India Interior

Where technology yields not microchips but sun-dried chips

Chitra Narayanan | Updated on March 08, 2020 Published on March 07, 2020

Vegetable chips being dried inside the solar dryer

An exterior view of the solar dryer

The Women’s Technology Park in Salem is turning rural women into entrepreneurs, through sustainable schemes

There’s every chance that you might soon get to taste sun-dried tomatoes from Salem in Tamil Nadu — using solar energy and powered by units run by women!

A walk around the serene green campus of the Women’s Technology Park in Salem, the old industrial city in Tamil Nadu, is illuminating. Here you see how a little bit of technology, when applied to traditional practices, can go a long way in changing rural women’s lives.

Among one of the eye-catching innovations here is a large, solar-powered vegetable dryer where tomatoes, aloe vera, lemon rinds, spinach leaves are all being dried. Literally no vegetable or fruit has been left untested — you can see the fun that the project supervisors are having when you spot bananas, drumsticks, and local keerai (spinach) being dried as an experiment.

‘Vathals’ and candies

 

Tamil Nadu has always had the vathals (sun-dried vegetables) in its cuisine but these now have got a solar power boost, which speeds up the process. In just four to six hours, the dried products are ready. The idea is to give these solar dryers to rural women who can set up cottage units near farms and process vegetables and fruit that would otherwise rot.

A further value add is to create candies from the dried fruit and vegetables or simply powder them for use in soups. The aloe vera candy at the test lab here, made with jaggery and a hint of ginger, is outstanding.

Ringed by hills, the pretty town of Salem in Tamil Nadu is known for its steel, silver anklets (more than 3,000 cottage industries produce this piece of jewellery and account for nearly 60 per cent of India’s production) and, more recently, solar energy.

All these have got an interesting twist at the WTP, run by the Sona College of Technology, where five projects are up and running — sponsored by the Department of Science and Technology with a grant of ₹1.26 crore. All have a sustainability angle as well.

Paving the way for reuse

 

Take the pavement tile-making unit, where concrete slabs for use in footpaths are taking shape. Tiles of different colours in geometric shapes are created by mixing concrete with steel slag (the steel waste is collected from Jindal Steel) and pouring these into moulds. The civil engineering department at the Sona College of Technology has developed the technology and the mix for these tiles that makes them super absorbent.

“We transferred the technology to the WTP and were involved in training rural women in the area in making these paver blocks,” says R Malathy, professor and head of department of civil engineering at Sona. The idea was to help the rural women set up their own pavement tile-making units.

Meet C Sumathi, a daily wage labourer from Chettipatti village near Salem, who used to earn ₹300 a day. Now she is a contractor, with a project in hand to supply pavement tiles to a tech firm in the SEZ park in the city. She employs a few women from her village to help her make the paver blocks, and says her earnings have gone up considerably.

Sumathi is just one among 700 women who have been skilled at the Women’s Technology Park, which kicked off in 2018. And among the first to start an enterprise.

You will soon see many more rural women entrepreneurs emerging from here, says Aravindha Balaji, assistant professor of mechanical engineering at the Sona College of Technology, pointing out that among the 700 trained, they have got 40 applications for loans to set up cottage units. Sona College’s R&D labs have created the five projects here.

Silver brings lustre to lives

Other than the pavement tiles and solar dryer, there is a nano coating machine for silver anklets that promises to add lustre and also enhance the life of the jewellery piece. It will also allow women to be employed at the units, says Balaji, pointing out how the conventional nano coating technology is so technical and tedious that few women are employed there. “But our technology is so simple to use that even a 4th standard pass lady can master it. It is also safer,” he says.

Turning waste to wealth

The other two innovations here are sewing machines for the differently abled and a waste paper recycling unit that converts used paper into files and folders. Given that Salem is also famous for its textile mills, there is a lot of synergy in the units being set up at the WTP — as you see garments sewn by the differently abled using fabric from some of the mills. Some of these are CSR projects for the larger companies so you can see how the whole chain is sewn up.

To start with, Sona College of Technology has begun training women from five villages the institute has adopted. It is also now facilitating loans from Nabard for those interested in setting up their own cottage units, and the professors at the college plan to hand-hold them through their first steps into entrepreneurship.

One of the old industrial towns in India, Salem has always had enterprise in its DNA — now it has innovation too.

Published on March 07, 2020

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