CEO Nargis Latif brims with ideas to deal with waste management — an environmental issue that needs urgent attention in a city like Karachi that appears on the list of one of the dirtiest cities in the world — as she follows James Watt as her role model whose innovative improvements of the steam engine are considered to have laid the foundation of the Industrial Revolution. “Gulbahao is engineering a technological revolution on the same lines,” she says, as it churns out 'simple and cheap technologies' through recycling garbage.
For the past 14 years, Nargis Latif, who holds a master's degree in botany, has been running from pillar to post to raise funds to make her idea work making good money and generating employment out of recycling garbage. “Kachra do sona lo” was Gulbahao's first innovative idea in which garbage was exchanged for 24-karat gold bars at her “Garbage and Gold Bank”, the 'earning arm' of the NGO. Though the idea failed to take off due to “lack of proper government response”, Nargis believes that the kabari business should be tapped for useful recyclable products and to bring them into commercial use.
In a city that generates almost 8,000 tonnes of garbage but recycles hardly 800 tonnes in reportedly 400 recycling units in Karachi, it was largely through her efforts that the kabari business evolved as a lucrative industry as she created awareness regarding separating “recyclable waste for monetary gains”. Nargis met hundreds of scrap dealers and offered good money for their garbage that included plastic bags, glass, cardboard, metal, paper, etc. This, Nargis claims, was also a turning point for the kabaris who changed their mindset towards garbage disposal.
The bought garbage was raw material for experimentation and innovation for the staff at Gulbahao. “These young people are barely educated but are very intelligent and have the street smarts to understand the utility of a particular kind of garbage,” Nargis says. “Together with my penchant for conducting research and their intelligence, Gulbahao has invented many cost effective products that are useful in our daily lives,” she adds.
Gulbahao's recycled products include many interesting inventions. Instant compost made from wet garbage 'vegetable and fruit peels and leaves are ground, then dried to make organic compost.' Or the mobile toilet 'is a big-sized carton that can be used as a cubicle for the purpose of a toilet or bathroom on unpaved ground;' it can also be folded and kept aside. Paaki Paani is another invention as 'used transparent plastic or glass bottles filled with tap water are kept in the sun for a couple of hours (three hours at the maximum) to get water that is germ-free, yet retains the mineral content'.
In 2005, Gulbahao offered pre-fabricated low-cost housing to the homeless in the far flung earthquake stricken areas, calling them 'Chandi Ghar' made from Was-tic blocks. These blocks are made from dry raw material compressed into wooden frames that serve as alternate building material, even “portable furniture and cushions”.
The sprawling 2000-square-yard Gulbahao facility on main Rashid Minhas road serves as both the commercial and research centre and employs around 12 people. “We usually receive domestic garbage here that costs us about Rs 40,000,” says Habibullah, supervisor of the Gulbahao Complex. There was a time when Gulbahao used to pick almost 10 truck-loads of garbage from 200 factories of the Export Processing Zone.
The NGO faces difficulties in terms of funding and a clear recognition from the CDGK that struggles with the issue of safe disposal of waste. Gulbahao's previous facilities were bulldozed thrice despite paying rents regularly. A few years back the CDGK had handed over a 20 year contract to a Chinese firm, Shanghai Shengong Environment Protection Company, to dispose off and recycle solid waste. However, the local stakeholders, the sanitary workers' union and scrap dealers, retaliated against the decision. Sadly, the local authorities seem to underestimate local potential and social entrepreneurship in disposing and recycling waste.
Such difficulties have only led to a stronger Nargis Latif who takes on society as a challenge to create awareness on recycling garbage. “We received the most encouragement during Benazir Bhutto's government but since then it has been a roller coaster ride as far as finances are concerned,” she adds. “I am however, disappointed in the educated class that fails to realise the importance of waste management” she adds.
The NGO earns around 60 per cent of its finances from commercial activities that include selling waste to other factories. This also keeps the research activity afloat; “There was a time when I was paying out loans through the nose, when the commercial side was not gaining us much income,” says Nargis.
Determined to drum her concept of waste management into public consciousness, Nargis Latif has even put her private savings on the line. “I may end up losing everything in the end,” she says, “but I will die a happy woman if my work is acknowledged and people start understanding that every bit of garbage can be made useful.”