Babu Raja Shrestha
Fellow Since 2001
This profile was prepared when Babu Raja Shrestha was elected to the Ashoka Fellowship in 2001.
Babu Shrestha has designed Nepal's first comprehensive, sustainable urban solid waste management system. His initiative not only cleans up cities but also restores citizen participation in waste cleanup and reduction efforts.
The New Idea
An engineer by training, Babu has turned his attention to a critical need in many cities in Nepal: trash collection and disposal. Starting first in Biratnagar, he is introducing a cost-effective approach for solid waste management that relies on effective incentives and high performance standards. He oversees and finances the effort through a private-public partnership that is adaptable to cities throughout the country. In addition to getting the framework and incentives for solid waste management right, Babu is exploring alternate methods of waste disposal as wellsome of which, it turns out, provide additional income for the communities that use them. For example, Babu has revived a rotational trench system of composting once used widely in Nepal's cities. Having re-learned this technique, communities now turn organic waste into rich compost and sell it to farmers. And finally, to curb waste production, Babu reaches the public through campaigns and radio spots, and supports eco-clubs in schools, helping groups of dedicated students to launch their own recycling programs.
In Nepal, vital public services such as waste management have failed to keep pace with urban growth. Kathmandu, Biratnagar, and other cities have inadequate systems for collecting, recycling, and disposing of solid waste. The poor quality of service threatens public health, making very likely the spread of communicable diseases, the pollution of ground water, and the contamination of food supplies. Traditional methods of communal composting in cities have fallen off as more and more houses and other dwellings have crowded onto land that was once reserved for composting sites. Prior to Babu's involvement in waste collection in Biratnagar, the municipality took full responsibility for the collection and disposal of solid waste. But the system was failing: trash was getting dumped into rivers, municipal workers had no investment in the process and were slacking off on the job, and residents had stopped doing their part. The complete failure of the waste management system contributed to the increasingly pervasive view that governmental institutions, for any number of reasons, are incapable of securing appropriate responses to citizens' needs.
Babu's involvement in addressing solid waste management in Biratnagar began in 1998, when he was asked to rescue the city from a waste disposal plan that had become grossly mismanaged and ineffective. Under this plan, the municipality was set to take over the street sweeping and garbage collection duties, while a private entity would transfer the refuse to a new landfill facility. Babu analyzed the situation and felt that he would be able to develop an alternate system that would be affordable, sustainable, and effective. He convinced the municipality to give him fourteen months to prove that his system could work. To dispose of solid waste, Babu first created a private company that works in partnership with the municipality. The private company provides access to needed capital, contains labor cost, and allows experimentation. Babu has introduced an incentive system for the workers whereby they resell any of the items of value that they find during the trash collection and separation processes. This encourages workers to take responsibility for the collection and separation of increasingly larger volumes of garbage in order to receive financial benefits beyond their base salaries. Babu has also instituted a user fee system, which was previously considered nonviable because most residents had lost confidence in the existing trash collection system and were skeptical of new promises. Babu was convinced, however, that users would pay for efficient and useful services. To overturn skepticism, he ran a free street sweeping operation for an initial period. After residents saw the effectiveness of this system, they were convinced to try the waste collection approach, and now Babu has registered two thousand paying users. An important element of Babu's strategy is the integration of street sweeping services with garbage collection. Other programs separate these two tasks distinctly. A contract with the city for street sweeping services covers significant portions of capital outlays (trucks) and labor employed in solid waste collection. It also reinforces efforts to ensure orderly arrangements for the temporary deposit of solid waste for collection and contributes to public awareness of the benefits that result from the joint initiative.Babu has developed additional income generation schemes that convert organic waste into forms that can be sold to earn a profit. One example is a product called a "beehive briquette," which is compacted from organic waste and use for cooking fuel. The beehive briquette approach is based on a traditional method of charcoal making. However, since the introduction of state-subsidized kerosene fuel, this traditional fuel source has been displaced. The technological improvements that Babu has developed are creating a market for the beehive briquettes, and he is also in the process of developing specialized briquette stoves and heaters. In another effort, Babu has also integrated a rotational trench composting system that transforms organic waste that can be "harvested" after an eight-month period. He plans to market the compost to farmers, borrowing techniques from the traditional system of composting that was once prevalent in most urban areas. Another key component of Babu's program is the creation of school eco-clubs. His program offers seed money for student-organized waste paper collection and recycling initiatives. Although still a small program, this initiative will be key to changing public opinion. Additionally, he has frequent rallies and public gatherings, which encourage proper waste disposal. Babu estimates that fifty-eight municipalities and about four thousand villages in Nepal will see huge improvements from the adoption of his system. To help spread what works to other cities who face a waste management crisis, he has built a training and education center in Biratnagar.
Babu was raised in Biratnagar, and went to college in Kathmandu. He later traveled to the Ukraine, where he pursued graduate studies in aeronautical engineering at the Kiev Institute of Civil Aviation. After graduating, he took up residence in Germany, where he attended the Technical University of West Berlin, then worked for a construction company for ten years. In 1989, he returned to Nepal with his Ukrainian wife and two daughters.Over the past decade, Babu has applied his engineering skills to a range of environmental protection initiatives. He was one of the founding members of a nonprofit organization that brought solar electricity to over eight thousand homes in rural villages throughout the country. He also helped to design a three-wheeled electric-powered vehicle for use in Kathmandu's public transportation system as part of an initiative to combat pollution caused by gasoline-powered vehicles. Babu's involvement in solid waste management began in 1998, when he was asked to rescue the city of Biratnagar from a mismanaged waste disposal plan.