India Interior

Touching rural lives with technology

Rina Mukherji | Updated on January 25, 2019 Published on January 25, 2019

Char briquettes with a wax strip in the foreground

Smart ideas (clockwise from bottom left) A machine to convert post-harvest farm residue into fuel; char briquettes; Dhanashri with sugarcane saplings; Rina Mukherji   -  Rina Mukherji

A briquette-making machine

ARTI’s innovation includes improved chulhas

How an institute in Maharashtra innovates to transform livelihoods

Technology need not be high-end, urban, expensive and designed for profit. It can also better and transform human lives and livelihoods in the hinterland.

This is what the Appropriate Rural Technologies Institute (ARTI), based in Pune, has been quietly achieving through research initiatives over the last two decades.

Converting post-harvest farm residue into fuel is one of the technologies the Ashden award-winning institute has pioneered. It involves burning sugarcane and crop stubble in a simple machine which is then compressed into char briquettes that serve as inexpensive household fuel.

The institute has also developed a Sarai cooker in which food can be slow-cooked using briquettes. It is a multi-pan container that cooks as well as any cooker and can deliver a meal in 45 minutes.

Add to that another innovation from ARTI — the improved biogas plant that uses food waste to produce biogas and is far more efficient than the conventional plant which uses dung to produce gas. Since food waste is starchy, 80 per cent of the input is utilised with hardly any waste.

Similarly, the simple solar dryer developed by the institute is a great help for households and organisations that prepare sun-dried tomatoes and onions for the market.

Low-cost greenhouse

ARTI’s innovation doesn’t stop there. Realising that in India the conventional European-style greenhouse is not as effective due to tropical conditions, the institute designed a low-cost greenhouse that uses a bamboo frame lined with plastic sheets. This greenhouse protects saplings from cross-winds and exposure, besides trapping the carbon-dioxide produced by plants at night for improved photosynthesis. At a fraction of the price of the conventional model, it was a boon for rural households.

However, it was found that the bamboo frame did not last long enough. To toughen it, ARTI developed a method of treating both the green (freshly harvested) bamboo and the dry bamboo.

To treat the latter, the culm is drilled into and soaked in a mixture of sodium dichromate, copper sulphate and boric acid for three days. Being inorganic salts, these form chemical bonds with the bamboo tissue and strengthen it. In the case of freshly harvested green bamboo, the same solution is forced through the tissue of the bamboo culm at high pressure by injecting it. Bamboo thus treated can last 10-20 years and can also be used as building material for sheds, houses and nurseries.

Through its Rural Entrepreneurship Development Centre, ARTI has been disseminating information on its innovations in agriculture and technology. This has helped many in rural areas turn into small-scale entrepreneurs. But more than anything else, ARTI’s technologies have made a massive difference in the lives of women who have been trained at its Women Technology Park.

Take the case of Dhanashri Badwe. A homemaker from Phaltan, Satara district, the heart of Maharashtra’s sugarcane belt, she has been earning an income the last few years during the sugarcane planting season due to the training she underwent at ARTI.

Using sugarcane nodes, she uses a mixture of soil and compost to grow high-yielding saplings in three-holed plastic bags. The nodes are buried in the soil for a month-and-a-half, transforming them into saplings ready to be planted by the farmer.

Through this method, fewer nodes are needed per acre and they give higher yields. Each sapling that Badwe prepares sells for ₹2. Since an average farmer requires 4,500 nodes per acre, a good income is ensured. Ahead of the planting season, which begins in June, farmers book saplings paying 50 per cent of the price. “I sell 7-8 lakh plant propagule saplings per year,” says Badwe.

Improved chulha stoves

Nilima Kadale, another homemaker, opted for training in making and selling improved chulha stoves. Using a mould, she has been building the smokeless cement contraption (Grihalakshmi model) and selling it for about ₹3,000 each for the past five years. This has helped her supplement the family’s earnings.

Several women’s self-help groups (SHGs) have also tried out ARTI’s innovations. For instance, women in the forest villages of Raigad district use ARTI’s large-scale cutting machines to chop vegetables and fruit for pickles and chutneys. They sell the products at eateries and resorts in their vicinity.

ARTI has also been able to make a difference by tweaking existing technology. For instance, the sal leaf plate and cup-moulding stoves are proving a boon for tribal communities in Odisha.

Wherever an intervention is needed, the institute steps in to innovate.

The writer is a freelance journalist

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Published on January 25, 2019
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