October issue 2010

By | Business | People | Profile | Published 14 years ago

Our car weaves through the lanes of the Garden East district in Karachi, our faces pressed against the windows as we try to find our way to the interviewee’s residence — we are running late. Finally we spot her, standing straight ahead of us on a busy and congested road, waving frantically and trying to grab our attention. Peshawari chappals, modest shalwar kameez, unruly graying hair and radiating energy — this is our first encounter with Nargis Latif, the brains behind Gul Bahao, an NGO that has revolutionised the concept of waste management in Pakistan. She directs us up the spiral staircase to her sparsely furnished abode, where we sit down to discuss her venture.

“Gul Bahao” means to spread fragrance, Nargis explains, and with her avowed goal of recycling copious amounts of trash from around the city of Karachi, it is in a sense doing just that. But the 17-year-old NGO is not only revolutionising the concept of waste recycling, it is simultaneously reorganising waste disposal. “Wait, this tale has to be told from the beginning,” says Nargis animatedly.

The concept of Gul Bahao stems from two incidents in her life. Following the birth of her third child, Nargis suffered immense trauma and illness and she vowed that if God relieved her of her misery, she would take a keener interest in social work. A few years later, when Nargis had fully recovered and resumed normal life, she got into an argument with a garbage cleaner beneath her apartment who insisted on burning trash in a dumpsite outside her flat. Livid at why the trash had to be burned instead of disposed off in a more appropriate manner, Nargis was determined to find alternate solutions for the pestilent problem. Learning that the cost of clearing up a single garbage site was pretty steep (Rs 4,000 back then), the young Nargis took to scouring libraries for better options and eventually came to the realisation that facilitating garbage disposal was not just a day’s work; it entailed a lifetime of commitment. “I realised I would have to sacrifice a cosy, comfortable family life for it,” says Nargis — and she did.

After pouring her energy into hours and hours of research and experimentation, Nargis emerged with her first official solution to waste recycling — a project she calls Chandi Ghar (Silver House). She collected discarded plastic bags — the bane of Karachi’s existence — from around the city, and found a way to compress these bags to make waste blocks or bricks, which she then used in building houses, swimming pools and for flooring. Four years ago, however, the NGO switched to making these bricks with aluminium foil instead of plastic bags. Aluminium foil waste is collected from factories and workshops that make packaging material and is available in copious amounts. So industrial waste now serves as Gul Bahao’s raw material. Since these bricks are not made from cement, they are termite-proof, weather-proof and, best of all, portable. One house costs Rs 15,000 to build and it is known to survive even harsh climates. For instance, a Chandi Ghar built on the roof of Sachal Hall in Ibrahim Hyderi withstood the devastating 2009 cyclonic winds and is ample proof of the strength and potential of Chandi Ghar Housing. These waste constructions have helped the internally displaced persons during the 2005 earthquake and as we currently face an unparalleled human disaster, with flash floods affecting almost 20 million Pakistanis, destroying homes and villages, Chandi Ghar Housing could hold the key to swift and reliable shelter. Nargis says she has already received calls from Punjab and interior Sindh to provide over 100 homes, and she is in the process of delivering them.

The home of waste management NGO Gul Bahao.

The home of waste management NGO Gul Bahao.

But this project has had its fair share of setbacks. Her set up for Chandi Ghar has been bulldozed twice in Gulshan-e-Iqbal, in 2006, without so much as even a legal notice although, according to her, she was paying rent on a monthly basis. However, despite these hardships, she carries on with a firm belief in her cause.

Nargis describes Gul Bahao as a revolution. “Just as my role model James Watt discovered the steam engine that led to the industrialisation of Europe, I believe my cause will also revolutionise how we live on a daily basis,” she says. Karachi produces close to 8,000 tonnes of garbage every day, and this heterogeneous pile can be sorted out to make money by reusing its different components: plastic can be sold at Rs 38/kilo, Alkathene (a tough resin commonly used in pipes) for Rs 50/kilo, and shopping bags and carton boxes for Rs 6/kilo. Hence Gul Bahao’s other venture, Safai Kamai Bank, that buys and sells garbage for profit. An individual, company or factory can sell their garbage to the bank and get cash or savings certificates in return. The bank then sells the garbage to middlemen for a profit, which constitutes its earnings. Nargis terms garbage as “essential encashable goods.” Previously, she would buy gold coins from Saddar and give those out instead of cash, in return for garbage. This, however, was not feasible in the long run.

Located on Rashid Minhas road in Karachi, the Safai Kamai Bank still continues to fund Gul Bahao’s other projects that are based on extensive research. It is the only commercial or welfare arm of Gul Bahao and in 1997, it won Nargis the Ashoka membership, which is given to the world’s leading social entrepreneurs.

Gul Bahao’s other projects emanate from her research centre, which is located on a 2,000-sq-yard plot in Gulshan-e-Iqbal. This is where she conducts her research with the help of young students who have recently completed their matriculation or intermediate. Nargis takes non-toxic materials from the garbage and experiments with them to make items of everyday use, such as cushions. Gul Bahao invents new techniques to convert the trash into cheap and useful products. One such product is khad or manure. Thandi Meethi Khad is compressed bricks of manure made from reusable garbage, specifically vegetable trash. When dried out, Thandi Meethi Khad can also be used as Choora Chara that serves as fodder for live stock and cattle.

Inside a "Chandi Ghar"

Inside a “Chandi Ghar”

Water scarcity and contamination is another threat posed by the flash floods that have devastated the lives of millions of families. Furthermore, a 2007 World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF) report, “Pakistan’s Waters at Risk,” states that 250,000 children die every year from drinking contaminated water. Gul Bahao may have found a solution that is within the reach of the average Pakistani. It transforms contaminated water into drinking water by putting it out in the sun for three hours, in transparent plastic bottles. This makes the water germ-free and leaves the mineral content intact for use. The product called Paaka Paani, has been recognised by the World Health Organisation.

Gul Bahao’s most exciting venture is a fuel pack that may ease the pressure on our escalating energy crisis — there is a shortfall of over 4,000 megawatts of electricity today. According to Nargis, Attock Cement has tested the fuel pack and said they may require 500 tonnes every day. This fuel pack is made from wood and cloth waste and is a substitute for coal. Industrial waste from 80 different factories was experimented on and eventually non-toxic elements (wood, paper, cloth) were extracted. The pack does not emit toxic fumes and can easily be used in thermal power stations. If put in the boiler it will release non-toxic steam that can run the turbines and it is considerably cheaper than coal. The fuel pack weighs 10-12 kilos and its size is 6x17x21 inches. Gul Bahao prides itself on its research, and the fuel pack came into existence after 13 years of research and 40,000,000 rupees later,” says Nargis.

Due to a paucity of funds at present, Gul Bahao’s work has slowed down, but at its peak in the year 2000, 80-100 boys were working in the Gul Bahao research laboratory. Nargis came across these boys from various ethnic backgrounds at Jumma Bazaar, where she had set up a stall to spread awareness about garbage and get people to sell their garbage to her.

“Our slogan is, ‘Karachi’s gift to the world,’ and we want the Americans, Japanese and Chinese to follow the new solutions we have come up with,” beams Nargis. When we asked her whether she had patents for her products, she sighed and said she had no time. “My project has been like a bed of needles. It is very, very hard work. Later, when I am gone, you will find people making use of my research and it will all be highly organised and there will be offices. I have spent my husband’s life savings on these projects. He had no choice but to give the money to me. What else could he have done — his wife was going to jail for having borrowed money from usurers for Gul Bahao. My kids are also fed up, but my struggle continues.”

At Gul Bahao

At Gul Bahao

Nargis’s unkempt appearance and sparsely furnished home attest to the fact that her cause has completely enveloped her life. “I used to be a romantic,” she says. “Before I got married, I dreamt of marrying a very poor handsome man, like in films, and I thought of running away with my husband just because it was a very romantic thing to do. I purposely drive myself into difficult situations.” While Nargis’s romantic dream may not have been lived out the way she wanted, her affair with garbage has proved long-lasting.

Today, Nargis is recognised all over Pakistan and abroad by international publications like Courrier International. She is currently the brand ambassador for Telenor. The 80 million rupees Nargis has spent on her projects have come from various philanthropists and businessmen. She is doing what this country desperately needs — development through research. “We started out with the idea of a clean atmosphere and a clean environment,” says Nargis. “That was the raison d’être of our organisation. But we have progressed beyond that and are discovering new products that could improve our economy and change our lifestyle.”