Profile of Purpose: Flowers in the River

Ankit Agarwal’s flower recycling business helps clean the Ganges River, improve public health, and employ disadvantaged women in India.

November 16, 2021

Meet Ankit Agarwal, founder of Phool, a flower recycling business based in Kanpur, India. By collecting waste flowers from temples and converting them into eco-friendly products, the company is making an impact on both the women it employs and the sacred yet polluted Ganges River.

Agarwal’s entrepreneurial journey began with a question from a friend who was visiting the Ganges: “If this river is so sacred, why is it so polluted? And why don’t you do something about it?” Agarwal did just that.

“Every year, we Indians put in about eight million tons of waste flowers in the water,” he explains. “All the pesticides that are used to grow these flowers mix with the river water, making it highly toxic. That is the leading cause of diarrhea, hepatitis, and severe cholera across India and Bangladesh, where the water flows. Finally, I decided to form a company where we can collect waste flowers and do some products.”

Agarwal believes real change will not happen in this generation … but he is hopeful. “It will happen in the next generation, when the kids of the women that we’re able to employ start going to school — their next generation will be liberated from scavenging.”

Listen to Agarwal’s mini-profile to learn how a great business idea can change lives for generations.

Grit & Growth is a podcast produced by Stanford Seed, an institute at Stanford Graduate School of Business which partners with entrepreneurs in emerging markets to build thriving enterprises that transform lives.

Hear these entrepreneurs’ stories of trial and triumph, and gain insights and guidance from Stanford University faculty and global business experts on how to transform today’s challenges into tomorrow’s opportunities.

Darius Teter: Welcome to Grit and Growth, from Stanford Seed. I’m your host Darius Teter. This is the second installment of our Profiles of Purpose docu-series. These short-form stories are told entirely from the perspective of business owners, and they offer firsthand accounts of the struggles and joys of building impactful businesses in challenging markets.

But before we start, I would like to invite you to help us shape season 2 of the podcast. So as we develop new episodes, we’d love to hear what you think, what topics you’d like to learn more about and what people you want to hear from. Our short listener survey is live and your answers will help shape the stories we tell. Is there a guest you’d love to hear from? A problem you’re trying to solve? Tell us about it! You can find a link to the survey in the show notes of this episode, or by visiting stanfordseed.co/podcastsurvey. Thanks in advance for your feedback.

This week, we meet Ankit Agarwal, Founder & CEO of Phool, formerly Kanpur Flowercycling, a company in northern India that recycles flowers used as temple offerings and gives them a second life as useful, biodegradable products. By saving these flowers from being dumped in the Ganges, Phool prevents toxic pesticides from affecting the 400 million people who call the river delta their home.

When Ankit looked at pollution in the massive and sacred Ganges River, he saw a problem too big for any one person to solve alone. But instead of getting discouraged, he took action. He found a manageable part of the problem — temple waste — and focused on fixing that. In his story, we’ll hear how he found a new use for flowers that were being dumped in the river by the ton. He’ll also share how he creates dignified jobs to break the cycle of poverty in Kanpur. So let’s hear from Ankit Agarwal.

Ankit Agarwal: Why I do this business is, or how I can serve the community is by being able to give them an opportunity to work, a fair opportunity. I cannot be everywhere, I cannot control what happens, but I can at least make sure that everyone has that opportunity.

So, my name is Ankit Agarwal. I was born and brought up in Kanpur, Uttar Pradesh, that is in India. Then I started this company, Kanpur Flowercycling Private Limited, where we collect waste flowers from temples and convert them into eco-friendly products, that have wide markets, and that replace already existing chemical based products.

I was in Kanpur, the place where I was born and brought up, and I had invited my Czech friend, Kuba to visit me. That day it was Makar Sankranti, which is an Indian festival that marks the ending of winter and welcoming of summer. So all the farmers, children, mothers, everyone takes a dip in the river Ganges, in that dirty slimy water.

We didn’t even want to touch the water, it was so dirty. Kuba and I started talking about the river Ganges, and I told him about the religious significance of the river Ganges. And he asked me a question: if this river is so sacred, why is it so polluted? I blamed the fecal sludge, the industrial waste, the household waste, and everything. And he asked me a question: Why don’t you do something about it? And I was like, this is the Ganges, how can anyone do anything about it? And the moment I said this, a nearby temple dumped a truckload of flowers into the river. And there was this chemical layer that was formed on the water. And I was like: Wow! I had never even thought of temple waste as pollution.

We Indians have been doing this for centuries. Every year, we Indians put in about eight million tons of waste flowers into the waters. All the pesticides that are used to grow these flowers mixes with the river water, making it highly toxic. That is the leading cause of diarrhea, hepatitis and severe cholera across India and Bangladesh, where the water flows. And no one has ever thought about this. So I started talking to all the stakeholders involved in the supply chain of the flowers: the farmers, the markets, what happens to these flowers. Finally, I decided to form a company where we can collect waste flowers and do some products.

We started making incense out of temple flowers. We make incense that is completely chemical free, which is hand-rolled in natural essential oils. Luckily, one day I came across this strange organism that had developed upon the pile of one of our unused flowers. And we were able to make a material which behaves completely like leather and is made from hay and flowers. This is a material completely made from waste and has a superior life than leather. With animal leather, you have a fixed-size hide, and it takes an animal three years to grow. With our experiments and our R&D, you can do the same thing in 27 days.

So styrofoam is the fifth biggest pollutant on earth. As of now, mankind does not know where to recycle it: you have to either compress it, or burn it, or put it in soil. And once you put it in soil, it stays there for more than a thousand years. So we’ve been able to make a biodegradable, home compostable alternative to styrofoam made from flowers and it’s price effective. So this whole cycle of the flowers was complete.

Darius Teter: But for Ankit, the products only tell half the story.

Ankit Agarwal: When we started, at that point of time we would struggle finding people who would want to work with us, pick up flowers, segregate them. One day, these two women, they came and they were very happy to work with us. This went on for a month, they happily completed all the work. I asked them: what motivates you to be here? So then they told me about their job that they were doing, that they were manual scavengers. They’ll go home to home, pick up human excreta, keep it up on their heads and dispose of it.

They said that no one ever gave them another option to work. They had to do this, and even their children will have to get into this. And when they started working with us, first of all, they don’t have to go home to home. They just have to come to a single workplace, that’s one. Second, they felt good about themselves, that they’re working with temple flowers and they felt that they’re helping to do some God’s work, and they’ll help clean the river Ganges, which is a goddess.

We’ll be able to have around 7,200 women, but I’ve set that goal of 5,000. I believe change will not happen in this generation. It will happen in the next generation, when the kids of the women that we’re able to employ start going to school. Then the next generation will be liberated from scavenging.

Everyone knows what the company is doing and what the, what’s in it, for them.

They’ve already secured orders from biggest household brand names in the country for our “Florafoam” packaging. So now we’re just waiting for the factories to be set up and start the supplies.

Darius Teter: Ankit is leading the charge when it comes to cleaning the Ganges. But he’s not threatened by competitors, in fact, he welcomes them.

Ankit Agarwal: Problems will only be solved if they can solve themselves. If they are sustainable, if solving the problem can bring you money, then more and more people will get into this thing, right? Only then the problem will be solved. Many times people ask me “Don’t you feel that this person is doing, trying to replicate your model? And do you feel that threat?” I always say, “See, the problem is so huge, you need at least 10,000 people like me to solve this problem. I think that’s the equation.”

Darius Teter: I hope you enjoyed that Profile of Purpose. I’d like to thank Ankit Agarwal of Phool, formerly Kanpur Flowercycling.

Over the past few years, Ankit’s business has been really cleaning up, literally AND financially. The company has more than quadrupled its revenues and raised $2.5 million in equity funding.

Phool has also increased its commitment to creating employment for the people of Kanpur — jobs created by the company have grown 91% each year.

To learn more about Ankit and his remarkable enterprise, visit Phool.co, that’s p.h.o.o.l. dot c.o. If you’d like to know more about the Profiles of Purpose film series and watch the video version of this episode, just visit the Stanford Graduate School of Business YouTube page.

Darius Teter: Grit & Growth is a podcast by Stanford Seed. Laurie Fuller researched and developed content for this episode, with additional research by Jeff Prickett. Kendra Gladych is our Production Coordinator, and our Executive Producer is Tiffany Steeves, with writing and production from Isobel Pollard and Andrew Ganem and sound design and mixing by Alex Bennett at Lower Street Media.

Darius Teter: Thanks for joining us. We’ll see you next time.

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