It’s a no-brainer that the reputation of Saaf Biogas is powered by clean energy. The little-over-a year-old startup, based in Bengaluru, has recently bagged a prestigious contract with a premier aerospace company to set up a biogas plant at their factory in North Karnataka. Saaf is going to transform their canteen food waste into biogas, which will be piped back as cooking gas into the kitchen as part of a circular process. The residual slurry, rich in nutrients, will fertilize the soil for landscaping.
“It will be a state-of-the-art, packaged, containerized, pre-fabricated, plug-and-play plant with a capacity to produce 250 kg of biogas everyday,” says Aashish Dutt, the 33-year-old co-founder of Saaf, adding that the structure will likely be shaped like a rocket or an aircraft in keeping with the company’s commitment to space enterprise.
Alongside, Saaf has taken the community route to fuel the kitchens of the households in an Andhra Pradesh village. In, arguably, a first of its kind initiative, the startup is supplying biogas in backpacks to a village located about 100 kms away from the Bengaluru airport in the vicinity of Kiya Motors factory.
“We are procuring wet waste from the huge canteens of the automotive factory for a fee and utilising the garbage to generate fuel, which is then sold to the nearby village at a subsidized rate. What makes it unique is the way the gas is distributed: in backpacks. These backpacks come connected with a kit, which includes a biogas stove and a blower. Villagers can either carry the bag home from the biogas plant or one of them can provide the service of refilling and delivering these bags at the doorsteps for a fee,” he says.
He calls it India’s first virtual biogas grid. “In the absence of pipelines, the backpack technology helps the transportation of gas for short distances without too much fuss,” says Aashish who considers his stint at Social Alpha as a stepping stone to entrepreneurship.
Saving the planet
Through these activities, Saaf saves the environment from further degradation. It diverts 50 tonnes of food waste every month from landfills and reduces people’s reliance on LPG gas which is derived from fossil fuels. In villages, it minimizes the drudgery of collecting firewood and protects the trees from being felled. The slurry makes for excellent organic fertilisers that can substitute harmful chemical fertilisers.
Wet waste brings with it a set of problems that have a long-term impact on the planet. Improper waste disposal can have deadly effects on air, water and soil, causing significant damage to various life forms, including humans. Apart from emitting foul smell, it sends methane into the atmosphere and pollutes the groundwater by leaching through the soil. Wet waste also becomes a breeding ground for mosquitoes, leading to malaria and dengue.
“Wet waste comprises nearly 60% of municipal solid waste in India and unlike dry waste there is hardly any opportunity for recycling,” says Aashish, who realized in college that India lacks a high-quality waste management infrastructure. “I have seen Bengaluru deteriorate right in front of my eyes, with trash piled up at street corners, tree-cover depleting and the city plagued by air pollution and toxic chemical waste pouring into its lakes. To be fair, the problem is endemic, affecting our mountains, rivers, oceans, forests, cities and towns,” he says. “It didn’t strike people that if they act together, this monumental waste can be turned into a giant source of energy that would benefit us all.”
When Saaf began operations last year, its message to bulk organic waste generators was simple. It promised to offer them an in-situ solution in the form of an aesthetically designed biogas plant that is smart, safe, compact, efficient, and hygienic. The energy produced can be channeled back into the institution for cooking or any thermal or electrical applications. In the process, the startup would help these companies achieve their environmental compliance targets.
Saaf is willing to engage with enterprises that generate up to 10 tonnes of biowaste everyday. These could be corporates, food and beverages industry, and the dairy sector.
It is currently working with three clients; the third one is a French company whose biogas plant in Abu Dhabi was set up by the startup.
The technology driving the plants is simple and mature. “It’s nature that is producing the gas. The hard work is done by the naturally occurring bacteria in the digester. Our job is to make the working conditions conducive for the bacteria to maximise their output. This is done by optimizing the retention time, temperature and level of stirring inside the reactor,” says Aashish.
The entire plant is produced in a workshop and transported to the site where it is installed on a platform. Once the input and output connections are set up, the plant is ready for operation within a commissioning period of 30–45 days.
Saaf’s other co-founder Issam Abbasi, a Moroccan national and one of Germany’s leading biogas technologists with nearly two decades of experience in the sector, brings technical expertise to the table. The individual skills of the founders are complementary when it comes to design, technology, business development and execution. While Aashish is now running the show, Issam, as the CTO, is mostly involved in design and development of the company’s products. Issam also helps Saaf bag international orders.
They met while Aashish was employed in Social Alpha where, as a PM, he had the opportunity to work closely with startups. “I put myself in the shoes of the entrepreneurs and investors to learn more about finance and investment. It was a wonderful exposure. Without Social Alpha, Saaf couldn’t have happened, and I owe it to Manoj Kumar, co-founder and CEO of Social Alpha, for helping me realise my dream,” he says.
Aashish, however, cut his professional teeth at an Indo-German startup. He was the promoter and shareholder of the fledgling company, which set up biogas plants of varying capacities, ranging from half-a-ton to 600 tonnes per day, on a variety of waste streams — solid and liquid, agri and urban — catering to civic bodies and corporates.
Social Alpha’s role
While working with another portfolio company Hasiru Dala, Social Alpha realized that along with collection and segregation of waste, it is equally important to introduce decentralized organic waste-processing plants in the country. “More than 50% of the waste generated in India ends up in landfills, which not only degrades the environment but also creates public help issues. SA invested in the company because apart from creating a waste-to-value solution, Saaf is unique for its decentralized line of products. The startup can cater to the needs of communities, municipalities and industrial clusters without having to transport humongous amounts of filth to centralised facilities,” says Ganesh Kaveeshwar, the portfolio manager handling Saaf.
SA is also keen on Saaf because of the role it can play in meeting SDG 13 goal pertaining to climate action.
SA sees a lot of income potential for startups in the waste-processing space if they are willing to deploy new technologies. “With SA’s support Aashish has been able to collaborate with key manufacturers. He has also shown technological and business acumen by capitalizing on the cooking gas,” says Ganesh.
In the next five years, Aashish wants Saaf to become the №1, decentralized biogas company in the country. Apart from the usual waste-producing centres, Saaf will also focus on places, which are at the rural-urban intersections. That gives the startup an opportunity to aggregate different kinds of organic waste and bring them to micro-factories. The energy will be distributed to power cooking stoves and irrigation pumps, while the rich residue will enhance crop yields.
They have also set their sights beyond India after the successful venture of setting up a plant at UAE.
It is startups like Saaf that gives the country hope that for some people Swachh Bharat isn’t idle talk but a clarion call to action.