Wednesday, September 5, 2012

Another Year

I’m back in India again after a brilliant month in the UK: getting to spend some quality time with my family, catch up with a lot of great friends and attend two weddings.

I’ve just been granted my visa extension, giving me another year in India and allowing me to finish my contract with SELCO. Getting the 40+ page paperwork together provided the usual adventure through Indian bureaucracy with multiple trips to the Foreigners Regional Registration Office and a slight moment of panic when they’d finally accepted my documents and I was told I needed to bring a bankers ‘demand draft’ for the payment by the next day or the application would be discarded, only to find out that most of the banks in Bangalore were on strike.

SELCO Foundation has just launched a Sustainable Energy Challenge ( to encourage students in Bangalore to engage with issues of poverty and energy security, and hopefully give us some ideas for new projects we can start up. I gave a few talks at some universities in Bangalore during the launch and so, along with my need to be there for my visa application, I’ve spent a fair bit of time in Bangalore recently. This resulted in the first time in a long time that I’ve managed to make two consecutive church services, and I tried to make the most of being able to meet up with various church friends which has been a real blessing and I feel I’ve got to know people a lot better.

I also managed my first proper clubbing in Bangalore. All venues in Karnataka have to close by 11pm, as dictated by the rather draconian, right wing Hindu ruling party. This rule is interestingly very well enforced by the police, but it turned out one of our interns in the Bangalore office, Emmy, knew the right people and took us along to a private club at a hotel. It was still finished by 1.30 but we felt pretty cool/rebellious being out so late and certainly had a lot of fun.

I was welcomed back to Ujire by lots of rain and a mouldy flat. We’re pretty close to 100% humidity most of the time during the monsoon and everything, including books, clothes, walls and even furniture, develops a tendency to grow mould. It’s a constant battle during this period to keep things aerated and keep the moisture out so I was fully expecting to find things as they were, having not been able to fight it while back in the UK, but it was still a bit of a miserable reception.

We’ve got several new interns here at the moment including Seb and Graeme, two guys from the UK who are doing a placement through Engineers Without Borders, similar to the one I started out with here back in 2010. It’s nice to have so much activity again and lots of people to do stuff with in the evenings and weekends. I’d forgotten how much fun you can have just playing cards and board games, but without much else to do around town, they’ve taken a fairly prominent position in our social life.

I’m not planning to leave India for the next year or so now. It was strange to think, as I boarded the plane, that I wouldn’t be back for so long, although not nearly as daunting as I’d expected it would be. I’m feeling very settled here now and even though it may lack a lot of the comforts I’m used to in the UK, and I still find it difficult to communicate properly with a lot of people here, I feel somehow at home.

             Seb, Graeme, Vishal and me visiting one of the many local waterfalls

             Turns out we chose the wrong day to visit this viewpoint

I’d given the dehusker to a bunch of students to complete the manufacture and run some tests as part of their master’s project. This is them when they’d just finished the manufacture:

And this is rice that came through after the very first run. Actually a better rate of dehusking than I was expecting:

Seb has now taken on this project and is testing various materials for the dehusking plates; trying to maximise durability without compromising on the quality of dehusking.

             Here are some women using a manual areca dehusker that we were trialling

                            And here is a little girl having a go

Wednesday, April 25, 2012

Paddy Transplanter

I mentioned in my last post that one of the new things we’re looking at here is something called a “paddy transplanter”. Here's a bit of the background.

When a farmer grows his rice, he normally starts by intensively planting one corner of his field with seeds. After a few weeks, these sprout into lots of little seedlings which are too close together to thrive. The farmer then tills the rest of the field (churns it up to aerate it and kill weeds) and then uproots all the seedlings and plants them out with more appropriate spacing. This process gives the paddy a head-start over the weeds and the shock of transplanting causes the paddy to send out more shoots which increases the yield. This is the process you see rows of women doing, stooped over in fields.

As I’ve mentioned before, there’s a big labour shortage problem in Rural India at the moment. Paddy farming in particular requires a lot of labour, especially during transplanting, harvesting and threshing, and farmers are finding it increasingly difficult and expensive to find the labour to help them carry out these tasks. Large farms are now using large mechanical transplanters which are much faster at transplanting the seedlings, but are very expensive and not suited to small fields. Currently there is not a product on the market suited to small-scale farmers and so they are forced to pay higher prices for labour. These farmers are finding it more and more difficult to make enough money from growing paddy and so many are giving up on farming or turning to cash crops such as areca and rubber which make more money but aren’t as good at feeding the country.

Searching for machines already invented that might be suitable for small-scale farmers, we came across a manual transplanter which seems to be used in other rice-growing countries such as China but hasn’t made much of an appearance in India. In fact, there doesn’t seem to be anywhere in India manufacturing similar machines.

                             The transplanter at one of the earlier tests

We managed to find one place selling them (imported from China) and have had some fun showing it off at various agricultural shows since it arrived a couple of months ago. I’ve actually been very encouraged by the response of farmers, with literally crowds of them wanting to know when and how they can get hold of one. It’s also attracted a reasonable bit of media attention and has made it into a few newspapers (here and here) and local TV. Doordarshan, a national TV channel also recorded a little feature on us, so I may well have made it onto national television, but I didn’t unfortunately have a TV to check if we made the final cut!

As well as being considerably cheaper than any other mechanical transplanter, this machine is much easier to transport, more manoeuvrable, easier to operate and maintain because it doesn’t have a motor and doesn’t have any of the associate petrol costs. Trials so far have seemed promising, but we need to test it more rigorously in Indian conditions before we can begin to make it available to farmers. Plans are underway to get hold of some more of these and test them out with some farmers’ groups through a local NGO when the next transplanting season arrives in June.

I took a couple of days off over Easter and went to Kerala for a refreshing weekend at the beach with David and his flatmate, Kevin. This was my first break of more than one consecutive day since Christmas so I actually really needed it and it was great to be able to spend Easter with a couple of other Christians; we even conducted our own Easter service by the beach!

             Kevin catching a wave

             Trying to learn a bit more about transplanting from the pros

                          A local waterfall I visited with Roger and Headley before Roger left

Thursday, April 5, 2012

It's been a while...

I figured it’s probably about time for another update.

Roger left Ujire for the UK on Saturday night and I’m now once again the only Brit in the village. I’m also currently the only Westerner while Headley’s away in Bangalore. Headley (the American) is still technically based in Ujire, and living in an apartment just across from mine, but it looks like he’ll be spending around half his time away on work visits so this feels like the start of a new phase in my time here, with probably a very different lifestyle.

The temperature has been at times a struggle recently, with daily highs rarely lower than 37 C. The day after Roger left was poignantly marked by the first rains we’ve had in over three months; an early sign of the monsoon, which starts here in the South and finally brings an end to the hot season.

Day to day work hasn’t really changed much but some of the projects have really moved on: The next prototype of the paddy thresher has been a much bigger success than any previous model (thanks to some great work from Tommy, Roger and Anantha) and is showing a lot more potential for actually being helpful to the farmers; We have a new thing called a paddy transplanter which we’ve been demonstrating at various farms and agricultural shows and has had been received with a lot of excitement; I’ve been spending some more time looking into wind turbines and we’re currently putting together a plan for SELCO’s first (respectable) wind installation and the Lab has inadvertently made our first ever sale!

You won’t know what all of those things are but I plan to write about most of them in more detail so keep listening if any of it sounds interesting.

There are still unfortunately no English speaking churches around but I’ve been trying to make the most of my Sundays off with trips to nice or interesting places. I doubt I’ll be able to fill you in on all of these but some of the photos may make in onto Facebook. And there are some here too:

             Christmas breakfast at the beach. It really has been that long since my
             last blog entry!

             Our sand-snowman

             A very large statue. Every 12 years Hindus construct this scaffolding around
             it, cover it in fancy decorations and ‘bathe’ it in various different substances

             A standard Jeep ride. Guess which one's driving the thing...

                         A work trek to Bandaji Falls

             Bandaji Falls

             Having a go at some pottery

             Having a go at the local 'lift a really heavy rock' competition

             The earth terminal in our apartment block seems to have an interesting
             tendency to float at around 50-60 Volts AC. For those of you who
             aren't electrically minded: it's not supposed to do that and means that
             most metallic electrical appliances give you an electric shock when you
             touch them.