India is one of the hungriest countries in the world–yet it wastes a huge amount of food. Production of vegetables and fruit totals about 220 million tons a year. About 30% of that never reaches the table.
The main reason for this waste is a lack of storage infrastructure, particularly at harvest-time. Without electricity or electric freezers, farmers have to sell everything immediately, which inevitably means it’s not sold at all. Up to a third of the country still lives beyond the grid.
Vaibhav Tidke, a 26-year-old doctoral student from Mumbai, is trying to help. He and his colleague Shital Somani are producing a low-cost solar device that can help farmers store up to three tons of food a year. It’s called a solar conduction dryer, and has the potential to spread cold food storage much more widely than it is today.
Tidke, who comes from a farming family, got the idea back in 2009. “I visited one of the farms, and I saw that during a particular season of harvesting, fruits and vegetables were really cheap. There was a lot of supply, and much less demand. The farmer didn’t have a way of preserving fruit and vegetables,” he says.
The dryer is a box with a clear plastic top. Farmers place produce on a black, heat-absorbent surface, and the sun does the rest. About 95% of the water inside the items is evaporated off, leaving dehydrated produce ready for storage.
“You wash and cut down the fruit and vegetables and load it in the drier. By the evening, most of them are dry, and you take it and pack it,” Tidke says. The produce retains its color and texture, just loses its volume. Farmers rehydrate the items by adding water again, and they can also use the dryer for fish or meat.
The real value is that farmers incur no operating costs. Their only charge is an upfront 3,500 rupees ($57), which Tidke estimates they can recoup in about 100 days from the extra money they make. There are other dryers on the market, but he says they are three to five times more expensive.
So far, Tidke and Somani have sold 50 units. They expect to get to 1,000 by the end of the year, and hope to distribute 1 million units by 2020 (they are thinking big). They also want to go beyond India. They’re already working with a company in Kenya, and will ship 50 units there in October.
Earlier this year, Tidke and Somani won the Dell Social Innovation Challenge, picking up $60,000. And, they’ve also got $100,000 in grant money from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation to develop a separate product for drying grain.
India’s electrification program may eventually provide farmers with freezers. But Tidke still thinks there will be demand for his dryer. Two customers already have electricity, but are using the solar module because of its low running costs. Sometimes the simplest ways are the best.