INDORE, India — Roughly 80% of Indian farmers are perceived as “poor, marginalized producers” as they cannot preserve food for longer than one to two weeks due to insufficient funding, faulty infrastructure and high electricity costs. Farmers can also accumulate food wastage when forced to dispose of produce when market prices drop. Moreover, the resulting debt has even led farmers to commit suicide. Varun Raheja, a 23-year-old mechanical engineer, has created an affordable and accessible solar dryer in India that improves farmer’s situation significantly by increasing their profits, reducing food waste and connecting them to India’s macro-economy.
What is a Solar Dryer?
In an interview with The Borgen Project, Raheja describes a solar dryer as a “food dehydrator system” that uses solar energy to remove the produce’s moisture. Farmers usually use solar dryers to dry up fruits, vegetables and medicinal plants, among other crops. The dryer functions on the principle of the “greenhouse effect,” meaning the heat generated within the system “evaporates the moisture” in fresh produce.
The reason that farmers would want to dehydrate food, states Raheja, is because the source of spoilage for any fresh produce comes from the moisture within. Using a solar dryer, farmers can dehydrate their produce without adding any preservatives or chemicals, keeping the food organic, nutritious and up to food safety and quality standards.
What are the Main Challenges that Farmers Face in India?
The majority of the solar dryers available in India are too expensive and “high-capacity” for low-income farmers to purchase and operate. As a result, only high-income farmers have access to this drying technology. On the contrary, disadvantaged farmers are not able to use these high-cost dryers to preserve their foods for more extended periods and sell them when market rates are high, explains Raheja. Farmers who cannot store produce depend on “middlemen” for market prices, which determines their overall profits.
For example, a tomato is only ripe for three days, which means that farmers without dryers must sell their tomatoes within these three days. Suppose the prices that intermediaries offer during those three days are 5 rupees compared to a higher rate of 20 rupees. In that case, farmers will be losing revenue that they could have otherwise used to pay labor and renting machinery costs. Moreover, without a means to store produce and keep them fresh, farmers can have significant food wastage.
Raheja’s Solar Dryer
Raheja founded Raheja Solar Food Processing Pvt. Ltd. (RSFP) in 2018 to create a low-cost, accessible solar dryer in India for farmers. This was an extension of a “waste-to-wealth” project that he started at the Jimmy McGilligan Center for Sustainable Development, under the guidance of Padma Shri Janak Palta McGilligan. Raheja is passionate about creating value from waste and believed that solar dryers would be an effective and economical way to manage waste while supporting farmers’ livelihoods. The U.N. has also recognized the RSFP for designing this affordable solar dryer in India and training farmers to use them.
Raheja describes the dryer as a “frugal innovation” that uses locally available material to reduce the costs involved with setting up the dryer and implement a portable “folding design” that decreases transportation costs. Moreover, the simple, self-building design eliminates the need to hire an expert to install the dryer. Raheja’s “self-sustainable” dryer also does not need electricity to operate and uses “stainless steel mesh” to dry produce, avoiding the production of harmful gases, unlike plastic mesh material. Additionally, the dryer retains the nutrients, aroma, taste and color of the product with an enclosure that keeps out dust and insects. Raheja’s solar dyer is sold at 14,750 rupees, or $200, which is 50% cheaper than other dryers in India.
Raheja Solar Food Processing’s Business Model and Aiding Communities
Raheja told The Borgen Project that he developed a “Circulo-Economy” business model at the RSFP that involves working with NGOs and the government to reach rural communities, connect with farmers and establish a market for their dried products. This model interacts with farmers from start to finish by training farmers on how to install the dryer, process the harvests and understand the dried foods market. The RSFP also provides contacts and support to market disadvantaged farmers’ dried produce.
Yet, this Circulo-Economy model’s main benefit is that farmers can preserve their foods for a “minimum of six months” during a fluctuating market and sell their produce when rates are high. This leads to a revenue increase of four to five times that farmers can generate during the year.
How Does Raheja’s Solar Dryer Benefit Low-Income Farmers in India?
The RSFP has sold its solar dryer to “26 states” in India during their two and a half years in production. Raheja’s invention has helped farmers sell dried pineapples from Manipur, walnuts from Kashmir, berries from Ladakh and cashew apples from Goa, to name a few.
Sameer Bagchi, a farmer from Madhya Pradesh who grows stevia, states that RSFP’s dryer has helped him improve the quality of the leaves by removing dust particles and reduced the wastage. Additionally, Nikky Sureka, a dairy farmer in Sanawadiya village near Indore who grows Azola, a “water-grown fern” for cattle, states that the dryer has helped preserve the fern during the winters for use in the summer.
Raheja states that his life’s goal is to “reduce food waste as much as possible” while improving farmers’ lives. Through his invention of the affordable, folding solar dryer and the implementation of RSFP’s “Circulo-Economy” model, Raheja has helped increase the incomes of more than 100 farmers and reduce food waste. Raheja aims to design a solar dryer that is even more affordable in the future and to sell it to other developing regions, including Southeast Asia, South America and Africa.