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

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