YEARS of working in high-pressure situations took a toll on Kedar Sohoni’s body, which forced the technology entrepreneur to become a fitness enthusiast. As his interest turned to the food he was consuming and its origins, he wanted to grow his own and started a kitchen garden. The IIT and IIM alumnus then experimented with waste management. One thing led to another, and he turned his 220-apartment society waste neutral.
In 2017, Sohoni founded Green Communities Foundation (GCF) to deal with waste management and work for sustainability in urban and rural areas in and around Mumbai. GCF works with housing societies, corporates, and schools and has created an enormous impact by recycling over 4,000 tonnes of municipal solid waste from going into landfills through a combination of segregation at source and composting.
In a chat with Give, Sohoni talks about the genesis of GCF, the challenges he has faced, life outside the NGO and much more.
Give: Tell us the story behind the birth of the Green Communities Foundation?
Kedar Sohoni: I have been an entrepreneur since the year 2000. The initial years of the startup phase took a toll on my health. But by 2008, I became a little more health-conscious, focusing mainly on a fitness regimen. By 2015 or so, I started delving deeper into what I was eating and where my food was coming from. That triggered an interest in kitchen gardening and farming and that brought me closer to nature.
Around that time, a friend taught me how to compost kitchen waste at home. It began as a hobby, but soon I started researching more and realized the larger waste management issue in the city and country. I took the initiative to implement segregation and composting in my own residential community and started engaging with my neighbouring communities.
I soon realized that despite their good intentions, they all were going to need hand-holding in the implementation of waste management and there weren’t too many organizations addressing this need. Around the same time my analytics company got acquired and I was at the crossroads of my career. At that point, I decided to give my analytics career a break and decided to set up GCF.
Give: How did the pandemic affect your core area of work?
KS: When we implement waste management projects in communities, we use a high-touch model. We conduct in-person workshops, do house-to-house monitoring of segregation, train housekeeping staff and so on. During the pandemic, we were unable to do any of this work due to the lockdowns and other constraints. At the same time, waste management took a backseat for the community members too and they started mixing their waste.
As a civil society organization, we were witness to the hardships faced by the communities where we were planning to implement waste management solutions. During the April-June period of 2020, we distributed over 20,000 dry ration kits to low-income families. We are glad we were able to make a small but meaningful impact during the pandemic.
Give: Tell us a bit about “Project Two Good” and the difference it has made.
KS: Once the lockdown was relaxed, we decided to get back to our core area of waste management. However, we realized that there were still several communities in distress. Livelihoods were still not back to pre-pandemic levels. Hence, we decided to combine waste management and food distribution through “Project Two Good”.
We provided dry ration to vulnerable communities in return for plastic – that too, wrappers that have no economic value. We offered this incentive to waste pickers, one of the most vulnerable communities in Mumbai. We realized that a large number of the waste pickers in the community were homeless and hence giving them dry rations wasn’t going to help.
To solve this problem, we decided to partner with an organization called Aasra, which is involved in dry waste collection and sorting. With the help of Aasra, we have distributed over 10,000 meals to over 35 waste pickers thus ensuring that they get at least one wholesome meal every day. In addition, through this project, we have been able to recycle over 15 tons of low-value plastic and prevent it from entering dumping grounds.
Give: What is the biggest problem you face as an NGO working for waste management and sustainability space?
KS: India generates almost 100 million tonnes of waste every year. The majority of this waste is mismanaged and ends up in dumping grounds or is burnt. This leads to significant environmental pollution in addition to the loss of valuable resources. The problem starts at the waste generator’s end. In most cases, there are no monetary penalties for mismanagement of waste or volume-based costs that the waste generator has to bear. Moreover, the hazards of waste mismanagement are not apparent to the waste generator. It’s a case of out of sight and out of mind.
We don’t reward good behaviour like segregation of waste and composting at the source. As a result, the cost of collecting and dumping waste keeps increasing which is ultimately borne by the taxpayer. But it benefits vested interests. Thus, there are several forces that work in favour of maintaining the ‘status quo’ and that proves to be the biggest problem we face working in this space. Changing behaviour is relatively easy but changing the incorrect belief that waste management is not that critical and doesn’t need to be done urgently is the most difficult.
Give: Who is Kedar Sohoni outside GCF?
KS: My identity, till about 18 months back, was largely driven by what I was in my professional life. But I am slowly discovering that there is more to life than just a professional career.
I am a little more of a family man now than I was earlier. I am a meditator; I did my Vipassana course earlier this year. I was always a music lover but now I am learning to play the guitar. I have discovered the art of making fermented foods. I learnt how to brew kombucha and kefir and make sourdough bread! I am a nature lover and an amateur terrace gardener and am now exploring the possibility of setting up a sustainable community with a few like-minded individuals in a rural setting.
Give: If you could have a superpower, what would that be?
KS: It is believed that all human beings have certain inherent superpowers, but we land up using only a fraction of those in real life. It will be nice to have the ability to harness all those powers for oneself and help others achieve that, too.
Interviewed by Sruthy Natarajan
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