Shyamala Rambhotla – Solar dryers for agriculture

What are your activities and in what way it benefits farmers in India?
By way of introduction, I am Shyamala Rambhotla. I am the General Secretary of this organization called Society for Energy, Environment and Development (SEED). This organization was founded in 1987 as a non-governmental organization with RND. Our founder is Mr. M. Ramakrishna Rao, who is an eminent scientist from IIT Bangalore and former IISc Professor, who has intensive experience in renewable energy.
After Mr. Ramakrishna’s retirement, 32 years back, he wanted to start an organization through which he could support the society along with other professionals who hold expertise in different streams like Engineering, Solar Energy, etc. Honestly, he is rightfully supposed to be giving you this interview. Having said that, he is now very aged and I am his spokesperson.
This is our background.
Initially, we started off with biomass, bio gas, chulhas etc. These did not satisfy Mr. Ramakrishna. That is when the solar cabinet dryers were designed which is an effective food processing unit.
India stands among the highest in terms of fruits and vegetables production. These solar cabinet dryers can process food at zero energy cost. These don’t need any input, it uses solar energy directly. Since it is a closed cabinet, there will be forced air circulation and it uses direct sunlight which falls on the top glass of the cabinet. There is a solar fan (like an exhaust fan) fitted at the back of the dryer which pushes the moisture content outside into the atmosphere.
There is no carbon emission because this is a green energy application. All we are doing is tapping Sun’s energy which we have aplenty in India. One can use these solar cabinets continuously because of the immense supply of solar energy in our country. Now, considering the fact that we have days when the Sun isn’t so active, the device has been provided with an electrical backup as well.
The advantage of these solar cabinets is that the nutrition value retention will be higher than any other modes of drying foods since the temperature only goes up to 65-70 degrees degree centigrade and due to this the time taken to dry the product will be much faster than the traditional drying methods.
We started with our SD8 solar dryer model, which was an 8kg capacity unit. Likewise, we now have units ranging up to 500kg capacity. By kg, I mean the density of the product.
This is about our solar cabinet dryers.
We have a Research and Development facility in our premises. Our R&D facility has been recognized by the Government of India. We do analysis of all our food products and also conduct research on formulating how farmers can refrain from encountering post-production losses.
Our cabinet dryers are farm level units that farmers can take to the farm and process for dehydration.
The usual shelf life for all our farm products are a maximum of a month. After processing it through these dryers, the shelf life of farm products scale up to more than 6 months. You can even store fruits etc. in the form of jellies. We then sell products in the local market.
That is one activity that we do. We also conduct training programmes for farmers on how to use these solar dryers and how to process their produce, highlighting its advantages.

Innovations like these help farmers to preserve a part of their produce and sell it at other venues, without having to suffer price losses.

Tomato powder and curry leaf are two products which get wasted in huge quantities. I’d like to know the cost of processing these.
When it comes to tomatoes, I’d like to relate something.
Sometimes, farmers sell tomatoes for Rs 1 or 2. If they process tomatoes and take 25kgs per charge, you get 1kg output of dehydrated product. 1 kg of powdered tomato can fetch farmers Rs 250 – Rs 300. That is the value you get if you preserve your produce.
Processing cost, for instance, may be another Rs 50/-. Even then they get a profit of minimum Rs 100/-. That means they stand to make around 5 times the money they spend.
We realise that there is a market for processed foods as well. Just that you have to catch hold of the correct person to tackle the marketing part. Additionally, using our dryer keeps the nutritional value of the end product higher than other processed foods. Also, in this process, the colour retention of the vegetable/fruit is much higher than in any other process. That also counts as a factor for fetching you good prices.

Is there any difference when it comes to processing organic and inorganic versions?
The difference is not in the process, but in the time it takes for the completion of the process.
Let us take the example of tomatoes itself. Local tomatoes will have higher water content than the organic ones. So, the time to process the inorganic product will be higher and yield will be lesser since the pulp content in such tomatoes is less than the organic version.
Water content in organic tomatoes is lesser and the pulp is more. So, processing time will be less and yield will be more.

How much does this processor cost?
The 50kg commercial unit costs about Rs. 1,50,000/-.

Can this unit be used for other crops as well or only for tomatoes?
It can be used for any product. Whatever is in surplus that season, you can use it for that.

Are these dryers recognized by the government and are they available?
We have a department of science and technology to help with our funding. We are one of the NGOs that feature under the department of Science and Technology. They have recognized our dryer. In fact now there are so many solar dryers. It is available in plenty. You can Google and find out.
Ours is a patented product and it is commercially more viable. It is definitely available and is already used by many people.

Do you give training for this at your office in Jubilee Hill?
We do it in Hyderabad Jubilee Hill. Over there we can show the trainees all the equipment, our laboratory, and give them hands on experience as part of training process. If they want to set up their own unit, we will help them in procuring all the equipment that is required. We will support that as well.

What is the training duration?
Usually, our training spans over 4 days and we charge a fee of Rs 6000/- per participant for those 4 days of training. We have the assistance of a lot of food scientists at our organization. They also guide the trainees.
The training mode is to have half a day of practical classes and half a day of theory. For theory, we invite speakers from outside as well.

Does the training cater to only tomatoes?
No, it caters to all crops. We do all crops. If someone coming for the training has abundance of any crop, they can bring it along and we can show them how to add value to their product.
We do our R&D and give them a solution. We let them know what the moisture level is and how long it takes to dehydrate etc.

Does the entire dryer unit depend only on solar energy?
It is a dryer cabinet with a top glass and a chamber for air circulation. The direct sunlight penetrating through the glass surface is used to dehydrate the product.
The dryer is made in such a way that the heat gets trapped inside and hence, there is a constant temperature within the chamber, unlike when you dry the product in open air.
There are solar panels on the top of the dryer that runs like a fan. The moisture that gets released from the product is let out through these fans. Each dryer comes with trays. Each tray can accommodate approx. a minimum of 1 kg product, depending on the density of the product.
It is a simple mechanism with high efficiency and has been developed very scientifically. Hence, the rate at which air flow should be maintained in the cabinet and in which direction it should flow etc. has been incorporated as per scientific research.

In what way does your product stand out from other solar dryers in the market? What is its USP?
When we say other dryers, there are tunnel dryers, for instance. Tunnel dryers do not employ direct sunlight. There is a polyethylene sheet that they use which is also built scientifically. But, since our product uses direct sunlight, the temperature in the cabinet will be higher and as a result the drying time taken will be much lesser.
I know of people who have purchased tunnel dryers and then bought our product as well. They mentioned that they were not happy with tunnel dryers because of the time it takes to dehydrate their products. That is a testimony we received. Also the more time it takes to dehydrate, the chances of the produce getting spoiled is high.
In Dehra Dun, there is an NGO called Himalayan Environmental Studies and Conservation organization (HESCO) that bought 25 dryers and supplied it to the farmers local to them.
They have different kinds of dryers with them:
• conventional dryers
• conduction dryers
• tunnel dryers and
• our solar panel dryers
When we ran a survey, we came to know that they too are using only our dryers.

Have you experienced farmers telling you that they like the dryer but they are in no position to buy it because it is expensive?
Yes. As per farmers, it is expensive.
The reason is our quality is not compromised. Being an NGO, we do not even make profits out of this. Apart from being a retired scientist Mr. Ramakrishna Rao is also a hard core communist. This product took birth as a result of something he wanted to make for society.
But yes, farmers feel it is expensive. Our dryers are being bought by NGOs, and industries buy it as part of their CSR programme.
People ask us if we have any subsidies from the government. Unfortunately, the government has not recognized this as something that is worth giving subsidies for.

You were in USA for some time. What brought you back to India?
Mr. Ramakrishna Rao is my uncle. I was in the USA with my son and my family. He is settled there and my husband and I joined him there. They are still there.
Mr. Ramkrishna Rao is 95 years old now. I have seen him work on this product and organisation. He is working even today. I aspire to be like him. I want to work and be active all my life. He needs support because the Department of Science and Technology started asking him who would be taking over as the leader of the organization because they fund SEED.
Mr. Ramakrishna contacted me 7 years back and asked if I planned on coming back. Eventually I did always have plans to return to India, anyways. So, I thought – why wait! If I am here now he can train and groom me better. Hence, my return in 2011.
I am very happy to be working here. We have 20 people – all women – working under us. Every day we get inquiries about the product. Every day we have people walking in seeking help. Fortunately, our team of founders are very well-known, renowned scientists. I take care of the day to day process and help Mr. Ramakrishna Rao run the organization.
Being an NGO we have our limitations in approaching the government directly. At our level, we are giving our best to the society but we need media support to do even better.
The government keeps taking about food processing, nutritional value of foods etc. Every paper is verdict to this time and again. But there is no way that we can get those doors opening for us. Support from the media can do wonders.