How this company uses solar dehydration to boost shelf life of vegetables

Workers at Science4Society
Little did Vaibhav Tidke know that a daily childhood ritual of visiting the local vegetable vendors could sow the seeds of a technological innovation in his mind, which would then culminate into a startup idea and change the lives of farmers in general, and women farmers in particular, in India. In 2008, when Tidke was in the final year at Mumbai’s Institute of Chemical Technology, he came up with the idea of creating a technology that could aid these two categories of people and in a sustainable manner. 

Women micro-entrepreneurs at S4S
In 2014, Science4Society (S4S) Technologies was founded by Tidke along with his friends and peers. What did they do? They developed a solar conductor dryer, a device that aids the storage of farm produce without resorting to preservatives or artificial additives. Tidke, who hails from a family of farmers, was always irked by the sheer amount of vegetables that would go waste by evening at daily bazaars. “We had a weekly bazaar near my house where I often saw farmers selling vegetables at cheaper prices by the evening or letting the produce go to waste,” he recalls. This made Tidke realise the problems affecting the farmers and through his knowledge of engineering, he decided to derive a solution.

The solar conductor dryer aims to offer a sustainable solution to the farmers. “The dryer incorporates a patented food-drying technology that helps to extend the shelf life of produce without adding any preservatives to the mix”, says Tidke. Not only vegetables and fruits, the equipment can also be used to store meats, seafood and spices. The dryer also consumes less energy than regular dryers and refrigeration devices, thereby keeping the carbon footprint to a minimum. “The equipment is particularly useful when food is to be transported over long distances or for the purpose of creating healthy packaged foods,” he adds. 

Solar dehydration process on at S4S
How does S4S target its audience of women farmers or agri entrepreneurs? A local NGO identifies for them. S4S installs solar dehydration unit at Rs 80,000/unit and provides training to agri-entreprenurs. S4S buys vegetables grown by farmers and makes payment to farmers as per contract or market prices as decided. They then supply the procured vegetables to agri-entrepreneurs. Agri-entrepreneurs do the dehydration and S4S pays them for processing charges. S4S collects dehydrated products and sends it to its warehouse in Odisha, does the secondary processing and packaging, and then sells products to customers. 

Dehydration procedure at S4S facility
In Maharashtra, the company is harnessing the sun to create a new type of value added product — dried fruit and vegetables. They identify women entrepreneurs in villages who become aggregators. The women then work with 15-20 micro-entrepreneurs each, who are provided with solar dryers by the company. Based on market demand, these micro-entrepreneurs dry items like ginger, garlic, carrot and beetroot. Once dried, aggregators supply the product back to S4S, which then sells the produce to institutional clients. S4S also channels some of the dried produce to retail customers via its ready-to-eat snack brand, desiVdesi. “We are currently selling online through the likes of  Amazon, and also organised retailers as well as small kirana shops. So far we have reached around 2,000 point of sales mainly in Navi Mumbai” says Tidke. 

Delivery services at S4S
For the micro-entrepreneurs, the business model is straightforward. They need to pay a small entry fee to demonstrate their seriousness. They host the solar dryer at their premises without actually owning it. They either grow, or buy their raw material from other women farmers (sometimes with the help of S4S) and dry it. They are paid costs plus a value addition fee when they supply the dried products to S4S. Across the district of Aurangabad, S4S has nearly 200 micro-entrepreneurs and 13 aggregators, who work with 1,000 farmers. Even at moderate activity levels, these micro-entrepreneurs are able to earn an additional income between Rs 3,000-4,000 per month. “The only maintenance needed is wiping the tray with a wet cloth. Our local team visits once a week to ensure maintenance and availability of raw material. If there is lack of material, the team ensures to get it from another village,” says Tidke. 

Since its inception, the solar conductor dryer has been installed in 2,500 sites and is used in France, Jamaica, Nepal, Vietnam, Sri Lanka, Kenya, Bangladesh and India. The team also received an award from the United Nations on their patented solar dehydration technology. Their vision is to work with one million farmers in the next three to five years.

Business Standard is now on Telegram.
For insightful reports and views on business, markets, politics and other issues, subscribe to our official Telegram channel