A journey to a cleaner and greener earth - The story of Garbageman
Updated: Oct 27, 2021
By Mala Rajpal, Youth Co:Lab
Fahim Uddin Shuvo, Founder and CEO of Garbageman in Bangladesh, gets asked this question a lot – How did you get started? He can answer it in his sleep now, of how he started as an architect and became a social entrepreneur. But the real tipping point, if he had to pick one, was when he visited the landfill in Aminbazar.
At 52 acres and 9 meters high, the Aminbazar landfill is the second largest in Bangladesh, some 30 kilometers from the capital of Dhaka. The landfills not just impact the lives, livelihoods and health of the citizens living around them, but are also a huge source of methane emission (a gas that raises atmospheric temperature), which causes unprecedented heatwaves and rising temperatures. The moment he witnessed that, Fahim says, “I knew that I have to do something about this problem, else a big pile of garbage is what we will be ending up with.”
Fahim’s journey is in huge part due to his extreme discomfort with the traditional way of doing things and his need to be a part of the solution. Even as he started his initial years as an architect, he was restless and not comfortable knowing that his role was limited. He wanted to do more, try new ideas. He also wanted to expand the definition of structural architecture by including aspects of design and space and making it more about problem solving through an architectural approach.
He stumbled into solving the issue of waste management when he realised during his architecture work that there are no specific guidelines around waste management in the building code. He saw it as a critical element of any building structure and wanted to make this an important consideration. And that is where the story of Garbageman began. Fahim dived into better understanding the problem. Took time to understand the entire value chain which eventually led him to the Aminbazar landfill.
Garbageman came to life in 2018 to become Bangladesh’s first technology based recycling business. The vision is to create a cleaner and greener Bangladesh by setting up an efficient waste management system, in keeping with the current times.
It all first started with the recycling of food waste into organic compost. The end product called Regen Vermi Compost, is a unique plant fertilizer that is made of recycled organic waste. This not only helps the waste not going into landfills (3KGs of waste for every 1KG of compost) it also leaves the need out for any pesticides for plants which make them cleaner and greener.
The second big part of the portfolio is the online Garbageman Recycling Platform. Encouraging individual citizens to do more recycling in their day to day lives, the app incentivises them to segregate their waste and not let recyclables end up in the landfills. While it is super convenient for the responsible citizen, Fahim and his team at Garbagemen had to work hard to make the entire value chain work. They collaborated with the people collecting waste, they managed the segregation and the right recycling processes. In this process they also empowered the waste-handlers, a typically informal work-force, and made them a part of something that is robust, process driven, and professional.
Lastly, Garbageman consults with large multinational corporations like Unilever to help them reduce their waste management and consult on re-cycling at source. Fahim mentioned a huge project they are doing with a client to look at single use plastics and how there could be a solution to creating more repeat use, sustainable packaging. Even international organisations like the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) Bangladesh now use the services of Garbageman to inform and support any large scale waste management projects at a national scale.
In the last three years, Fahim and the team at Garbageman have saved over 300 tonnes of waste from going into the landfills.
While the journey sounds great, it has definitely not been easy. The path of being a social entrepreneur is a tough one but Fahim would not have it any other way. He knew from the start that he wanted to create a social business to solve this challenging problem and make it financially sustainable in the long run.
When he created the first ever batch of compost, he realised that he needed help to take this to market and learn the business aspect of it. He attended a lot of business competitions and spoke to lots of incubators. He jokes that he has spoken to EVERY incubator in Bangladesh except one (and perhaps the ones that might have come up this year)!
In that initial stage is when Fahim also became a part of Youth Co:Lab, an initiative co-led by UNDP and Citi Foundation. He shares that Youth Co:Lab opened a lot of doors for him. Supported him with mentorship, and gave him access to a network that he would not have otherwise. Youth Co:Lab helped him and Garbageman get media exposure. He also has got business, with UNDP in Bangladesh hiring the services of Garbageman.
In the next stage of his growth, he wishes to get resources and support to help him become a great CEO. It is a big role for a young entrepreneur to become the CEO of a growing company and he hopes he can rely on programmes like Youth Co:Lab to support him in the transition.
Fahim also realises the importance of a good team and how it becomes critical to the growth of the company. In the first few years, he has managed to build a team of passionate people who believe in the cause of Garbageman. However, as the company grows, what he is now hoping for is to bring some experts on board who can come in with their technical excellence and domain expertise. This is also an area he hopes some of his network partners can support with!
For Fahim, the future is one where everyone in the waste management value chain is involved and taking responsibility for this problem. From corporations and manufactures to individual citizens, from the heads of government and international entities to the last mile waste handler. He wants to help create an ecosystem where everyone recognises their role and plays their part in reducing waste and saving the planet. Fahim says that he is hopeful of change happening; he is hearing the right conversations and believes that action is slowly but surely taking place.
Fahim shared this picture from his work desk in Cox’s Bazar. He says, “I see this view and it motivates me. I want to see every place look like this. This green and clean vision is what keeps me going."
You can read more about the work of Garbageman here - https://garbageman.com.bd/ You can connect with Fahim on LinkedIn here - https://www.linkedin.com/in/fahim-uddin-garbageman/ Garbageman is also looking for volunteers to join the team, specifically for their community engagement initiatives. If you are interested you can check and apply HERE.
Co-created in 2017 by the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) and the Citi Foundation, Youth Co:Lab aims to establish a common agenda for countries in the Asia-Pacific region to empower and invest in youth so that they can accelerate the implementation of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) through leadership, social innovation and entrepreneurship. Read more about Youth Co:Lab here.