Varun Raheja, a mechanical engineer from India, was always fascinated by farming. As he loves nature, he considered farming, and working closely with flora and fauna, to be the best occupation and work in the world.
However, when Raheja learned about the situation of many small farmers in India, struggling with poverty and few options to increase and diversify their income, instead of becoming a farmer himself, he decided to tap into his knowledge as a mechanical engineer to help rural communities.
In India, approximately 80 per cent of farmers are poor, marginal producers. Among the challenges they face are fluctuating market prices. A tomato can sell for US$0.28 one month and only US$0.03 one month later. However, farmers are not able to preserve their food for more than 1 to 2 weeks because of electricity costs, poor infrastructure and lack of funding to invest in storage facilities.
When the market prices are low, farmers often have to throw away their produce, resulting in significant waste. The resulting debt even leads some famers to commit suicide.
To tackle this issue, Raheja came up with a low-cost solar dryer. The machine costs US$200 and enables farmers to dehydrate their agricultural products and conserve them for a minimum of six months, while preserving nutrients, colour and taste.
Clementine O’Connor, Programme Officer, Sustainable Food Systems at the UN Environment Programme (UNEP), said: “Low-cost innovations like Raheja’s solar dryer can make a big difference in helping farmers improve their incomes, while at the same time enabling countries to reduce food loss and waste and make progress towards the Sustainable Development Goals,” specifically towards target 12.3—global food loss and waste.
UNEP’s new report with the World Resources Institute, Setting a Global Action Agenda on Food Loss and Waste, calls for a “decade of storage solutions”—kickstarting collaborations to get income-sensitive, climate-smart storage technologies like this one into the hands of farmers and distribution networks around the world, she added.
So far, 100 farmers are using his solar dryer, but many organizations and farmers are interested in working with his machine, to join him on his mission to reduce waste and improve the position of farmers. We spoke with Raheja, to find out more about his work.
How are poor and marginal farmers able to pay US$200 for your machine?
The first step was to create a market for dried products for farmers to tap into. This secured return on investment enabled farmers to get a loan from an organization, self-help group or bank. Within 1 to 2 years, they have been able to buy the machine. Now, the farmers are able to adapt to the market rates and increase their income. When the market prices are low, they can dry their produce and wait for a better price for at least six months. When the prices are high, they can sell it right away.
How do you meet the requirements of communities?
Throughout the process of designing the machine, I kept in mind that the most important features are low costs and availability of materials. By using solar energy, there are no additional electricity costs. Farmers can install the machine themselves, a technician is not required. Also, as India is a big country, the machines have to be transported for thousands of kilometers to reach the consumer. I made sure that the machine is small and low-weight to reduce transport costs. This reduced the overall price to US$200.
What is your goal for the future?
The purpose of my life is to reduce food waste as much as possible and improve the position of farmers. In 10 years, I want to have solar dryers all over Africa, South America and Southeast Asia. My aim is to reduce wasted produce and by doing so, stop farmer suicides in India and all over the world. Also, I want to keep improving and develop an even more affordable solar dryer.
What advice would you give to other young people in starting an enterprise?
Firstly, it is very important to find your purpose. This saying helped me tremendously: “You can’t connect the dots by looking forward, you can only connect the dots by looking backwards”. I looked backwards, connected the dots and found my passion in helping farmers and the environment. Secondly, have a lot of patience. There will be many hard times where you will feel like you want to stop. That is when you need your passion to light you inside and keep you going to create the change we all need!