How an Indian start-up is creating young sustainability leaders

One Million for One Billion, or 1M1B, aims to train a million youths to drive sustainability for a billion-plus Indians.

Esha Nahar from Bangalore promotes the use of eco-friendly products for Project Swachh Sansaar
Esha Nahar from Bangalore promotes the use of eco-friendly products for Project Swachh Sansaar, a group backed by 1M1B to raise awareness about plastic consumption reduction. Image: 1M1B

When 14-year-old Maulik Bansal came across giant plastic dumps near his home in the Indian capital city of Delhi, he was worried about the city’s future. He wanted to make a difference to the environment, but did not know how.

Shortly after, an organisation called 1M1B (One Million for One Billion) conducted an orientation programme at his school to train students to launch sustainability initiatives. Bansal enrolled himself during last year’s summer break.

The 40-hour programme inspired him to start a venture to convert used bedsheets into cloth bags and distribute them in neighbourhood shops in exchange for their stocks of plastic bags. The teenager’s initiative proved so popular that he launched another – this time to collect waste milk packets and send them to a recycler.

“Now, I aim to educate people in rural areas about this huge problem and make entire villages plastic-free and healthy,” he told Eco-Business.

Like Bansal, thousands of young people have launched their own initiatives in pockets across India after undergoing training by 1M1B. The non-profit aims to build a million-strong workforce to lead the billion-plus nation towards sustainable development.

The Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) were adopted by the United Nations in 2015 as a universal call for action to end poverty, protect the planet and ensure that all people enjoy peace and prosperity. The 17 SDGs recognise that action in one area will affect outcomes in all others.

The 1M1B programme, which is accredited by the United Nations, began as a private initiative by corporate executive Manav Subodh, whose work in public policy at the international chipmaker and technology company Intel often required him to meet local communities in the hinterlands worldwide.

On his travels, people would invariably ask him for a job. Or, how his company could solve their communities’ problems such as the lack of clean water supply. It made Subodh wonder why people were so dependent on a company or the government instead of creating a sustainable future for themselves.

The thought inspired him to ditch his 17-year corporate career and launch 1M1B with a Future Leaders Training Programme. “If we democratise and universalise entrepreneurial education and skills, then the new India can be so different,” Subodh told Eco-Business.

Young sustainability leaders

Over the last seven years, the non-profit that is largely financed through corporate social responsibility allocations from other companies, has trained more than 50,000 youths and brought on board 3,000 schools.

The training programme is offered in villages, towns as well as cities across India and the content is modified based on students’ needs, their education, background and talents. Students aged 14-17 years can enrol, but the company plans to soon open up training for young adults aged up to 22 years. Simultaneously, 1M1B fellows also look to enrol entrepreneurs in villages who might be struggling to find their path.

“Students are encouraged to work on projects based on their fields of interest to create actual impact. Their solutions address real-world issues such as poverty, [rural-urban] wage gap, unemployment and climate change,” Subodh said.

In a typical class, students are not only taught how to use the latest technology tools, but also encouraged to apply them to solve real-world problems. During one such virtual session recently, students discussed their ideas about how artificial intelligence can be used for projects to meet their preferred sustainable development goals.

“The SDG which I am focusing on is Life on Land and particularly poaching, which is a huge issue,” said Amaya Durbha, a 14-year-old student at the National Academy for Learning, Bangalore, who is part of the Future Leaders programme. “AI can be utilised in combination with drones or cameras to identify poachers and trespassers in wildlife reserves. If paired with a database containing the faces of nearby residents, it can assist in nabbing them,” she said, “AI can analyse patterns in the behaviour of poachers, predict what time they will come in and what time they will be poaching. It will allow forest rangers to position and time themselves correctly to intercept the poachers before they cause harm to wildlife.”

From pockets to system-wide change

Such ideas are now blossoming into real-life sustainability projects in pockets across the country.

Arava Rajesh, 28, was dejected after two of his business ventures failed. His decision to enrol as an 1M1B Fellow proved a turning point, he told Eco-Business.

Discussions with the programme mentors convinced Rajesh to set up a treatment plant in his hometown, the remote town of Narsapur in Andhra Pradesh in southern India, which is now providing clean water to 200 people daily. “I took this decision as there was a clear need in the community. Now, there is no turning back and I plan to go onwards and upwards,” he said.

Similarly, 14-year-old Esha Nahar, a trainee with the 1M1B Future Leaders Programme in the southern Indian city of Bangalore, wanted to contribute towards reducing plastic waste. She tied up with a company called Bamboo India to widely distribute bamboo products to replace plastic objects such as toothbrushes.

“I am addressing this problem [of plastic waste] by spreading awareness and bringing about a change in our society’s mindset,” Nahar said, adding that she has distributed close to 1,500 bamboo products and ensured that people living in her street no longer use plastic toothbrushes.

Many students who have undergone the Future Leaders Training Programme choose conventional careers such as engineers, IT professionals or human resource managers. But the skills they imbibe always help them to contribute to sustainability, Subodh says, adding that India’s net zero-by-2070 goal has created an urgent need for skilled professionals in the hinterlands where projects such as renewable energy generation will be based.

Hence, the company is aiming to ramp up its programme in villages, despite hurdles such as poor infrastructure. “We are present in about 2,509 villages today, but India has close to 680,000 villages. Hopefully, we will get there,” Subodh said.

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