Value addition through solar drying

The collective strength of women farmers is being leveraged by integrating solar drying technology with off-farm value addition of primary produce. The decentralized enterprise approach is able to cater to the demand while enabling farmers to reap better returns through processing. 

India ranks foremost in the production of many fruits and vegetables. Overall, it is the second largest producer of fruits and vegetables. Despite being one of the largest producers, prevalence of malnutrition at various levels points to the fact the non-availability of consistent supply round the year. Various estimates gauge domestic post-harvest losses ranging from 20 – 30% for fruits and vegetables costing about 50,000 crores annually. Price fluctuations and shortage observed time and again is partially attributable to inadequate storage, preservation and post-harvest practices.

Farmers often are forced to sell their perishable produce at the price offered. Many a times, price realized barely covers the production costs. Producers rarely undertake processing / value addition. Value addition, when done is mostly associated with aggregation, processing and packaging at an industrial scale by commercial entities.Such processing is intensive in terms of logistics, transport and energy. Farmers thus have the risk of dealing in a low value perishable commodity while the processors reap the benefits of value addition.

Enabling farmers to add value to their produce can be one of the best options for sustainable income generation. Solar drying is one of the various post-harvest techniques which aligns with decentralized processing. Perishable food produce dehydrated in such a manner prolongs shelf life while preserving colour, nutritional value and aroma at the same time. With changing lifestyles and growing preference for ready to cook food items, there is immense potential in this line of business. In light of the above, dehydration of fruits and vegetables through solar drying waspilotedby BAIF in Urulikanchan cluster in Pune.

The Initiative

BAIF has been promoting sustainable livelihood avenues enabling year-round income for the small and marginal farmers in Urulikanchan region.  Average land holding in the cluster is about 4 acres with a fifth of the population falling below poverty line. Irrigated tracts are prosperous but the rest of the region is less developed.

Situated on the outskirts of Pune city, Urulikanchan is a typical example of semi-urban area where most of the farmers are involved in the cultivation of leafy vegetables, tomato, onion, sugarcane etc. Seasonal variation leads to cyclic production and supply patterns but demand for specific products are either constant or not aligned with the supply cycle. Post-harvest options like storing in cold storage are very limited and expensive. Many times, the price realized barely covers the production costs. The cluster being near to the hotels / eateries on the highway, a latent need for assured supply of certain products round the year was realized. The requirement for a cushion against price fluctuation and distress sale was thus felt strongly which was the triggering point for the enterprise initiative. Dehydration of fruits and vegetables through solar drying was thus introduced on a pilot basis in Urulikanchan.

The initial pilot was set up in a decentralized manner (i.e. one dryer per participant) in Urulikanchan cluster. Various technologies were introduced as part of a technology dissemination initiative for livelihoods and solar dryer was one amongst other few. One dryer per participant was set up. Solar dryer incorporates the crucial aspect of filtering Ultra Violet (UV) rays of the sun and so the dried products retain their colour, aroma and nutrition which are otherwise lost in open sun drying. It is hence aptly referred to as “Taazgi sadaa…..Swadisht hamesha……”.

The approach ensures that women are able to earn by working from their households while leveraging economies of scale through collective action

Women have formed into groups to undertake drying at the household level and aggregation, packing and marketing at the group level. This approach ensures that women are able to earn by working from their households while leveraging economies of scale through collective action. The initiative is designed on the following lines.

  1. Local procurement of B/C grade cheap vegetables or preferably use own produce.
  2. Cutting, drying, powdering (if required) & packing in hygienic, moisture free conditions.
  3. Market linkage – procurement agencies, local market, food chains etc.

Multiple vegetables/products are being used for solar drying like tomato, ginger, onion, stevia, moringa leaves, spinach, fenugreek etc. Some instant / ready to eat products were also developed locally like dried sapota (Chiku) chips, instant Puran chapati (Maharashtrian dish), Instant Palak and Methi paratha, beetroot powder etc. The raw materials used for drying are either produced by participants or procured locally from other farmers. Packaging is done by participants for bulk orders after quality check and for retail orders packaging and labeling is done at the Sankalp store. The approach followed is that of drying at individual level and then aggregating at group level. This ensures that women can work from the confines of their homes but can also leverage their collective strength for catering to scope and scale of demand.

Following simple matrix defines the product portfolio and viability.

Vegetable – Currently produced
Product – Market available(1st preference)
Vegetable – Currently not produced
Product – Market available(2nd preference)
Vegetable – Currently produced
Product – Market not available (Low preference)
Vegetable – Currently not produced
Product – Market not available (Least preference)

The products are sold through two channels – one is through the retail outlet “Sankalp”. The women groups promoted earlier are now federated which now operates enterprise-level activities. Under this federation, an outlet for food and cosmetics products was established in 2013 at Urulikanchan which is known by the name “Sankalp”.  Another way of marketing is through wholesale orders.

The enterprise operations, management, maintenance is done by members only. Hand holding support and training are provided by BAIF team. Daily drying, management and maintenance of dryers is done by individual participants. Solar dryers have the important advantage of “zero running” cost. Further, as there are no moving or electrical components, maintenance is negligible. However, some minor issues like damage of UV filter sheet during sudden storm was observed once.

Scaling up

Semi arid climatic condition in the region has been very conducive in adopting the technology. The participants by using solar dryers developed various food products. They could also process B and C grade vegetables which are otherwise discarded as agricultural waste.  At present, each participant member is able to earn an additional monthly income of `2,500 – 3,000 through the initiative.

Based on the benefits from the pilot initiative, there was a demand from the community to set up some more solar dryers.Another 100 dryers were set up during 2018 and 2019. Around 20% of the cost was contributed by the members.While there is some promotional support, operational expenditure is borne by the group.

The group has commenced marketing under the brand “NutriSol” (indicating preservation of “nutrition” through “solar” drying). The members have been trained in aspects of hygienic processing, packaging and marketing. At present, the group is focusing on establishing a robust forward linkage. With full-fledged operations for 8 – 9 months in a year (excluding lean period of monsoon), the enterprise can realise returns in the range of 20-30%. Operational viability offers an attractive payback ranging from 1 – 3 years based on the product category being catered to.

This is a new and emerging area sustainably harnessing the natural resource of solar energy. Also, low cost preservation is advantageous and helps in price hedging. However, the enterprise is not devoid of challenges. Solar dryers cannot be operated optimally during rainy season when ample quantity of vegetables is available.  Market for dehydrated vegetables is huge. However, the linkage is still in developing stage and so having assured demand and marketing are challenges. Enterprise works on the underlying principle of surplus utilization. At times, demand surges / other distortions tilt the benefit towards sale of fresh vegetables. In such instances, solar dryer enterprise faces raw material shortage.  Presently, the enterprise is capable of handling orders of limited size only.

With all its limitations, the initiative is found to be apt for the tropics. With a steady back-end supply of raw materials, the initiative can cater to a wide spectrum of demand. Such a decentralized enterprise model can empower women, strengthen rural economy and contribute positively to the environment. 

Acknowledgements: The pilot initiative has been supported by Rajiv Gandhi Science and Technology Commission, Govt. of Maharashtra. The scale – up has been supported by HSBC Software Development (I) Pvt. Ltd. The dryer used in the decentralised enterprise model is Solar Conduction Dryer developed by S4S Technologies.

Rakesh K. Warrier and Mahesh N. Lade

 Rakesh K. Warrier

Chief Programme Executive

Mahesh N. Lade

Sr. Project Officer

BAIF Development Research Foundation

BAIF Bhavan, Dr. Manibhai Desai Nagar

NH4, Warje, Pune – 411058

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