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2015 News Releases



Social enterprises empower communities

Written by:

MIT News Office

MIT students launch social enterprises that work with communities to foster financial and environmental sustainability.

During their time at MIT, two recent graduates, Sidhanth Kamath MBA ’15 and Sidhant Pai ’14, started two very different organizations, one addressing poverty and food in Ethiopia, and the other poverty and recycling in India. While their projects focus on different issues on different continents, they have much in common: They both employ a social enterprise model to work collaboratively with communities on addressing pressing challenges and improving their standard of living. In addition to relying on sustainable methods and training, these enterprises operate a supply chain on behalf of the local community by acting as distributors for their fair trade products.

Plastic waste to 3-D printing

Sidhant Pai, a 2014 environmental engineering graduate, has been working for several years on another social enterprise, one that empowers Indian urban waste pickers with the technology to turn plastic waste into 3-D printer filament. Protoprint, as the company is called, plans to sell the filament globally as a price-competitive, fair-trade alternative to virgin filament. “As 3-D printing becomes more mainstream, we’re just adding more virgin plastic to our environment. As an industry, it’s projected to quadruple in size over the next six years. Given that it’s still in its early stages, we have the option to make it a much greener industry if we act now,” Pai says.

PHOTO: Sidhant Pai '14 works on ReFilBot, a machine used for transforming recycled plastic flakes into 3-mm 3-D printing filament.Pai works closely with his father on building the machines required to convert the plastic into 3-D filament. Protoprint has set up its first “Filament Lab” at a garbage dump in the city of Pune in collaboration with SWaCH, one of India’s largest waste pickers cooperatives. A Pune native himself, Pai was intent on working with waste pickers. “I am very interested in grassroots development and wanted to work with the waste pickers directly because I think the best way to empower a community is to make them a primary stakeholder in the model. On a personal front, working directly with the community has been extremely educational, and I am glad I chose to do it,” Pai says.

Protoprint partnered with SWaCH to help as many waste pickers as possible. “Given the size and reach of SWaCH there’s a lot more potential for growth. That being said, we have helped smaller communities elsewhere and are always open to working with new communities,” Pai explains. Currently, they have trained 35 to 40 waste pickers. Sandhya Dhamale, who has worked with SWaCH for over five years, thinks this partnership will help “because it will train waste pickers…to learn new skills and live better lives.”

Like GreenPath Food, Protoprint will act as a distributor, which ensures that the recycled 3-D filament reaches markets otherwise not easily available to waste pickers. “Protoprint partners with semi-organized communities of waste pickers to provide them with the infrastructure and training to convert the waste plastic they collect into 3-D printer filament,” says Pai. “We vertically integrate much of the production steps to maximize the value the waste pickers gain. The production sites are eventually transferred completely to the community with Protoprint acting purely as a market connector and quality assurance.”

PHOTO: Protoprint's filament lab at a garbage dump in collaboration with SWaCH, one of India’s largest waste-pickers cooperatives.The social enterprise as a business model can address critical social and environmental issues. Pai thinks “it will have an important niche in tackling issues that have market-driven solutions.”

Pai received grant support from the PSC and won an IDEAS Global Challenge Award in 2014. He is also a D-Lab Scale-ups Fellow and a MIT Legatum Fellow. “MIT has been incredibly supportive of the project, and I can definitely say I would not have been able to implement the pilot without the financial support and mentorship from programs like [those at] the PSC,” Pai says.

“We’ve been thrilled to support young ventures like Protoprint and GreenPath Food because of their dedication to working closely with communities,” says IDEAS Global Challenge Administrator Keely Swan. “These projects are inspiring not only because of the early impact they have achieved, but also because of the thoughtful and reflective manner in which Pai and Kamath involve their local partners. In addition, both alums have been very generous in sharing the lessons they learned throughout their work, which is incredibly useful for modeling best practices to other students.”

Pai and Kamath’s social enterprises illuminate innovative, and potentially scalable, ways to care for the planet and its people, by placing a high value on people and the environment.

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