On the day of Makar Sankranti in 2015, as Ankit Agarwal sat with a friend by the Ganga Ghat in Kanpur observing the devotees bathing in the river despite the visible muck, their conversation naturally veered towards this age-old practice.
Pondering on the obvious reasons of pollution in the river, they witnessed a heap of waste flowers from the nearby temple being dumped into the river. As soon as the flowers touched the water, their colours started to fade. Agarwal was curious.
Through research, he realised that over 8.4 tonne flowers grown using insecticides and pesticides make their way into the Ganga daily. The former automation scientist knew he had a mission. Established in 2017, his social enterprise Phool.co transformed the way the world deals with temple flowers and farm waste.
Using a path-breaking innovation - flowercycling - Phool upcycles temple flowers into therapeutic incense sticks and incense cones. Not just that. These incenses are handcrafted by women coming from the marginalised sections of the society, providing them with a better livelihood.
"Our products are handcrafted by women coming from the so-called 'lower castes'. These are the women who have been looked down on and discriminated against for years. For them, repurposing flowers sourced from temples has an emotional quotient," says Agarwal.
"It is something that makes them feel equal in the society, a job that gives them the respect that they deserve. Besides, they now have a steady source of income that helps them take better care of their families and provide education to their children," he adds.
The process of flowercycling begins with collection of flower waste from temple to temple across Kanpur. The flower waste is turned into a powdered form, which the team kneads to prepare incense sticks and cones.
The organisation also makes garlands and colours out of the discarded flowers. Talking about the local impact the initiative has had, Agarwal says, "One of our team members, Anita Devi - a so-called 'untouchable' - has now started the first Dalit beauty parlour in her village. Nineteen former Phool SHG members have rented a pond in their village, multiplying their income fivefold with fish farming. Even temple authorities want to be a part of our mission. Three temples in the city have banned flower offerings."
The initiative that won the Tata Social Enterprise Challenge hosted at IIM Calcutta in 2016, has seen Tata become a crucial part of its journey ever since. In fact, recently it was honoured with the BIRAC Innovator Award 2021 for making 'Fleather', a bio-alternative to animal leather.
Backed by IIT-Kanpur, this biomaterial was made out of temple flowers and farm waste but promises to work just like leather. Phool.co has also introduced a 100 percent biodegradable alternative to the toxic thermocol with its version of 'Florafoam', again made of flower and farm waste. Further, to discourage people from discarding the boxes it packages its products in, the company stamps them with images of Hindu gods and infuses the paper with basil seeds.
What next? "We have many exciting new ranges of incense coming up in the near future. While some of these are based on the generous feedback received from our customers (like bambooless incense), we are set to launch many first-of-its-kind collections in the coming months," says the entrepreneur whose recent offering of skin-safety certified gulaal (dry Holi colour) made from waste was entirely sold off in less than a week.