After receiving the best of the education in India and abroad…
After struggling to establish his own business…
After battling with cancer…
The young lad from Pune left behind a life in Harvard and pursued his dream to ease the pains of a litter picker with a Street Hoover — ‘Made in India, for India, by an Indian’. Working without outside investment and constantly refining his product, Abhishek Shelar, Founder-CEO, Spruce Up Industries Pvt Ltd, developed Jatayu, India’s first contactless garbage collection machine, which is now used in two countries, 10 states and 21 cities including Delhi, Mumbai, Chennai and more.
In a freewheeling chat with Dr Mrigank Warrier, Assistant Editor-Clean India Journal, Shelar narrates his story and the making of Jatayu from the very beginning:
After earning degrees from IIT-Bombay and Harvard, you developed Jatayu while still in your twenties. What made you decide to enter the street cleaning segment at such a young age?
I have been passionate about nature for a long time, and have been to five Himalayan expeditions. When we visited tourist spots around where we stayed, there was a tremendous amount of trash everywhere. Every Indian can relate to this.
I had an idea for a vacuum cleaner that could clean all this up. If I have an idea, I explore it and pursue it. Interestingly, I discovered that there were no machines of that sort. That’s how I decided to enter this field; partly because of passion and partly because I stumbled upon a seemingly obvious idea that has potential.
What were your first steps towards developing your product?
My first step – which I think anyone in the entrepreneurship space should do – was to do a tremendous amount of research. The startup game is tricky. The more research you do, the more you can arm yourself with knowledge and the better equipped you will be. I read a lot, checked out all the products
“It is my dream that every street and every corner shall have the air of the Himalayas. That the trees are greener, the roads are blacker, and everything is more high-definition.”
products available worldwide, what other countries were doing, what India was doing, what the economics of it would be. Then, I had to make a proof of concept and a minimum viable product.
I didn’t have a mechanical engineering, business or manufacturing background. Teaching myself all of this took 12 months, getting convinced that what I had envisioned could happen.
What technological challenges did you encounter in the process?
The Indian context is difficult for a couple of reasons. The garbage is very tough, and there is a tendency to put it in large plastic bags, one inside the other. India also has a lot of wet waste. Indian weather conditions are harsh; it is very sunny in summer and extremely wet in the monsoons. Road profile is one of the toughest in the world; there is no defined footpath. Municipal operators are not the gold-standard for using these machines; they tend to be rough users and are often not qualified for this task. All this makes it a difficult cleaning environment.
Although the vacuum concept sounds simple, getting everything right in a compact, powerful package with value for money was a challenge. We have filed several patents in this regard for ease of use, increasingly power capacity and volume etc.
“During the initial development, our machine was able to pick up five coconuts in a row, which is hard to do. That’s when we knew we had the fire-power to realise our potential.”
What inspired you to name the litter vacuuming machine as Jatayu?
If you’re aware of the Ramayana, Jatayu was a vulture who tried to save Sita when Ravana was abducting her. In our context, we thought Ravana was us humans littering India and Sita was India. Our machine is dedicated to protecting India from what we are doing to it.
Vultures tend to clean up the animal kingdom. They spot and polish off any dead animal lying anywhere. They have long necks too, all of which is similar to our machine.
When did you first know, your product is going to work?
In the beginning, developing the product itself was a big challenge, since not a lot of product development tends to happen in India. There tends to be little support, especially for low volumes in the beginning. We had to struggle with that.
One of our biggest challenges was that Indian garbage is tremendously hard. It is by far the most difficult-to-handle garbage found anywhere in the world. Europe and the US have it easy; their machines tend to be of light-duty configuration. Ours had to be much tougher.
The first time we were convinced it would work was when during the initial development, our machine was able to pick up five coconuts in a row, which is hard to do. That’s when we knew we had the fire-power to realise our potential.
Do you remember the very first response to Jatayu?
A friend of mine — who was working with me — was getting married, and his wife’s family saw the machine in Dehradun. It is very nice when relatives and close friends see your machine and call to say it is amazing.
What recognitions have had the most meaning for you?
In 2017, when we went to local authorities with our product, we didn’t find much enthusiasm and wondered what would happen. Breaking government red-tape and bureaucracy is one of the biggest challenges in this sector. In the same year, we had the opportunity to showcase our product to the Joint Secretary of Swachh Bharat Mission. He was absolutely thrilled to see it; he told his officers that this is what they had been looking for — a simple vacuum machine which can run even in rural India and on narrow streets.
He saw it is a cleaning machine for India, unlike the big truck machines that cost crores. Those cannot be an Indian solution of scale. He said that our product is what he was looking for; that gave us confidence.
Recently, we were awarded a spot on the Forbes 30 Under 30 list. This shows that what we have done has meaning and is of international worth.
How does it feel to have established yourself in the Indian market in such a short period?
It feels good for sure! Because after five years of work and so much struggle, it is definitely nice. This was a very latent need that India had, which we uncovered. Everyone wishes that garbage would disappear from Indian streets. Vacuuming it up makes logical sense.
When we demonstrated our product in Uttarakhand, we camped there for months. We’ve machines running in Chennai, Gujarat, Nagaland and more. Convincing people one at a time required tremendous legwork; kudos to my team for pulling this off.
How does Jatayu help Delhi combat air pollution?
Technologically, it is always easier to control any kind of pollution at source, than after it has spread. This is the problem with air pollution. Air constantly mixes with itself; it is not easy to capture air pollutants. While air purifiers are a good idea, the first and foremost approach for any pollution control mechanism should be to put checks at source.
The biggest source of pollution for dust tends to be roads. In any city, there is so much dust on them, which rises into the air and adds to pollution at ground level, where we breathe. When vehicles pass, their emissions mix with dust, adding to pollution.
One of the best mechanisms to control this is to remove all this dust and carpet cities end to end. Carpeting cities is something the government is already doing, but vacuuming dust up from the streets is where Jatayu has proven its mettle.
How are you helping frontline workers during the pandemic?
Covid has shown how dangerous it is to touch garbage. But here’s the rub; garbage has always been dangerous. Pre-Covid, we used to take our sanitation workers for granted. Now, we realise that garbage is full of diseases and Covid is just one of them.
About 30% of Indian garbage does not get collected. It goes to the streets or burnt, which also adds to air pollution. The need for a safe, hygienic, efficient way to pick up this garbage only got exacerbated during the pandemic. Our machines are being used in Delhi to pick up garbage from containment zones without touching it. We’ve also supplied our machines with disinfection mechanisms; if there is any garbage that needs to be touched, it can be disinfected thoroughly and then handled safely.
What can we expect from you next?
Cleaning roads is obviously important and to that end, we are launching two new machines in the next couple of months. One is a vacuum sweeper that is indigenously designed for unique Indian conditions, dedicated for national highways. We also have a completely electric litter picker which can be used in high footfall areas. And yes, the best is yet to come.
What is your ultimate dream?
It is my dream that every street and every corner shall have the air of the Himalayas. That the trees are greener, the roads are blacker, and everything is more high-definition. Hopefully, we can take this dream to the whole world.