By Laura Urrutia 

Pranshu Singhal has dedicated his career to finding innovative ways to tackle electronic waste. After two decades working for big tech corporations, he decided to approach the problem with a whole new sense of scale via Karo Sambhav, the circular economy organisation he founded in 2017 that is laying the groundwork for fair and sustainable collection, recycling and reuse of waste from different sectors across India.  

E-waste is a growing environmental problem worldwide, and particularly in India, where it’s estimated that 3.2 million tonnes are generated each year – behind only the United States and China – and where 80 percent goes uncollected. 

Today Karo Sambhav has become a key player in the circular economy ecosystem in India, working on the ground with all key players, including the government, large firms, the informal sector, consumers and schools. 

Karo Sambhav collects over 25,000 tonnes of electronics waste, glass, plastics, and batteries each year. According to Pranshu, this amount increases organically, at least by one and a half times a year, but if the system improves the growth rate could be exponential and grow up to three to five times year on year. 

Pranshu, an Ashoka Fellow who has been distinguished with a number of awards including Social Entrepreneur of the Year 2021 for India by the Schwab Foundation, has recently participated in ASPIRe, an accelerator and a learning lab that supports social entrepreneurs to create system change at scale by activating agency and cultivating changemaking networks, empowered by data and enabled by technology.   

In this interview he describes the immediate and long-term impact of ASPIRe on his lifelong journey towards an effective India-wide transformative solution for waste management, and by extension to a sustainable consumption, production and recycling ecosystem.  

What made you become a social entrepreneur? 

I had no ambitions to be an entrepreneur in my life. I used to work at Nokia designing what we now call circular economy initiatives, my focus was on the set-up and implementation of “Take Back” programmes, basically how to encourage people to give away their old devices which could then be recycled. Several years later after, the Indian government started to formulate laws on Extended Producer Responsibility (EPR). I started believing that my whole life had been a preparation to set up a system that becomes a good example of how things ought to be done, how to collect waste, how to encourage people and the procedures along the way. I resigned from Microsoft and started Karo Sambhav in 2017. 

What does the name Karo Sambhav mean? 

Karo Sambhav is a Hindi word that translates to: “Make it possible.” When I was setting up this organisation, my friends and family told me:. You have a good job, why are you moving from a reputed company to something which seems so  messy?” So I chose the name for that reason, if it is not possible, let's make it possible. Now the name motivates us to keep going in difficult moments. 

What was the objective of Karo Sambhav at the beginning? 

Our focus was to encourage brands to set up collection systems, so that end-of-life products or packaging could be collected, recycled and the materials could go back into the economy. Large organisations were all looking for good solutions but they did not really exist in the market, so there was a good business opportunity. That time was critical, it was the starting point, a benchmark of how things should be done, and how the implementation could be then replicated across sectors. 

In this initial stage, was Karo Sambhav a collection scheme? 

In the beginning, Karo Sambhav operated like a joint system to work at grass-root level to create infrastructure, so that people could return their end-of-life devices, and secondly, to work on awareness and engagement through inspirational programmes. Physical infrastructure was critical because, unlike most European markets, municipalities in India don’t necessarily work with these complex waste streams. They focus on organic and household waste and the rest ends up going to the informal sector, something common for most emerging markets. What was also very clear from day one was that we needed to create inclusive systems, because the livelihoods of four to five million people were engaged in this trade. 

How has Karo Sambhav evolved until today? 

Today we regard ourselves as a circular economy enabling organisation. We work with brands that want to go circular and we provide them end-to-end solutions. It means having a physical collection infrastructure which includes for example working with retail to enable them to take old products back and create an incentive for people to bring those products back by receiving money in return. From there, Karo Sambhav picks them up. We also work on the inclusion of the informal sector. They are the ones who collect the old/unwanted products but then they hand them off to Karo Sambhav, who in return, supports them in managing their livelihoods or formalising their work by helping them to create companies. Once we have done this collection, then we work with the ecosystem of recyclers.  

What happens after recycling? 

We aim to give back the recycled content to our clients, who can incorporate them back into their products. This is already happening with glass but for other sectors the systems are being created. We started our work with electronics, e-waste; then we moved into plastics (single-use plastics/packaging); then we started with batteries, and the latest one is glass.  

Do you work with the Indian government to accelerate the implementation of circular economy in India? 

With the Indian policy makers we provide them with grassroot learnings and conduct a range of workshops and webinars. We focus on helping them understand this new system because we think that enforcement can't happen unless there is a deep understanding of what the right thing to do is.  

You have been part of the ASPIRe Accelerator, what’s been your most important learning about platform thinking? 

The basic principles behind the creation of a platform are the most important. For example, a principle like ‘distributing the ability to solve’ helps you to shift from being a  ‘doer’  to becoming a  ‘catalyst’. Another one is the ‘iterative evolution of the system’, which means that instead of waiting for a perfect system, you start the system and then keep on evolving in iterations. We have picked up some of those principles and have built them in our organisation and that has led to a significant change in the mindset of how we operate. 

How has this experience influenced the day-to-day running of your organisation? 

I think the biggest change is rethinking our vision and opening our mindset to large numbers. Our participation in the Accelerator made us think: Can we think of impacting a billion people? So, the whole overview changed and the ability to think at a scale that truly matters has become the core element of Karo Shambhav. Then we started thinking more as a platform, although we have always used the technology of platforms in the organisation, now the idea is: Can we create ecosystems that allow us to grow instead of looking at a linear growth pathway? 

What is the most important aspect of your new vision?   

Our problem statement now is how to make recycling a way of life for a billion people. This ability to solve is not just with us, but with a whole range of organisations. Data is fairly critical in the circular economy because there's a lot of dialogue, but data sets are absent. How do we bring in the power of data? Instead of just holding all that knowledge onto ourselves, for our own systems, how do we enable other organisations to set up better practices? That is a large change in our organisation and has led to a range of new types of collaborations. I already talked about collection centres, but now we are also thinking of recycling and secondary material utilisation as platforms where practices are standardised and openly distributed. 

Has this new way of thinking affected the planning of your organisation? 

Yes, definitely. Let's take the example of collection systems, our idea of collection systems was that we would need to physically set spaces of our own, but with this idea of societal platform thinking, we realised that we can create a platform approach where anyone could open up a collection mechanism and we would support them in governing it with the right systems and procedures. 

How do you envision the solution for this problem that you are tackling? 

We need to reposition Karo Sambhav more as a catalyst and as an organisation which can enable the setup of infrastructure for others, rather than being the owner of the infrastructure. So, there is a very fundamental shift that has already happened. In some ways, we are the coordinators of this whole movement. 

What do you exactly mean by “catalyst”?  

It means how we create systems and processes which people can follow rather than just keeping them with us. The approach shifted from thinking like a linear organisation, where the focus is on internal processes, to an organisation which is creating processes for the entire sector. 

What else are you doing within the framework of this new vision? 

We are moving into more sectors, and even if there’s a small opportunity, we still want to start the journey because the moment we start the journey, solutions start emerging. Glass is one of those examples and we are now considering mattress collection and recycling.  

What could make these big brands change? 

We think that sometimes seeing is believing, so even if we have a single client in a sector, we would start the journey because one single organisation lays down the pathway for the whole sector to move further. It is important because then you know the cost of going circular. The shift has already happened from “Why should we do it?” to “OK, let's consider doing it.” But it needs to go faster and become “Let's make it happen now.”  

What needs to happen to reach the scale you are aiming for? 

Regulation is the only way to achieve this. I don't think voluntary schemes can solve the problem at the right pace. So it is a mandatory regime that forces participation.  We believe it is the only way to get the results on time.   

What else needs to happen? 

As an organisation, we have to grow our own channels much faster, we need to drive the growth of our own collection systems and we need to get into recycling much faster than we had anticipated. We are also trying to figure out how to get into this last space, which is the conversion of recyclates into a new product. 


Here's another article on our series about the impact of the ASPIRe Accelerator: 

The social entrepreneur using platform tech to create population-scale, community-led resilience to climate disasters 

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