Thursday, November 24, 2011

More on what I'm doing here

Hey again guys,

Sorry it's been a while. I've found myself pretty busy and it's been difficult to steal away enough time to write this properly. There's quite a lot that's happened since the last update but I'll to my best to fill you in...

Roger, the other Engineers Without Borders volunteer, has arrived now and we've also been joined by Headley, an American who's working on a lot of the electronics for SELCO's solar projects. Headley worked for SELCO in Bangalore for several months before this relocation to Ujire, and he'll probably be here for a similar length of time to me. It's nice to know I won't be the only westerner in this town once Tommy and Roger leave. The four of us are staying in two, two bedroom apartments in the staff accommodation block for the college. The rooms are actually pretty nice although the college is being rather disorganised about equipping my and Tommy's room so we're currently without hot water or any cupboards (The college administration is actually frustratingly disorganised and pretty incompetent with most things). To make up for the discomfort, I've bought some new sofas and a fridge and kitchen equipment and we have a decent dining table and chairs on places to sit out on the balconies. Headley's brought with him a 32 inch TV and an X-Box too so we're not doing too badly overall.

This is probably a good time to give you more of the background to the work I'm doing too. The majority of the farmers in Karnataka are small scale subsistence farmers. They have a pretty hard existence and are incredibly vulnerable to adversities: one bad harvest could put them under, and the hardship is only going to get worse as climate change becomes more severe. There is also (unbelievably for a country of over a billion people) a labour shortage in rural areas so farmers find it hard and expensive to recruit workers for the jobs that would traditionally require them such as transplanting, harvesting and threshing rice. Because of this, the mechanisation of farming processes is incredibly important, but despite the benefits there has so far been very little uptake of new technologies by these farmers.

Since SELCO Labs' creation just over two years ago, they have mainly focused on designing new products appropriate for these farmers in order to address this problem. As 'principal mechanical engineer' and the first engineering employee at SELCO Labs, I've been given charge these projects which have till now mainly been worked on (sporadically) by interns. The main two projects which seem to show promise are the small scale paddy dehusker which removes the husks from grains of rice (the project I worked on last year) and a paddy thresher which strips the grains from the harvested paddy grass, although there are various others which we may pick up on at a later date. I've been doing quite a lot of research to try to find out what's already been designed for small farmers and there's a couple of machines which we're getting hold of to test out at the moment.

I'm also really keen to get to the bottom of exactly what the barriers are which prevent the uptake of technology; whether it is lack of appropriate products or whether there are other parts missing in the chain. SELCO have lots of links with other organisation and NGOs so I've been trying to talk with various people to gain a better understanding of the current situation, and I've also commissioned a few surveys of local farmers.

As a fun project on the side, the lab has been looking into the potential for a SELCO wind power project and I think it shows a lot of promise but we're still waiting for some of our funding to come through before we can really work on this.

Last week I made a five day trip to Bangalore to visit a large agricultural show called Krishi Mela. It's supposedly one of the largest of its kind in India and draws crowds from all over Karnataka and the neighbouring states. I went to find out more about what experiences other companies have had with selling machinery to small scale farmers and to learn more about the general sector. There was actually no-one there who'd had any great success with it but it was really useful to hear the differing opinions on selling to small farmers and to hear various theories as to what the barriers are. And I had a lot of fun playing with all the machines! I also organised to meet with a professor of agricultural engineering at the show which proved very fruitful. His department have come up with some great little machines for small scale farmers (the best I've seen from any institution yet) and have actually sold some of them. They were interested in our work and their products should hopefully be useful to us as we experiment with different marketing methods later down the line so we're looking to keep some kind of partnership.

It was really great to stay with David again too (although he spent the weekend out of town on work), and his new flatmate Kevin, a retired detective from the States. He's here for nine months devising training programs for the International Justice Mission, a Christian organisation who basically investigate illegal slavery and then work with local police to organise raids and rescue captives. I actually met a few of the younger guys from IJM on my last visit and they invited me round for a great evening with them on Saturday: a full house; home-cooked Korean food and games of Mafia. I went to church with Henry, one of the IJMers, on Sunday. There are no English-speaking churches in my area so it was so good to be back in one after such a long time without.

             The view from the lab window. The stairs may be a pain but having an
             office on the fourth floor has its perks.

             Diwali turned out to be a much smaller festival than I had expected but
             Tommy, Roger and I made the most of it with stupid amounts of fireworks.
             To keep them cheap, it seems the manufacturers save money on fuse wire
             and systems to make them go straight.

                             Some local farmers testing our thresher

                             The weekend before last I went to my first South
                             Indian wedding. The groom, Anil, is one of the
                             teachers at the college who I've shared quite a
                             few drinks with.

             Santosh, one of the guys who works in the office. He likes to catch
             dragonflies on farm visits.

             Some fruit bats coming out as the sun sets

             A farmworker carrying paddy in the rain


  1. Good to see that you are enjoying it man! take care

  2. nce 1 ... ur working well in selco... :)