corporate jobs and launched the website Menstrupedia, a unique platform to discuss the concerns surrounding this natural biological process in an interactive and friendly manner. They also run a blog, talking about everything a girl needs to know as she enters puberty.

“The comic books are impacting the lives of more than a million girls, teaching them about this critical issue through cartoon characters. We are working with five state governments in India, while Menstrupedia comic books are available in 14 languages and in 6,000 schools,” Gupta says, adding, “Apart from India, the books are also used in 20 countries to teach and learn about menstruation. These comic books are locally printed in five countries — Nepal, Bangladesh, China, Uruguay and Hungary — in their own languages.

“We are now planning to come up with a book on puberty in boys as well as a book on reproductive health and the first year of parenting.”

Addressing India’s temple-waste issues

Ankit Agarwal, Founder and CEO, HelpUsGreen

Ankit Agarwal, along with his friend Karan Rastogi, launched HelpUsGreen three years ago to recycle the flower waste originating in places of worship in the North Indian city of Kanpur. The idea for this venture was hatched one morning in 2015, after Agarwal noticed thousands of Hindu pilgrims drinking the polluted water while taking a dip in the River Ganges in Kanpur on the occasion of Makar Sankranti.

“One of the factors causing pollution in Ganges is flowers,” says the 30-year old entrepreneur. Through research they quickly found that more than 8.4 tonnes of flowers were dumped into the river a day.

After many hours of research in a makeshift laboratory, HelpUsGreen has come up with a unique Flowercycling technology that can turn the flower waste collected from temples across Kanpur into handcrafted organic products such as incense sticks and cones, and vermicompost, a pesticide-free organic soil.

A fellow of Echoing Green and Acumen, Agarwal quit his job as an automation scientist at cybersecurity giant Symantec to start this venture with Rastogi with an initial investment of just Rs72,000 (about Dh3,800).

“At first, nobody was willing to take the idea of recycling the temple waste seriously or giving up their floral waste,” says Agarwal, who has published 17 research papers and has a patent. HelpUsGreen is not only working to preserve the river Ganges while creating something useful from the flower wastes, it’s also looking to empower local women by providing a platform to earn a decent living.

“These women were mostly unemployed earlier or working as sanitation workers. Due to the taboo around the sanitation workers, they are generally treated as untouchables,” he says. With HelpUsGreen, they now get disease-free predictable livelihoods. Their income has multiplied four times from just Rs50 or 60 per day, opening doors to more opportunities in their lives.”

These women were mostly unemployed earlier or working as sanitation workers. Due to the taboo around the sanitation workers, they are generally treated as untouchables.

- Ankit Agarwal, Founder and CEO, HelpUsGreen

HelpUsGreen has so far recycled 11,060 metric tonnes of temple-waste while providing employment to 79 women who are engaged in crafting charcoal free incense sticks from temple flowers. These products are retailed under the brand, Phool, launched last year.

Action to eliminate food waste and solve hunger

Ankit Kawatra, Founder and Chairman, Feeding India

"What usually happens to all the excess food after an event gets over and guests leave the venue?” The question suddenly struck 22-year-old Ankit Kawatra one night while he was attending a wedding in Delhi in 2014. He was then employed with a global business advisory firm.

“It was a lavish wedding, serving up more than 35 dishes from various cuisines of the world,” Kawatra, now 27, tells GN Focus. “I went ahead to speak to the caterer about the leftover food. I was shocked to know that all the food, which was enough to feed at least 10,000 people, was going to be simply thrown away.” While he was keen to start an initiative to address the issue of tremendous food wastage in India, he was dissuaded by his friends and colleagues to do something about this on a full-time basis, highlighting this would mean the end of his management career. Kawatra, however, couldn’t live with the fact that millions of people die not because of the lack of access to treatment for a rare disease but because they fail to source food. He quit his job in the multinational firm and launched Feeding India to address the critical issues of hunger, malnutrition and food waste in the country.

According to the latest Reuters report, more than 194 million Indians go hungry daily, while the country wastes food worth about $14 billion (Dh51.4 billion) a year.

Feeding India donates excess food collected from events, weddings and other sources to people who need it. It also prepares nutritious meals for people who have no means or access to food. What started off with a team of just five volunteers in Delhi in 2014 has now grown to a network of over 8,500 in more than 65 cities. It has so far served up 20 million meals to people in need through its five key projects.

We are looking to start spreading our work in other countries grappling with the challenge of hunger and food waste.

- Ankit Kawatra, Founder and Chairman, Feeding India

“Our main beneficiaries are children, women, the elderly and differently abled. We also give food daily as an incentive to children to come to schools or skill development centres, which gets them out of the poverty cycle in the long run.”

Kawatra now plans to go global with his movement. “We are looking to start spreading our work in other countries grappling with the challenge of hunger and food waste.”