Wednesday, November 10, 2010


Hey guys,

This is a blog about my time in India in the summer of 2010. I worked with a development NGO called SELCO, designing a small scale paddy de-husker. Hope you enjoy reading about it.


Friday, October 8, 2010

Back home

My plane landed on Monday evening. Things still feel a bit of a blur three days on but I’m starting to find me feet. I was expecting a culture shock, especially moving back to Cambridge so quickly (I had to be back and signed in on Tuesday), and I haven’t really had much time yet to sit and work out my thoughts about the whole experience. Hopefully I’ll get back into the swing of things soon.

The last week of work was a bit manic but I managed to get everything finished and tied up on the India side: The next designs have been passed on to the workshops and are currently being made (that is, the second prototype of the de-husker which we showed to the farmers and the fire-feeder); the head of mechanical engineering is in place to continue discussions with the workshops and my desk is clear. I still need to finish the handover document and some other bits and pieces but there’s no rush for those so I’ll do that from here and email them across.

Both of the workshops had promised they would finish making the prototypes of the other de-husker designs by my last morning in Ujire and I had a fantasy that everything would come to a perfect close as I tested them both and got to see my designs in action before disappearing into the sunset. Unfortunately this is India and so neither of workshops had finished. I’m pretty sure by now that neither of these designs would have been as effective as the one which we showed to the farmers, but we decided to carry them to completion just in case and as useful demonstration models for visitors to the lab and future interns.

             Just needed a slot cut in the bottom and some mesh put over it

             So nearly there...

There are still quite a few bits and pieces of work that I can help SELCO with while in the UK so I’m planning to stay in touch and do as much as I have time for. I may try to find some other people to get involved and perhaps set up some kind of society within the engineering department but that will depend on what sort of work there is and how well the link works.

On Thursday I decided to head to Anand’s farm to write the handover document. The site, in the middle of the jungle and over half an hour’s walk from the main road, was the perfect place to get away from distractions and get into nature for one last time. In the evening I ended up going back with one of the farm workers and spending the night with him. Despite having seen so much of the rural lifestyle, it was enlightening to spend a whole evening with a family.

Some of the guys I’ve become friendly with at the hostel are organising an event called ‘joy of giving’, where they encourage people to give things they don’t need and then sell them to raise money for a local ‘orphanage’. I’m not quite sure how much of an orphanage it actually is but as far as I could gather there are at least some orphans there and the rest are from pretty lowly backgrounds. And the hostel guys obviously think it’s a cause worth supporting. We paid them a visit and ended up getting put in front of the kids to lead an impromptu assembly! It was a bit chaotic but we played a few little games and did some dancing and I ended up playing a bit of guitar, and the kids seemed to enjoy it. I was amazed at how well equipped the state-funded institution was considering some of the photos I’ve seen of orphanages in these kind of places. I sort of feel that whatever money the guys manage to raise won’t be much compared with what the government contributes but I hope that the gesture will mean a lot to the kids and show them that there are people on the outside who care.

And for one last time, a few more photos:

             The view from the farm

             One of the leeches I managed to pick up in the jungle

             This woman spent some of the evening making 'beedies', a kind of local
             cigarette. Each one requires her to cut out the rolling paper from a leaf,
             fill it with tobacco and roll it, tie it up with thread and then fold the ends
             in in a funny way to keep the tobacco in. She gets 70 rupees (about a
             pound) for every 1000 of these she makes.

             Guess which one's driving the jeep (clue - he's hanging out the door)

             The sleeper bus on the way to Bangalore

             Rhitu works for the BBC and she's making a radio programme about
             development and particularly SELCO's approach so she wanted to
             interview me while I was in Bangalore

             I arrived in India in the middle of the monsoon while the rice was being
             planted out in the fields. It feels like a nice end to my trip to be leaving
             just as the rice is ready to be harvested.

Wednesday, September 29, 2010

Last little bits

Not much to say on the de-husker front this week unfortunately. Both workshops are working away and will hopefully each have something for me to try out before I leave. Most of my time has been spent designing the next prototype of the de-husker we showed to the farmers and also an automatic fire feeder. I’ve had quite a few ideas while I’ve been here of how the de-husker project can develop beyond what I’ve had time to do, and so it would be nice to try to follow through with them once back in the UK. I’ve had a couple of talks with the head of the mechanical engineering department here and he seems keen to coordinate things with the workshops and test the next prototypes so I’m really hopeful that it’s going to work out.

The fire feeder is intended to provide a cheap, automatic way of feeding small pieces of firewood or waste such as coconut husks into a fire without someone needing to attend it constantly. It’s a project which SELCO had previously considered but were unsure how useful it would actually be to people. Hopefully this prototype will work well enough to get a better idea.

The swinging pendulum controls the rate of feeding in a similar way to the mechanism in a grandfather clock.

I also paid another visit to SIRI in the week (see this blog posting) to show them the ideas I’d had for the improved leaf plates and the incense stick making device, and they seemed keen on both. It was very satisfying to see some of the staff get quite excited as more and more people gradually got called into the office. I’d managed to get the plates stiffer and better shaped by drying them in a certain way, and they reckon they should be suitable for export now. They need to improve the cleaning method slightly but since the meeting I’ve had a look into how some other companies do it and it shouldn’t be too difficult. SIRI had previously been approached by a company who wanted containers with a lockable lid and so I’d had a bit of a play with that too and managed to come up with a locking device which works with the leaves. They also liked the machine I found to improve the bamboo splitting for the incense sticks and are going to contact the manufacturer to trial it. All in all it was a really encouraging meeting and I sort of feel that that alone makes my trip seem worthwhile.

On Wednesday and Thursday last week, we were visited by Jonathon, an American who’s recently set up a business called Biolight making improved cook-stoves (ones which produce less harmful smoke) with a thermoelectric device allowing the user to charge a phone or small light. He wanted our help with conducting its first trial with potential users. Our first visit was to a local woman who has a phone but no electricity. The test showed up a few things that needed improvement but on the whole it worked well, and the woman was very keen on the idea. We also took the stove to Dhamastala, a neighbouring town which attracts Hindu pilgrims from up to 300km away and so we had a chance to demo it to a broad audience. We had some good fun explaining how it works and giving out free cups of tea (or something equivalent), and I was amazed by how many people we attracted.

             The Biolight stove being used next to a conventional three-stone stove

                       More interesting than an elephant

At the weekend, I took a bit of extra time off work to spend three days in Hampi. The ancient city used to be the capital of the Vijayanagara Empire which used to cover South India, and now consists of an overwhelming number of temples and bazaars stretched over 10 square kms.

I couldn’t get over the number of westerners though, and I actually felt a bit uncomfortable around them. Most of them were young globe-trotters on their gap yahs, although luckily the place is big enough that you can lose them all as you wander round the ancient monuments, and luckily too (and also pretty amazingly!) I bumped into Isabelle from the SAP visit the week before within 20 minutes of arriving. I think she had similar feelings about all the tourists and it was nice to spend much of the first day exploring the sites with her and her friend.

Despite the centre feeling a bit like a tourist attraction, the rest was amazing and I had a brilliant time there. The architecture was beautifully crafted and covered in elaborate carvings, and the scenery was absolutely breathtaking: impossible heaps of boulders perched precariously on the miles of undulating terrain, amid palm groves and paddy fields.

On the second day I met a guy at breakfast who seemed a bit more down to earth and I spent the rest of the day with him. Apparently, due to the size of the place, the best way to see everything is by motorbike and I felt very ‘Indiana Jones’ riding around the ancient temples. Unlike English heritage sites, you don’t need to dismount when you actually reach the attractions.

And a few more picks from the week:

These protected stone pillars are each tuned to play a different note and tone when tapped. For a bribe of only 50 rupees the security guard will play them for you, and from an engineering perspective they really are quite incredible.

This snake charmer was one of the ‘attractions’, along with guys dressed with red sheets and facepaint who would let you take their photo for a price. But to be honest, it was pretty cool.

             Breakfast by the river with sugarless tea and spice-free food!

             This guy owns a (very) small music shop and I had some fun teaching him guitar

Tuesday, September 21, 2010

Just a short one

I got the third prototype back on Saturday and it sort of works. Some grains are de-husked but not as many as the commercial machines which this model was based on and not nearly enough to make it marketable.

             Turn the handle, put grain in the top and rollers shear the husk off. In theory...

The workshop were not easily able to get the 1:4 gear ratio between the rollers I was after in order to match the commercial ones (so one roller rotates four times every time the other rotates once), so I got them to have a go with this 1:2 version. Having seen that the model has potential (there is some de-husking going on), I'm going to get them to modify it to have the conventional ratio.

On Friday and Saturday we were visited by some people from SAP (apparently the "world leader in collaborative business software"). Some of them are part of a more social project which the comapany are looking into to try help people in developing regions and wanted to learn more about SELCO and the social enterprise model, and the rest were just interested to learn more about us.

We visited a couple of sites where SELCO has installed photovoltaic systems, showed them some of the other work that the incubation lab (where I work) has been doing, and also had a bit of a jolly to Dhamastala to look at a museum and a temple. It was really nice to talk with so many people from the commercial sector who show such an interest in the kind of work SELCO do.

                       This picture tells a lot. The people in this village live metres
                       from power lines and yet have no access to the electricity
                       so have to pay above the odds for solar.

             Lincoln and me giving our presentation

Lincoln left with the guys from SAP on Saturday to catch his flight home, so I'm on my own for the next two weeks. On Sunday I caught a bus to Chikmagalore and then took a Jeep to visit a few of the "hill stations", which are basically nice spots in the hills, where someone will have normally built a temple. I spent a lot of time on the road but there were amazing views throughout and it was a very pleasant way to spend the day.

And a few little photos I've taken:

             Prototype 3 under construction

             There are loads of rubber plantations around here, and this is the machine
             where all the chemicals get added to so it can be used

             One of the SELCO lighting systems in action

                       The bit that looks like a nose is actually the remains of a
                       buttress that was removed to de-husk paddy against.
                       The other guys joked that my project is helping to reduce

             At the top of Mullayanagiri, Karnataka's highest peak

                         Life as a temple servant...

             Kemmangundi is supposed to be the site of the first coffee plantation in India

             One of the many environmentally motivational signs on the way up to the
             hill stations

                       This eerie wind turbine was put up by the government
                       department of horticulture and represents many energy
                       projects which were started with high hopes and large
                       grants but have since fallen into disrepair

Friday, September 17, 2010

Thumbs up from the farmers

Sorry this blog is a little later than planned. I’m actually sitting in the back of an ‘omni-van’ as I write this, coming home from an SKDRDP farmers’ meeting (I’ve not had loads of spare time). The farmers are part of a sort of union set up by SKDRDP (the NGO which I mentioned in my first blog) and meet once a month to discuss practices and hear about new ideas. Lincoln and I went with Sandeep to show them our projects and get some feedback, and it was actually very encouraging. They were really interested in my de-husker and seemed happy with the quality of the rice even without the improvements I plan to make in the next prototype. They confirmed the fact that it would need some kind of motor to power it, which I was also planning to include in the next prototype, and said they were willing to pay about 50% more for it than I'd been budgeting for. All in all very positive and a couple of the farmers even asked if they could pre-order one now!

The second de-husker prototype still isn’t quite ready yet! The workshop has made a fair bit of progress on it though so I thought it was worth dropping in a photo of how it’s looking at the moment:

             Put paddy in the funnel, turn the handle on the bike wheel and rice comes
             out the side.

Even without the final touches, it can manage about a 50-60% de-husking rate (which is still a considerable improvement on what was achieved previously) but there are far too many broken grains.

Last Thursday I visited an organisation called SIRI to do some consultancy work. They were set up by SKDRDP (the NGO I mentioned in blog number 2) as a not-for-profit company to provide employment and support for women in Karnataka. They make clothing, disposable plate, incense sticks, small ornaments and various other craft items and currently employ over 10,000 people. I felt a little bit overwhelmed when I realised the size of the company, and not sure how much I could do to help in the three weeks I have left here, but it turns out that none of those 10,000 people are mechanical engineers and having spoken to them I'm hopeful I'll be able to be of some use.

My main job is to look into ways to improve the quality of their plate, which are made from the leaves of an areca palm. In fact, if you want to see a video about their plates, click here. They make a lot of them which they sell within Karnataka for the equivalent of about 2-3 pence apiece. There is also an export market for these plates where SIRI could sell them for around 15p each, however the quality is currently not good enough. I've not had a chance to have a proper experiment yet but I'm going look into ways of treating the plates after they've been made.

              Playing around with the plate making machines

The second thing they wanted my input on was one of the processes in the production of the bamboo splints for incense sticks (of which they make nearly 2 tonnes per day!) which is currently very laborious. I've designed a very simple contraption that will hopefully help to speed it up and am waiting to hear back if they want me to get it made. I also found a small machine thing that is being made in Mumbai and so I've recommended they try that out too. SIRI works on a very interesting business model. The cheapest way to make incense sticks in the quantities which they do is to buy a few large machines which can spew out hundreds a minute, although this obviously isn't so good for providing jobs. If they were to use no machines at all however, the production process would become too expensive and so SIRI have to come up with a carefully balanced production system which can operate with a lower efficiency and yet remain competitive enough to sell large quantities.

One thing I’ve found while looking into the various agricultural innovations out there is that there are a lot. Countless universities, enthusiast and government agencies are generating clever, fully working contraptions but very few of them ever make it to their intended user. A lot of this is due to laziness of the inventors but even the products that make it to manufacturing are difficult for the farmers to access because there’s no way for the farmers to hear about them, and most don’t have the capacity to research what technologies might be available.

On top of this, farmers here are extremely averse to taking risks such investing in machinery which might fail or might not work. When you’re just about managing to grow enough rice to survive, there’s not much room for mistakes and so the focus of your average farmer is on minimising the risk of starvation rather than on profit maximisation (the farmers at the meeting I mentioned earlier are slightly more advanced than your average rural farmer by the way). So even if the farmers knew about these innovations, it is very difficult to convince them that it would be worth their while making the investment.

Contemplating all of these things, I came up with the idea of starting some kind of mail order catalogue which would be distributed to the farmers and would let them know about products to help improve their efficiency. I've already come across enough products to put together a decent starting catalogue. SELCO have lots of experience with organising loan schemes and with giving security to the buyers in case the product fails etc. and so hopefully through working through organisations like SKDRDP it will be possible to create something which will be accessible and trusted by rural farmers. I’ve drawn up a really basic business plan for how it could work and Anand seems quite keen on the idea.

It all seems like a lot of extra work to be piling on myself but while the workshops are taking so long, it feels like a worthwhile way to be spending my time.

At the weekend Lincoln and I went on a bit of a shopping spree to Mangalore, the nearest big city. It was a national holiday and so the students were allowed to go home for the weekend and we tagged along with Anantha who lives quite near to the city centre. His family were incredibly welcoming, as were the various other neighbours and family friends who we visited. Anantha also made the shopping bit a lot more fun, as he took us to all the best shops and restaurants. I bought quite a few bits and pieces including some Levi’s jeans! (not my usual brand but I couldn’t resist the bargain).

Quite wordy this week –well done for reaching the end! I’m aiming to put the next one out in only a few days so it should be a bit shorter.

And if you still have some time left, here are a few photos to look at:

             I'm so chuffed with the farmers' meeting so I'll show you a couple more
             photos from that

             This guy made a base for my de-husker. Despite working as a carpenter
             all his life, he still has all his toes!

             One of the more hygienic looking dentists, strategically located above an
             ice-cream parlour

             Domino's pizza!

             Oh, and Mangalore has a beach too

             One of the bolts from the bus, rolling around on the floor. Not sure where
             it came from.

             It was the Ganesh festival last week too. Lots of street processions and dancing!

             In the back of the omni-van