Nargis Latif

Ashoka Fellow
Illustration of a person's face depicting a fellow
Fellow since 1996
Gul Bahao Trust
This description of Nargis Latif's work was prepared when Nargis Latif was elected to the Ashoka Fellowship in 1996 .


Nargis Latif has developed a campaign to help solve the staggering waste disposal problems of the city of Karachi and to encourage broad adoption of environmentally and socially responsible waste disposal practices. The core of her initiative is an imaginative recycling program that is carefully attuned to the city's economic and social conditions.

The New Idea

Nargis Latif is convinced that the accumulation of solid waste and garbage in the streets and public areas of Karachi poses serious threats to public health and the quality of urban life. She is also persuaded that the relevant public authorities lack the resources and know-how required for an effective solution to the problem.Motivated by those twin convictions, she is engaged in tireless efforts to develop alternative, economically viable methods of waste disposal and to encourage private individuals and businesses to adopt environmentally "friendly" waste generating and waste disposal practices.Much of Nargis' work is focused on the discovery and refinement of simple and efficient procedures for converting trash and garbage into products of sufficient economic value to prevent its accumulation in public spaces and to provide significant sources of income to stimulate the engagement of private individuals in the waste removal process. In the Karachi setting, she has found that setting up stalls for the purchase of recyclable dry trash (i.e., glass, paper, plastic, and metal) in market areas is a particularly effective technique, especially when coupled with efforts to reach out to large numbers of people through community groups, religious organizations, and street cleaners' associations. She is also developing similarly promising approaches for the conversion of wet garbage (i.e., kitchen and food market refuse) into economically viable products.The other major strand of Nargis' work is a closely related public awareness and environmental education campaign. In addition to promoting broad participation in recycling initiatives, she is experimenting with various approaches for instilling a sense of responsibility for environmental protection in school-age children. As part of her environmental awareness campaign, she is also focusing public attention on the plight of street sweepers, who generally belong to lower castes and have traditionally taken up no other occupations. In that connection, she points out that many of the children of today's street sweepers will find other economic pursuits, and that more of the burden of trash and waste disposal must therefore be assumed by the general public.

The Problem

In Karachi, as in other large cities in low-income countries all over the world, the disposal of solid waste is a problem of staggering proportions and grave public health implications. The amount of solid waste produced by city residents, markets, and business firms far outstrips the capacities of municipal authorities to cope with waste disposal burdens. As a result, garbage is left to accumulate on public thoroughfares and in markets and other public areas, with predictably dire consequences for the spread of communicable diseases, the contamination of water and food supplies, and overall quality of urban life.The sheer magnitude of the problem in Karachi and other huge urban agglomerations in Asia, Africa, and Latin America suggests that imaginative action will be required on two parallel fronts to bring it under control. One critically important line of action is to supplement the work of public waste disposal authorities with creative private schemes that convert trash and garbage into useful economic goods and generate income for those involved in the process. The other is to heighten public awareness of the problem and change habits and practices that account for large portions of the waste disposal problem.

The Strategy

As the focal point of her "Safai mein Kamai" (profit in cleaning) campaign, Nargis has established stalls in the busy bazaars of Karachi where residents can sell their dry trash. To encourage widespread participation in that program, she has developed close ties with key figures in several religious groups (Shias, Bohris, and Ismailis) who have organized the collection of large amounts of dry trash as donations from members of their communities for sale through her market stall network. She has also initiated similar arrangements with residents' associations of multi-storied buildings and with various welfare organizations for the collection and sale of dry trash.Nargis' campaign also urges city residents and sweepers to dispose of wet garbage by burying it in gardens or other open spaces and turning it into compost that can be sold to producers of agricultural products. In her unceasing efforts to find more efficient methods of trash and garbage recycling, she is now experimenting with a new technique for wet garbage composting on a 200-square-meter plot of land that has been lent to her by the Karachi municipal government. Nargis' educational campaign with young children focuses in part on waste generation and management issues, but it also includes tree planting schemes that are aimed at instilling a fondness and sense of custodianship for the natural environment.

The Person

Born and raised in a lower middle class family, Nargis initially pursued a career in journalism. During ten years of work in that field, however, she became increasingly convinced that waste disposal problems in Karachi were assuming critical proportions and not receiving the attention that they deserved. Accordingly, in spite of resistance from her family, she decided to abandon her journalistic pursuits and devote her full energies to the search for creative and effective ways of addressing waste disposal needs.Now in her mid-forties and married with three children, Nargis has pursued her work in the waste disposal and environmental awareness fields with very limited financial support. Apart from the proceeds of commercial advertising banners in her dry trash stalls, she has developed the ventures described above as a labor of love. She regards herself, in fact, as an independent researcher engaged in a continuing search for new and better ways to convert waste and garbage into useful economic commodities.