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Business News/ News / Business Of Life/  A cut-and-dried model to reduce farm wastage
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A cut-and-dried model to reduce farm wastage

Solar dryers by S4S Technologies are helping farmers add shelf life to fresh produce, slash costs and gain extra income
  • S4S solar dryers give the produce a year’s shelf life without adding chemicals, preserving over 90% of the nutrients
  • Sunita Muthe uses a solar-powered dehydrator from S4S Technologies at her farm in Kamkheda village, Maharashtra. (Photo: s4s technologies)Premium
    Sunita Muthe uses a solar-powered dehydrator from S4S Technologies at her farm in Kamkheda village, Maharashtra. (Photo: s4s technologies)

    Sunita Muthe lives on a three-acre farm with her two young children, husband and his parents in Kamkheda village in the drought-prone Dhule district of Maharashtra. They were eking out a living from the maize, corn and cotton they grew on the arid land that had no irrigation. The 28-year-old had to supplement the farm income by finding work as a labourer. Then, last year, even as covid-19 exacerbated the distress of farmers in the region, her life took a sudden turn for the better. She started using a solar dryer on her farm to dehydrate turmeric, onion and ginger, doubling the family income in the midst of the pandemic.

    “It was a busy year. I earned 43,000 during lockdowns, drying three batches of turmeric a day (each batch weighing 50kg). Later I learnt to process onion and ginger too," says Muthe. “The best part is that I could be with my children as I did this at home. I bought books for them with the first 2,000 I earned from drying turmeric."

    She is among nearly 300 women farmers in four clusters of Maharashtra who have received solar-powered dehydrators from Navi Mumbai-based startup S4S Technologies. The startup brings them raw materials from farms, collects the dried produce from them and sells the output to makers of food like snacks, soups and flavoured noodles as well as commercial kitchens that replace fresh produce with their dried versions. S4S has now expanded to other states like Odisha, Karnataka and Telangana.

    Preventing food, income loss

    Over 60 million tonnes of fruits and vegetables—around 30% of the produce—is lost every year in India because of lack of adequate storage and preservation. This amounts to a huge post-harvest loss of food as well as farm income. Apart from the rotting of perishables, farmers also come under pressure to sell the produce below market rates. The S4S solar dryers give the produce a year’s shelf life without adding chemicals, preserving over 90% of the nutrients, academic studies have shown. It also makes a dent in logistics because dehydration reduces the weight and volume of the produce for transportation.

    For example, the moisture content of turmeric reduces from 80% to below 10% and the solar drying method preserves most of its curcumin. India produces nearly a million tonnes of turmeric, which provides most of the world’s supply. S4S co-founder and chief executive Vaibhav Tidke, who grew up in rural Maharashtra, studied food preservation at the Institute of Chemical Technology in Mumbai. He launched the startup during his PhD programme, along with six others, to convert it into a sustainable and profitable business.

    In the beginning, the idea was simply to sell the solar dryers to farmers interested in providing the first level of processing and value addition to fresh produce. But soon the founders realized farmers would need financing, market linkages and logistics support to adopt this. Then the startup began focusing on a holistic model instead of just the hardware.

    “We started looking at all the problems we could solve for the micro-entrepreneur," says Tidke. “We observed in the early days that the micro-entrepreneur had to be a woman because she’s familiar with washing, cutting and managing vegetables. In typical Indian villages, men are unwilling to do these jobs." The next step was to empower these women. “A woman rarely has decision-making power in the household. But we realized that as soon as she began earning on a daily or weekly basis, the family started supporting her," says Tidke.

    Washing, slicing and drying were incorporated in the dehydration unit that a woman could learn to operate within a week. The startup’s food preservation tech nous went into ensuring that nutrient loss would be minimized. S4S took care of sourcing the vegetables as well as collecting and selling the dehydrated output. This model evolved from an early experience of farmers walking out of a 2 crore deal with a multinational firm that wanted to source dehydrated vegetables from them. Farmers felt they could not fulfil the required demand.

    Playing aggregator

    “We realized there was no aggregator in this market. So S4S decided to own the value chain because we saw the gap," says Tidke. It set up a factory to sort, grade and package the dehydrated vegetables it collected from its micro-entrepreneurs. Apart from supplying these directly to food processing companies, it has also tied up with a multinational intermediary, Azelis. A packaged food company sources multiple ingredients and additives from Azelis, which includes dehydrated turmeric, onion, ginger, garlic, tomato, carrot, beetroot and so on.

    Dipan Dalal, who heads Azelis’ food and health business in India, explains one of the value propositions that S4S brings to the table. “Their patented turmeric drying process, which they call ‘haldi tech’, gives us a higher curcumin content than the turmeric from other companies doing dehydration in a different way," says Dalal, who has been in this business for over two decades. He joined Azelis when his company MK Ingredients got acquired in 2019. Apart from fruits and vegetables, S4S has adapted its machines for dehydrating legumes and millets. These have properties suited to food processing companies. For example, an instant poha can now be rehydrated in three minutes instead of the earlier five to eight minutes, which is a big selling point. “The brand initially wanted a poha that would be ready to eat in two minutes, like Maggi noodles. That was too ambitious, but S4S technology could bring it down to three minutes," says Dalal.

    The startup has also been working on the margins to provide cost benefits to buyers and additional income to farmers. For example, tomatoes that have scratch marks fetch a lower price in the market because they’re not good-looking. But they’re of perfectly good quality for food processing. Similarly, tomatoes and onions smaller in size are considered ‘B grade’ while their nutritive content and taste are the same if not better. Now farmers get a ready market for all their produce, and food processing companies also get cost benefits on procurement for better margins on their final products. The primary focus of the startup going forward is scaling up its clusters of micro-entrepreneurs. Currently, the dryers can process 45 kinds of produce. The more the better for the women farmers to use them all through the year. “We have also been able to reduce the hardware cost by 50% and aim to make it one-fourth," says Tidke.

    The startup arranges loans or grants for the women farmers to acquire the dryers and also has a renting out model. The social impact it creates has attracted support from the Gates Foundation as well as US-based impact investor Acumen. Mahesh Yagnaraman, India director at Acumen, feels it’s a scalable model because the upfront investments required are low. “You need a dehydration unit for the produce from a cluster of farmers, and not a dryer for every farmer," he points out. “Initially, I tried their dried vegetables myself. It’s quite surprising initially to see how they look the same as fresh produce after you put them in hot water."

    Malavika Velayanikal is a Consulting Editor with Mint. She tweets @vmalu

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    Published: 15 Mar 2021, 05:34 AM IST
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