Students turn rural women into entrepreneurs

Domestic technology

Women in rural households have been dependant on biomass and firewood to cook meals for ages, putting their health at risk due to the harmful smoke emitted by such stoves.

But, an enterprising group of students from Enactus Indian Institute of Technology, Delhi took it upon themselves to tackle this imminent problem of air pollution by making low smoke stove products more accessible, and also involving women as primary stake holders in the entire process.

It was in 2012, when a team of students made visits to Bhati Mines — a rural community in Chatarpur — as part of their curriculum under National Social Service, that they realised how homes in the area faced the problem of indoor air pollution. Upon further probe, they found that while a variety of low smoke stoves were available, they remained inaccessible.

“This disconnect between the product and the market inspired the team to undertake an initiative on the same. This led to the conceptualisation of Project Aanch,” says Rijul Ahuja, a current core team member. He adds, “We aimed at creating self sustainable hubs of manufacturing and distribution of the solution effectively by creating local women entrepreneurs.”

According to the World Health Organisation, around three billion people cook and heat their homes using open fires and simple stoves burning biomass (wood, animal dung and crop waste) and coal. It also says that over four million people die prematurely from illness attributable to the household air pollution from cooking with solid fuels.

The initial team identified five women entrepreneurs in Bhati Mines to market, manufacture, and sell the stove. A thorough demographic study and survey led them to adopt the low smoke cook stove by Philips and further modify it to solve local issues.

Explaining their product, Apurv Kaushal, who joined the team in 2014, says that the primitive Philips design used a natural air draft mechanism to enable complete combustion of almost the entire fuel being fed to the stove. This complete combustion reduced the smoke content and the particulate matter. Whatever smoke was left, was channelled through the chimney away from the faces of the women cooks.

“We introduced an iron grating to prevent unburnt wood from traversing through the smoke. We added a soot collector to reduce the soot content. However, our major achievement was reduction in the overall cost of stove manufacturing. The mould used to make parts of the stove was modified, bringing down its cost from Rs 31,000 to Rs 13, 000 (one-time investment),” he tells Metrolife.

The women entrepreneurs, known as business aunties in their community, are responsible for manufacturing parts of the stove from the mould and then assemble it. In addition, they also train other women entrepreneurs from other communities.

“Involvement with us has provided them financial support, and has also raised their social status. They have been given the confidence to undertake risks and be change makers for the society and their own lives too,” Ahuja says.

Agrees Reshma, a beneficiary, and says that the project has proven to be a boon for her family. “The best thing about the chulha is that the smoke goes out of the house and it also uses less wood. Also, earlier the kids could never sit near the place of cooking as they would end up having cough and watery eyes. But all that is history now,” she says.

Priced at Rs 800, out of which Rs 300 is the revenue of the women entrepreneurs, the stoves can be purchased from the hub near the community. Apart from Bhati Mines, the team has also established local hubs in Chandan Hola and Kharak Rewari (Delhi); Barmer (Udaipur); Loni and Sahibabad (Uttar Pradesh) and a few villages in Uttarakhand.

“We are on our way to create another hub in Indore in January in collaboration with IIT Indore,” the team, which currently comprises of Anurag Gangwar, Shailendra Dhakad, Apurv Kaushal, Jayant Nahata and Ahuja, says.

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