How Kochi startup Aakri is fixing Kerala's medical waste menace

G Chandrashekhar, founder of A4 Mercantiles, with his wife Laxmi R Panicker who is the company's director and chief technical officer. Photo: Special arrangement

Kochi: The fire in March 2023 at Brahmapuram opened a can of worms: it exposed all that was wrong with Kochi’s waste management systems. Nearly four months after the mountains of legacy waste at Brahmapuram dumping yard caught fire, the Kochi corporation is still trying to find a permanent solution to the city’s garbage crisis.

One of the several steps the urban local body has initiated is a system to collect and dispose of bio-medical waste separately from households. Before the fire, biomedical waste was being dumped along with plastic waste at Brahmapuram. Now, the Kochi corporation has assigned a private company to collect segregated biomedical waste from households. The firm transports the waste to the Common Biomedical Waste Treatment Plant at the state-run Kerala Enviro Infrastructure Ltd (KEIL) at Ambalamedu about 15 km off the city.

The company which is helping the Kochi corporation tide over the medical waste crisis is A4 Mercantiles Pvt Ltd, now better known by its product – Aakri App – which is fast becoming a household name in Kochi and other parts of the state. Joining Kochi corporation in its post-Brahmapuram mission must have given a sense of contentment for G Chandrasekhar, the founder of A4 Mercantiles, as he was finally doing what he has actually been trying to do for years – clean his home city.

From Rs 30 lakh to Rs 3 cr
Chandrasekhar (43) launched A4 Mercantiles in 2019 with just two staffers, an app, a vehicle for scrap collection and a few social media advertisements. The firm is now engaged by five local bodies, including Kochi Corporation; it has a loyal client base in a few other panchayats and municipalities around Kochi. The company which started with an initial investment of Rs 30 lakh recorded a turnover of Rs 2.8 crore last year. This fiscal, it has already clocked a turnover of over Rs 3 crore in the first three months.

“Being a Kochi man, I have for long been concerned about the growing garbage crisis in the city. Scenes of garbage including medical waste dumped along the roads have always troubled me. I wanted to help the people with a solution to the menace,” Chandrasekhar told Onmanorama, recollecting how his strong belief in a cause paved the way for his foray into entrepreneurship.

S Kavya is the COO of A4 Mercantiles. Photo: Special arrangement

The idea of a tech-based solution to the medical waste menace from households had been lingering in his mind since 2016. He would spend the next three years, researching, attending seminars, meeting people and visiting existing facilities. He launched a fully developed app in 2020. During the research, he understood that Bio-Medical Waste Management Rules were not being followed properly anywhere in the country. Though he approached several government agencies with his proposal, seeking to be engaged as an agent for biomedical waste management, he did not find much support. So he had to start as a simple scrap dealer, but with a digital tool. The Aakri App was used for collecting scrap items like old newspapers, e-waste, aluminium, plastic and so on from households. The company stored the waste in a godown and sold them to recyclers, generating revenue. By 2021, the firm signed contracts with some cement companies for supplying non-recyclable garbage that can be used as fuel in their factories. The company still follows this business model; it has set up two godowns in Thrissur and Thiruvananthapuram apart from the two in Kochi. It owns 17 waste collection vehicles. The staff strength has gone up to 34.

Chandrashekhar's wife Laxmi R Panicker is the director and chief technical officer of the company.

Into chambers of KEIL
Chandrasekhar’s big moment in business came as he explored the scope of making use of the KEIL’s facility at Ambalamedu. At the time most of the medical waste in the state was being treated at a facility established by the Indian Medical Association (IMA) in Palakkad.

“I found that the facility at Ambalamedu was lying unused. KIEL has two chambers each of which can treat 16 tonnes of medical waste a day. However, when I visited the plant in 2021 only a limited amount of waste was being treated there,” Chandrasekhar said.

Kochi Corporation's medical waste collection service with Aakri app being flagged off. Photo: Special arrangement

He convinced the management of the KIEL to reopen the facility for treating biomedical waste from households. However, there was another challenge. KIEL wanted the involvement of a local body in the project. Chandrasekhar tried to get a civic body on board, but in vain. However, by March-April 2022, the Kalamassery municipality agreed to implement a pilot. The Kochi corporation had in fact called for an expression of interest in collecting bio-medical waste before the Brahmapuram fire. However, Aakri was selected and given work order only when the fire further escalated the crisis. The company collects around two tonnes of medical waste, including used sanitary pads, diapers, medicine strips and syringes, from the corporation daily. The corporation has set a schedule for collecting the waste from each ward. Users can log into Aakri App and book their slots. The local body has arranged a toll free number for contacting the service provider.

Funding and expansion
Aakri App is set to offer its services in Thrissur and Kozhikode soon with the respective corporations.

A4 Mercantiles is a bootstrapped company which is backed by the Kerala Startup Mission. It has initiated talks with investors, Chandrasekhar said. Participating in a brainstorming session of startup leaders, organised by Malayala Manorama, the company's chief operating officer S Kavya had stressed on the need to have a clear strategy before approaching investors.

The company was among the six startups selected from Kerala to attend the Austria Startup Delegation held in March. It has also won a handful of recognitions including the JCI Emerging Entrepreneur Award and Kairali Innotech Award. It was also chosen as one of the 23 startups to watch out for this year by Headstart Kerala, a not-for-profit organisation supporting early-stage entrepreneurs and startups in Kerala.
(Startup Saturday is Onmanorama’s weekend series featuring promising startups from Kerala. Find the previous stories here)

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