Ideas for a better life, from Ujire

DEVELOPMENT

There are many villages in the State and country that are yet to get electricity connections. In spite of decades of robust economic growth, there are still at least 300 million Indians — a quarter of the 1.2 billion population — who have no access to electricity at home, according to an estimate.

However, there are thousands of people without power connections, but are enjoying uninterrupted power supply in their homes. Credit for this goes to SELCO (Solar Electric Light Company), formed by Harish Hande (this year’s Magsaysay awardee) in 1995 after he was inspired to do so,  thanks to his opting to study Energy Engineering at the

University of Massachusetts. Today, Selco is synonymous with solar lighting. But very little is known about its other projects.  In fact, Selco Solar Light Private Limited, a laboratory and a unit of Selco, set up in Ujire, about 75 km from Mangalore, in association with SDM Institute of Technology, has been doing a wonderful job on the solar front, in a quiet manner.

Whether it is developing solar cooking stoves, a multi-purpose grinder, solar- bio-mass drier (to dry perishable goods, say banana to make chips), water quality testing equipment, thresher (a farm machine for separating seeds or grain from husk) or even a horizontal windmill, the lab is not only concentrating on re-designing existing products, but also on designing need-based products after identifying beneficiaries for the same.

Speaking to Deccan Herald, Anand P Narayan, a Chemical Engineering graduate from IIT, Chennai and a Ph D in Chemical Engineering from the University of Colorado, who is heading the lab in Ujire, said the lab is in no way competing with a large industry, but is trying to understand the needs of the underprivileged.

“We want to plug the last mile gap,” he says with a smile.

Array of solar-based products
Ever since the laboratory was set up in June 2009, it is working on improving products (developed by other firms) like the horizontal windmill or drier, etc. The lab has also designed and developed innovative products like a wildlife repulsion unit or solar lamps for students in villages where there is no electrification.

Products are often improvised after feedback is gathered on the same. Take for example, cooking stoves. A Selco volunteer takes the stove to rural areas and requests families to use the same. After a week, their feedback is collected. Based on the feedback, the stove is improvised.

“The requirement of a family in Dakshina Kannada district which cooks rice (low flame, more time) is different from that of a family in Gulbarga (high flame, less time) which cooks rotis or chapathis,” points out Anand, and adds that the stove would be developed as per the requirement of the region.

That a product needs to be tested among end-users need not be emphasised more. Anand cites the example of the de-husker. He  thought that the de-husker developed in the lab was efficient. But when it was taken to a village in Belthangady in order for its capacity to be tested, the team found that the output was less compared to the physical work done by the farmers.

“We have to further develop the same,” he points out. One of the most innovative projects of the lab is providing solar lamps to students in villages without electricity. In fact, in 2009-10, Selco, with help from donors, provided solar lamps to 600 students selected from various schools in Karnataka, free of cost.

“The project, which began with 48 students in Savanalu village in Belthangady taluk of Dakshina Kannada, now covers 600 students from 10 schools across Karnataka including Bangalore Rural, Mysore, Kolar and Mandya,” he says.

This year, plans are on the anvil to select 2,000 students from 50 schools in various parts of Karnataka.  “The solar lamp can be used for eight hours. All a student has to do is carry the battery (smaller than the size of a tiffin box) to school in the morning, charge it there (solar panels are installed) and take it back home in the evening, so that it can be used throughout the night. Interestingly, the project has improved attendance in rural schools as students need to attend class every day to charge batteries!” he explains.

Drawing the best brains
One of the most interesting aspects of the lab in Ujire is that most of the interns are from foreign countries. Tomy Sherwoot, a Mechanical Engineering graduate from Strathclyde University in Glasgow, Scotland, who has come to Ujire all the way from Scotland for six months, is working on the horizontal windmill.

“I am collecting data for wind mapping in and around Dharmasthala,” he said, and added that he came to know about Selco labs through ‘Engineers without borders’, an international association whose mission is to facilitate collaboration, exchange of information, and assistance among its member groups that have applied to become part of the association.

“We get interns from top institutions like MIT,” Anand says and cites another example of an engineering student who was working on the de-husking machine. “She went back to Cambridge to complete her degree and is expected to return to complete the project,” he says with pride. Also, there are very good innovative hands in rural areas, who could not complete their SSLC for various reasons, he points out.

Anand, who likes to call himself and persons like him “brokers for technology and society,” is trying to create reverse market linkages (encouraging the poor to be a part of the formal economy) and not always creating a supply chain that flows from the rich to the poor.

When Kavitha, one of the beneficiaries, says that for the first time she saw light in her home, it is as if her experience is beyond expression.

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